Call-out culture: a meta-meta-commentary

A couple years ago, I made this linkspam on call-out culture. “Call-out culture” refers to a pattern in social justice activist spaces of jumping on, and piling upon other activists who are perceived to have made a mistake. It’s an issue when it turns into bullying, or when it just scares people away from communities that they need.

This is a really difficult problem to address, and to be honest, I think I am uniquely unsuited to address it. I don’t have personal experience calling people out, or being called out, or at least not in any way that meaningfully impacted me. I am not a very anxious person, and it is very difficult to scare me or burn me out. My interest in this topic is purely based on compassion, and an interest in the meta. So for several years, I’ve wanted to say something, but couldn’t figure out what to say.

After thinking about it a lot, here’s what I want to say: Most articles on call-out culture are bad. That’s right, I collected a bunch of links in a linkspam, and I think most of those links are bad. I mean, they’re good. But they’re also bad, especially after reading several of them. They often fail to say anything novel or meaningful. And the bottom line is that they’re not having the impact they need to have.

The coopter threat

Just the other day, I read a new article that seemed to epitomize the “call-out culture article”: Righteous Callings: Being a Good Leftist, Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith. It’s by Kai Cheng, a former writer at Everyday Feminism. And it follows a particular structure. First, the author establishes “insider status”, making it clear that she is a certified social justice activist critiquing her own culture. Then a list of grievances. And in the conclusion, a rebuke of those who would coopt this criticism to reject social justice entirely.

Why do these articles spend so much time establishing insider status? The answer is that there is a real danger of outsiders coopting the critique, and then publishing them in major books or newspapers. Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars. Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I got these examples from Katherine Cross, who described them as “one-dimensional treatment of a genuine social problem.”

The line between coopters and insiders is a blurry one. Consider this article: “Everything is problematic”. This article was recommended to me when I started collecting my linkspam, but I refused to include it, because it’s so bad. I mean, it criticizes social justice for being “dogmatic”, which as an experienced atheist activist I can say is basically an empty pejorative. It devotes a paragraph to criticizing otherkin. It proposes empty solutions like “embrace humility”.

The author also spends a lot of time trying to establish “insider status”, and in doing so, it sets up an arms race. If I want to write a good article about call-out culture, I have to say something to separate myself from this author. I have to really establish my insider status, be even insidier than thou. And that’s not great.  That arms race is one of the problems in social justice that we’re trying to criticize.  And yet we’re trapped in the arms race because the coopters are real.

You’re not alone

By the way, the reason I was recommended the “Everything is problematic” article is because a bunch of people thought it was good. Even three years later, Kai Cheng mentions it in her essay. I’m looking at this article and thinking, how can anyone think this is remotely good? I don’t think it has much to do with the content of the article. What’s important is the mere existence of the article. The existence of the article demonstrates that somebody, a social justice activist, recognized some problems with social justice culture. And the reader thinks, “I am a social justice activist, and I also recognize some problems with social justice culture. I’m not alone!” It hardly matters whether the article actually had anything meaningful to say.

This is why I think my linkspam is important, even when I have doubts about the content of the links.  Even if you don’t click on a single link in the linkspam, you take away the most important point: people are talking about this. Not just that one awful writer for McGill Daily, it’s a whole bunch of people in completely different parts of social justice. They’ve been talking about it for years. You are not alone. Quite the opposite. You’re surrounded.

The fact that many social justice critics are also critical of social justice, that is a rather trivial observation. But it sure seems like a lot of people find it mind-blowing. Why is that? Maybe nobody speaks up about it. Maybe they do speak up, but get shouted down. Perhaps the “call-out culture article”, constrained form that it is, is one of the few places where people can express criticism.

Compressed critique

I am an analytical blogger. My goal is to find issues and dig deep into them. One of the most important aspects of good analytical blogging is proper choice of scope. If you choose a topic with too large a scope, you cover it too shallowly. In order to cover a large topic with depth, the solution is to write many articles, each covering a different facet. In my opinion, call-out culture is obviously too broad a topic to write a single article about.

The Kai Cheng article is a great illustration of this. The meat of the article is a listicle describing 5 different problems with social justice culture. Call-out culture is just one of those 5. And you know, it’s not a bad article. But how much can you really say about “Fragmentation of Identity Politics and Essentialism” in 3 paragraphs?  The “call-out culture article” almost always ends up being this superficial.  Because if you’re only going to write one article about the problems with social justice culture, you have to make it count by listing all the problems.  That means writing really long articles that nonetheless barely manage to scrape the surface. Get it all out there, and then hold your peace forevermore.

Ideally, internal critique of social justice would not be squeezed into singular tell-all articles. I think Katherine Cross was a great illustration of this, because she wrote not 1, but 5 articles (and possibly more that I haven’t found). That gave her space to focus on different aspects each time, allowing her to cover the topic with much more depth. Now imagine if we had lots of people writing multiple articles. We could focus in on how it affects particular groups, like people with anxiety disorders. We could discuss potential limitations of the “privilege” or “intersectionality” frameworks. Or we could look at how all these problems manifest differently on Tumblr vs Twitter.

But internal critique should do more than just fill a series of articles. It should permeate everything we say. What if the only time we ever talked about “intersectionality” was in tell-all articles explaining what intersectionality is and why we should care about it? And what if that outside of these articles, no one ever talked about intersectionality? That would defeat the entire point!  We need to be talking about problems with social justice culture all the time, not just in articles specifically devoted to that topic.

How do we get from here to there? That is beyond the scope of this post–that is to say, I have no idea.


  1. jws1 says

    “How do we get there from here…”
    Maybe start be reading and thinking about what you just wrote. Thank you.

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