Kezia Niman takes a closer look at the hazards of ‘Callout Culture’ and its impact on #MeToo – at a critical time when social justice movements seem intent on denouncing their own supporters
The callout has become our society’s weapon of choice when it comes to tearing down abusers. This culture of naming and shaming, known as ‘Callout Culture’, has given birth to #MeToo. For a year the movement has raged through our lives. But what has it achieved? The answer, as might be expected, is far from straightforward. One thing is certain, however. Women and other victims of sexual abuse are angry. This anger, collectivised and democratised, is a powerful force.
As argued by NPR’s Invisibilia, people have turned to the callout to facilitate justice. Justice that was denied by the conventional checks and balances of power: the police, the courts and our society’s norms and values. This is an important moment for our culture. As many women and other victims of abuse refuse to turn a blind eye to violence, even if it’s perpetrated by the rich and powerful. This defiance has led to the arrest of Harvey Weinstein and the sentencing of Bill Cosby, men who thought they were untouchable before the mob rose up, demanding retribution. We saw #MeToo spilling over from the fantasy of media frenzy, to the reality of legal action. But this transition from show trial to actual trial does not always transpire. When it came to the appointment of Brett Kavanagh, the cries of #MeToo resulted in a media show trail, rather than true justice. With a perverse president and the possibility of recriminalizing abortion across the pond, it’s very clear that a year on, we still need #MeToo. But like all revolutionary movements, #MeToo must choose its battles. It must make a B-line for the big guns, rather than derailing the debate to indulge in destructive infighting.
When reports of extensive abuse from dozens of victims pinpoint a high-profile perpetrator, the course of action is clear. Investigate, arrest, prosecute. But what about small communities attempting to punish abusers with little recourse to the law courts? Here the lines are far more blurred. Again, it was Invisibilia who shared the story of a hardcore rocker, facing this very same problem. She went from headlining a feminist band, trying to create a safe space for women in the hardcore scene – to being outed as an abuser. Years before she’d slut-shamed a girl in high school and the comments resurfaced. As the community shamed her, she sent an apologetic e-mail to the victim, who accepted her penance. No charges of abuse were pressed in a court of law, but mob justice doesn’t need such a warrant to play vigilante. She was completely ostracised from her community.
In the absence of the law enforcement that we see in the big #MeToo exposés, the hardcore scene took it upon themselves to punish this particular woman. The punishers may see themselves as sitting on a moral high-horse. But they are teetering on the edge of a steep precipice, as retribution can turn into an abuse of its own. Calling someone out for unacceptable behaviour that renders them inauthentic or hypocritical is fair. Continuing to punish them after they have apologised can be problematic. If the apology seems deceitful or shallow then again, I understand the harsh treatment. But this hard rocker was sincere. She blundered as a high-schooler but she’s hardly a Kavanagh.
Stories like this seem ubiquitous, especially on the Left. Take the tale of Laci Green, a feminist vlogger who was shamed for using a transphobic term. In Green’s defence she used the term to discuss an individual who had referred to themselves, jokingly in the same way. Green thought she was in on the joke. She was not. She needed to be corrected, but what happened next was far from proportionate. Protestors turned up to her events, trolled her on the internet, sent her threatening messages. She apologised and revised her approach to gender, yet this wasn’t good enough for the people who called her out.
This is a clear example of when the callout becomes abusive. It’s fuelled by a French Revolution-style mob mentality. Feminists and activists, like Green, who help propel #MeToo style discourse are purged by their former supporters. Alienated from her feminist allies, Green began to reach to anti-feminists, Men’s Rights Activists and Right-wing YouTubers to start a constructive dialogue. Many of her former friends find this change unacceptable. Yet it was the Left that pushed away one of their greatest online cheerleaders in the first place. This irony illustrates the dangers of the callout – going too far and turning away potential allies.
Abuse, sexism, homophobia and racism are still alive and well across society, and its perpetrators need to be called out. In the words of my high school Head Teacher, sometimes you must be intolerant to be tolerant, i.e. to preserve the tolerant culture that you’ve helped foster and maintain. However, the Left should not turn on their own supporters unless they’ve perpetrated an act that truly deserves it. The hardcore rocker deserved the callout, to be shamed and even punished to some extent, but it was clear she had repented, and the victim seemed content. Surely, she should be allowed to re-join her community? On the other hand, Green appears to have made a much smaller error with her language that didn’t intend to cause harm. She used one word when she shouldn’t have despite being a clear ally of LGBTQI+ people with many friends from that community. She continually amended her language when she was called out, but ultimately all she got for her rehabilitation was more abuse. These people are not Harvey Weinsteins or Bill Cosbys or Rosanne Barrs. They are socially liberal activists fighting for equality. It seems #MeToo is losing focus. Like other revolutionary movements, it’s becoming inward and self-destructive when we need it most. The patriarchy laughs while we turn on each other. We can’t give them the satisfaction.
As I’ve said before, our anger is a powerful force, but it needs to be harnessed. Donald Trump is still in the White House. Kavanaugh has been confirmed. There are abusers targeting adults and children throughout the UK. These are the issues #MeToo needs to face. Yes, we need to check each other’s vocabulary. Yes, we need to be held accountable for our actions. Yes, we should be called out if we offend someone. But the punishment must fit the offence. Deborah Frances White of The Guilty Feminist has expressed the value of sending someone a personal message, detailing where they’ve gone wrong. Sometimes publicly shaming someone is not necessary and that’s okay. We mustn’t derail #MeToo by turning on each other. As a year dawns on the movement, we should count our victories – against the many more we have yet to win.
Please check out some of the stories than inspired this article: