Barack Obama’s criticism of “call-out culture” this week drew predictable support from across the political spectrum, mostly from white people. By chance, in Australia it coincided with a Labor frontbencher chiding her own party.
“Not everyone with a concern about the immigration rate is a bigot. Not everyone with a hesitation about changing gender roles is sexist,” Clare O’Neil said. “And if Australians feel they can’t question assumptions and positions in conversation with us, they will find someone else to talk to about it … I don’t know anyone who ever changed their mind because they got made an example of, or yelled at, or shamed. All that creates is simmering resentment.”
Call-out culture is a complicated thing, though. When an Alan Jones-type figure — one with power and a platform — says something universally regarded as offensive, and is widely condemned from all points, is that calling out? Or when a heretofore-anonymous member of the public engages in racist abuse and is filmed doing so, earning themselves public notoriety? Is it callout out merely documenting of the kind of everyday racism that people of colour or Muslims are subjected to?
That’s different to what you might call the “sleeper cell call-out”, when an old comment resurfaces to haunt someone years later.
That was the fate recently of Iowan man Carson King, who was raising funds for a children’s hospital when a journalist, Aaron Calvin, reported King had made two racist tweets eight years before, leading to a major sponsor cutting ties with him.
As it turned out, Calvin then had his own problematic tweets dug up, leading to him losing his job. The sleeper cell call-out denies the possibility of change in an individual, particularly if they are young. Most of us have said something stupid, or offensive, or likely both, at some point; social media now enables the preservation of those moments as tiny bullets to be fired back at us later in life.
Then there’s the “white privilege call-out”, in which a well-intentioned white person is called out for behaving in a way deemed offensive by someone, somewhere: British comic Stacey Dooley attacked by an MP for being a “white saviour” when photographed raising money for Comic Relief; Greta Thunberg being attacked for her white privilege; an attack on Tracey Spicer for being “white, thin, blonde corporate”.
Or there’s what might be called the “Sam Armytage call-out”, which turns on the misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise, of a person’s comments to label them bigoted in some way. Any response that the comments were not intended to be racist is usually taken as an offensive attempt to dictate to people of colour how they should feel.
This can extend to people who, to use Obama’s example, “used the wrong verb”, or in O’Neil’s example, raise concerns about immigration. It’s particularly this case, where expression is perceived as being carefully policed for compliance with an ever-changing set of rules around wokeness and identity that disregard intention, that centrist politicians fret about.
They know how it can alienate blue-collar support for progressive projects, support that is crucial to progressive parties winning elections.
Calling out isn’t new. It’s simply tribalism and the tool of ostracism weaponised by the internet — like the internet has weaponised so many aspects of tribalism, turning the promise of the global village into an ever-more fragmented clutch of tribes at uneasy peace, or open war, with each other.
And while white people may be the biggest targets of (and complainers about) calling out, they perfected calling out like they perfected identity politics, centuries ago, through their exclusion, ostracism and persecution of those who differed from them by race, or gender, or sexual orientation.
There was no “calling” needed, nor an internet; it was built into white society and white thinking. At least the modern version is more honest and transparent, however little white people like it.
Calling out thus risks undermining any progressive project, which must rely on achieving some sort of critical electoral mass for change. This is the point centrist politicians like Obama and O’Neil — one, a uniquely successful modern leader with a deep background in community politics, the other a younger politician with most of her career ahead of her — are making.
You can’t bring people with you to achieve change while chiding and deriding them. Conservative politics, aimed at preventing and reversing change, benefits from fragmentation and the dissolution of consensus; progressives always have the burden of making the case for change to half the electorate plus one.
Obama made another point. “That’s not activism,” he said, pointing to the difference between keyboard warriors piling on transgressors and those who get out and try to organise and achieve change in the real world — between those on the streets willing to be arrested as part of Extinction Rebellion, for example, and those calling it out for not being woke enough.
Abuse won’t merely not bring people with you, you’re not even likely to change their views on the specific issue you’ve called them out on — they’re likely to respond with resentment and hostility. That’s why, for years now, some progressives have urged “calling in” — confining criticism and questioning to private conversations, thus avoiding public shaming.
But given that many on the left engage in calling out more to demonstrate their own woke credentials, to display their membership of their tribe, than to achieve any real change, that idea has failed to flourish.
These are depressing times for progressives: what should be the perfect era for them with the collapse of neoliberalism and persistent economic stagnation has proven instead a boon for right-wing populists who have thrived on division and white identity politics.
The political spirit of the age is centrifugal and fragmenting. Call-out culture exacerbates it. And it’s unlikely the seductive appeal of being a keyboard warrior will diminish compared to the messy, unglamorous task of building consensus and bringing disparate interests together to achieve change.