Activism: Is Call-Out Culture Always Toxic?

In a recent article by Asam Ahmad, call-out culture was, itself, called out as being inherently toxic, primarily because it does not facilitate rehabilitation through conversation but constitutes a sort of public shaming in which activist egos are stroked and perpetrators are demonized. And while I tend to agree with this sentiment, that call-out culture is abusive far more than it is effective, and especially having seen just how far conversation actually goes to change people – at the same time, there is a pattern emerging for which call-out culture is useful: the most stubborn of haters who dominate in socio-economic, gendered ways over those whom they hate.

It might seem counter-intuitive but there are actually many types of people who hate. It is my understanding that the vast majority of people who have been conditioned to hate fall into two main and often overlapping categories: the fearful and the ignorant. In fact, ignorance is the direct precursor to fear which necessarily precedes hatred, particularly when one’s livelihood, and more importantly, one’s identity and sense of self is held in the balance. Perceived threats to both our livelihood and our self-hood which are exterior to us are often not the subjects of curiosity and genuine interest but, rather, end up being objects of hatred and violence. One need only look so far at how a fearful, phobic individual treats an animal or phenomena they fear to know how they might treat a human being they also fear.

There is, however, another type of person who hates. This person is neither ignorant, nor fearful. I know this is going to make a lot of people I know uncomfortable because we tend, as activists, to buy into the narrative that everyone is redeemable to our worldview when this is, very likely, not a real possibility –  at least not without mass social accountability. Human beings engage with hatred to consolidate power. They hate in order to be in a masterful position over the one they hate and, because of this, are easy to detect. They are the most prone to violence, the most prone to saying flippant and hurtful things, the least apologetic about it. They tend not to offer excuses without masking or hiding their hatred. They shout it from the rooftops, unabashedly, in the name of “not appearing PC”, of reclaiming what they think is owed to them, of making their name and their personhood and their nation great again from whence it came.

These people cannot be dismissed as being “stupid” or unaware of what they are doing. And they often do not respond to criticism. In their worldview, critics belong to the “other” – someone for which they have an ever-present snappy response an undercutting retort that pushes buttons and gets the job of hatred done. They can rationalize things that seem impossible to others. They can excuse atrocious things.

These people are the target of call out culture. These are the people most in need of public shaming if we re-conceptualise public shaming as social accountability and accept that call out culture has some work to do in terms of its effectiveness. “An interaction between two individuals” as a public performance, as Ahmad puts it, is not an academic brand of activism: it is the only option some people have left. Ahmad seems to be under the impression that conversations are, by definition, equal playing fields. That they can even be made to occur at the instigation of victims of oppression…all the while ignoring major power imbalances, not even to mention personal repercussions incurred by the one who initiates a conversation with the one who oppresses them. Putting this onus on the victim of repression is not only unrealistic, it is unsafe.

Call out culture has emerged because “calling in” is not always an option and just because that may be the case, oppression should not continue unmarked. As I previously mentioned in my article entitled “The Internet is the Voice of the Oppressed”, what is important to note for our purposes is that the internet (as the ultimate stage of call out culture) has become a vehicle for connecting liminal, minority groups – for communicative memories to develop in peripheral forums and for connections to be made across geographically disparate spaces. What we are seeing is a dramatic increase in critical awareness for a variety of minority issues – and a territorializing of these groups’ memories on an exponential basis daily. The result is an influx of posts, videos and pages devoted to the causes of those marginalized in regular society, those who were previously unable to “call in”. Almost immediately, people in positions of privilege have criticized these movements as minorities being overly-sensitive or abrasive, rolling their eyes at the proliferation of trigger warnings, or jumping to defend those who have been brought to justice by bringing their injustices to light online. What these individuals don’t realize is two-fold:

  1. These oppressed people have always been around. They just have a larger collectivity now because of the internet and their voice is much louder because of the heavy use and reliance on this technology today.
  2. Oppressed people who cannot find justice in their everyday lives will use every means at their disposal – outside of the collectively prescribed methods – to achieve their justice.

Perhaps what Ahmad was warning against was my own concern, not so long ago: that those who challenge the order run the risk of becoming it.

When the oppressed achieve recognition, their communicative, everyday memories tend to be distorted in the name of their collective, which ultimately has little need for the individuals in this new memory form. As I stated before, this raises further questions about the meaning and even the possibility of true social aggregation, meditations on which will have to be left for another time. So to ask the question again: Is call- out culture always toxic? No. It isn’t. Not always. Oftentimes, it is the only tool we have in sounding the alarm on oppressive behaviours. For now, give pause before you do, then keep wailing that hammer.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

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