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'Man, F*ck Your Pride': Why Call-Out Culture Isn't Toxic

Call-out culture isn’t just angry people making a fuss. It can change everything

Call-out culture is an NB condition of online activism. What is it? It’s when you speak out against and challenge a wide range of overlapping systems that create oppression. These systems include racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and queer-antagonism.

To ‘call someone out’ is to put problematic behaviour publicly in the spotlight. It’s a process that hopefully encourages engagement and shifts the dangerous culture of letting bigotry slide. The language attached to call-out culture is often associated with collecting ‘receipts’. This ‘receipt’ trail is  digital evidence in the form of screenshots of messages and social media activity that points to problematic behaviour. Because, yes, if you post something to the Internet, you better be ready for someone to screenshot it and know it’ll live online forever.

Receipts have the potential to highlight inconsistencies and compare truth from fiction, but at the same time, if you’re actively hunting for dirt on someone’s profile, you’re bound to find it. I mean, we’ve also said idiotic things as teenagers, right? A recent example: Lesego Legobane, aka Thickleeyonce, and the Internet’s obsession with a tweet she made four years ago that body-shamed skinny women.

Thickleeyonce is now an advocate for body-positivity. (Side note: we adore her). She’s an authentic representation for curvy, fierce women in the creative industry – take a look at a shoot we did with her recently as proof. She’s a photographer, influencer and has walked the runway at SA Fashion Week. For years, she’s been fat-shamed, abused and degraded online for not being ashamed of her body.

So should she be consistently dragged online for one misguided opinion she had foolishly tweeted in 2013? ‘I said something terrible and I apologised,’ said Thickleeyonce in an interview with Afternoon Express. Sure, we should call anyone and everyone out for online behaviour that perpetuates those systems we’re working hard together to dismantle – racism, sexism, body shaming – but we also can’t repeatedly call someone out for the same thing after they’ve apologised. And certainly not after they’ve demonstrated that they’ve learnt and grown – just like Thickleeyonce, who now uses her platforms to advocate against body shaming, the very thing she was accused of tweeting about in 2013. In this instance, isn’t repeatedly calling her out a form of online bullying in itself?

Bringing up decade-old tweets and Facebook posts to make a lukewarm point isn’t productive. But, for example, taking screenshots and exposing racists, sexists or homophobes can be incredibly powerful and helpful. Just take the incredible Twitter campaign spearheaded by Rose McGowan, which helped bring down sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. So where should we stand when it comes to calling for justice online?

To call-out or not to call-out?

The biggest issue is people labelling call-out culture as ‘toxic’.  Call-out culture is actually one of the only ways many marginalised groups can be visible, recognised, and navigate discrimination. It’s a platform for the previously unheard. What’s toxic is the ways in which we’ve normalised oppressing people and then letting them think that’s okay by staying silent and complicit.

In Millennial discourse, there’s a fine line between fighting injustice without centring your own experiences, feelings or identity. Centring is when you focus on your own experience, belittling the cause or those affected who you’re referring to or, often, missing the point of the cause entirely in doing so.

Sure, it doesn’t feel good to be called out. It’s never easy to be told you’ve done something problematic that’s hurt someone or a group of people. But it’s not meant to make you feel good. How are we meant to do better if we’re going to pretend that we don’t all inherently have room for growth? We are limited by our own experiences and understanding. All of us have prejudices and bad behaviour we need to improve. (All of us except for Beyoncé, obvs.) So none of us is absolved from being called-out when we do something shitty. Not even oppressed people. It’s about being aware and cognisant of how you’re benefitting or contributing to an oppressive society, either through actions or words.

The process of unlearning and learning is a lot larger than just calling yourself ‘woke’. Listening, digesting, critiquing and engaging with the role you play in a societal system is not meant to be enjoyable, fun, or easy.

Call-out-culture is not meant to be entertainment, either

The history of call-out culture started with black people, POC and queer communities using it as the last line of defence in engaging with trolls online. To erase that history and assume it’s a space used solely for getting attention is to centre your feelings, and the feelings of trolls, above the trauma of marginalised groups. It reinforces the privilege of being given the space to get offended without actually being offended by the issue at play. Derailing the conversation to focus on how you’re effected by marginalised groups reactions to oppression is 0% helpful because FYI, it’s not always about you, boo.

There are fractured opinions on call-out culture and if it’s efficient in holding people accountable. But most of the people labelling call-out culture toxic are white and cisgender. Just saying. It’s almost as if these commentators are more mad at the people fighting injustice than those perpetrating it.

There is an interesting alternative to call-out culture: calling in. But calling in risks protecting perpetrators of social violence, and highlights a few other privileges.

Writer Asam Ahmad coined the term and suggests that the public nature of calling out can do more harm than good. Calling in is taking your conversation to DMs for a more empathetic approach. ‘Calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself,’ writes Ahmad.

But that kind of compromise makes concessions for oppressors. You can also still be attacked in the privacy of your inbox. Why is it always the responsibility of oppressed groups to approach bigots with caution and give them opportunity to convince us they’re not the worst? Why must oppressed groups always do the emotional labour of ‘taking the higher ground’?

We all make mistakes. It’s okay to eff up and apologise, and then do everything you can to make the wrong right. But call-out culture isn’t about hunting people down and bullying them. It needs to be fair and educated. Take Thickleeyonce – we need to let off with her already! She’s shown she’s moved on from that tweet and learnt. She’s said sorry and demonstrated her authenticity in her behaviour since. But to suggest that we should end calling-out entirely, and reduce the voices fighting against bigots and trolls online? That’s deeply troubling to me.

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