Op-ed: Caution against call-out culture

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Emma Plante, contributor

Former U.S. President Barack Obama gained bipartisan support for his comments criticizing the use of social media to publicly shame those deemed guilty of problematic behavior at the Obama Foundation Summit.

He said of cancel culture: “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”

His comments received praise from both sides of the aisle, from Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard to Fox News personality Ann Coulter and comedians John Cleese and Billy Eichner.

 It has become commonplace for people to be outed on social media for their unsavory behavior. Recently, there was an attempt to cancel Lizzo after her song “Good as Hell” recharted and Billboard did not credit her recent collaboration on the song with Ariana Grande. Grande’s fans thought this was an intentional slight by Lizzo and started the #LizzoIsOverParty. This summer, would-be Saturday Night Live cast member Shane Gillis lost that gig after a video surfaced of him using racial slurs against Asian people. A year ago, Kevin Hart stepped down from hosting the Oscars after homophobic tweets from a decade ago resurfaced and caused online fury.

Obviously, people need to be held accountable for their actions, but Obama had a point in his cautionary words against using online criticism to make points and shame people for minor mistakes. 

As Obama said, this issue is particularly salient “among young people, particularly on college campuses.” Though critics of Obama’s comments responded by saying he simply does not understand because of his age, some college students are alarmed by aspects of call-out culture as well. In an Atlantic article from 2017, Conor Friedersdorf compiled reflections on cancel culture from undergraduate college students. These students were fine with backlash against “serious transgressions” (for example, the use of slurs), but felt cancel culture could go too far in punishing people for more minor things. Students discussed instances from their schools that made them afraid of unknowingly violating social norms and “becoming objects of stigma” to be piled onto online. For example, inappropriately themed parties and Halloween costumes could be deemed racially insensitive. A student at a women’s college brought up how her biologically-based views on feminism clashed with queer theory and other perspectives more supportive of transgender students. She feared being socially excluded if she tried to discuss these views with other students.

People get canceled and called out for a number of things. Certainly people should be called out for using slurs or even for wearing racially-insensitive costumes. But the resultant pile-on from people online blows everything out of proportion and makes the punishment much worse than the actual transgression. Making a mistake and being corrected for it is one thing. Being deemed tainted, evil or unredeemable for that mistake, and having your social life and career ruined as a result, is going too far. It is almost as if there is an expectation for people to be born perfect and never grow and learn. 

Additionally, the anecdote from the student at a women’s college presents another problem: cancel culture’s abandonment of the process of discourse. Refusing to listen to those you disagree with by punishing them and isolating them for voicing their opinions means there is no discussion, no changed minds and no real action. You must be willing to acknowledge other people’s views if you want to show them how they’re wrong or reach a compromise. 

People have come forward criticizing Obama’s comments. Ernest Owens wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times claiming that the former president’s criticism of cancel culture betrays his preference for niceties over justice. He compared hashtags like #MeToo and #MuteRKelly to protest movements and rightfully points out that use of social media to call out powerful people promoting bigotry is a good thing. Holding people accountable is good, as is having a voice and addressing problems. What Owens misses is that the tendency for younger people to attack online is not solely targeted towards people when it is deserved and that it is not necessarily an effective means of change.

Taking a scorched earth approach and demonizing everyone who has done anything you deem “wrong” (whether it be an actual crime, an offensive joke or the result of ignorance) is not how you make the world a better place. Life isn’t binary and expelling those you disagree with rather than communicating with them will do nothing but alienate people who might have otherwise joined your side. Outing people who committed actual crimes and showing the world that these people can’t get away with their behavior is not the same as publicly shaming comedians or other public figures for decades-old tasteless jokes. Cancel culture can do great things. It can punish people who deserve to be punished and bring important issues to light. It can also unduly reprimand people and allow people to feel righteous about being “judgmental,” as Obama put it. 

Owens concluded that social media is a democratizing tool that we should continue using. This is true, but we must recognize when it is important to use. Attacking injustice is always admirable. Being unable to coexist with people different from you is something else entirely.

Emma Plante is a second year journalism and political science combined major.