Faded Signs

In Defense of Call-out Culture

Illustration by Emory Douglas, from the March 8, 1969, issue of 'The Black Panther.'

A bevy of writers in popular publications took to the internet last week to decry “call-out culture”—a catch-all phrase that refers to the extremely online practice of denouncing racist, sexist or otherwise problematic statements on the internet itself. On the surface, the essays describe ways that the dynamics of online discourse ingratiate insiders and alienate villains. In reality, these writings reflect the ways people with social privilege behave in activist spaces—online and off, past as well as present. But first, a primer:

For those less familiar with the strange world of online poli­­­tical rituals, a quintessential example of call-out culture was the 2013 saga of Justine Sacco, a communications professional who tweeted a racist joke about AIDS in Africa, boarded a flight to South Africa, then landed 11 hours later to a storm of internet outcry that eventually cost Sacco her job. While the particular subject of the outrage changes, this script has been replicated countless times since, with racist tweets, sexist jokes and the bad behavior of celebrities becoming fodder for a subcultural cottage industry fixing for the next social justice fight. A crop of online vernacular describes tactics related to the assorted epiphenomena of call-out culture: “dragged,” “dogpiled,” “milkshake ducked” and—less charitably—“witch hunt.”

With call-out culture, the digital masses turn the mere act of holding someone accountable—a simple act that may be committed quietly and in person, away from the harsh glare of a smartphone spotlight—into a hyper-visible morality play. In her 2017 book Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle writes “at the height of its power, the hysterical liberal call-out, no matter how minor the transgression, could ruin your life.” In the last few days, writers Meagan Day, Amber A’Lee Frost and Katie Herzog have followed Nagle in Jacobin, The Baffler and The Stranger, respectively. All three of them side with Nagle’s stance that “this strange period of ultra puritanism” is having a negative impact on the quality of civic discourse, both online and off.

Day, Herzog and Frost all hail from a similar sliver of the political spectrum: leftist (or leftish) Millennial womxn with a distaste for a certain kind of performative internet politics. Writing in Jacobin, Meagan Day describes call-out culture as “the hegemonic tendency on the Left: a condition in which everyone watches everyone else for a fatal slip-up, holding themselves to impossibly high standards.” In a typically caustic editorial for The Stranger, Katie Herzog concurs with Day, saying “call-out culture prevents people from speaking their minds because they are too scared of being unfriended, unfollowed, blocked, shunned or dismissed as trash.”

Meanwhile, in The Baffler, podcaster Amber A’Lee Frost pronounces that a “healthy political culture [doesn’t tolerate] the bullying that the manipulative personalities drawn to this kind of politics tend to pull out.” Frost’s essay does not mention call-out culture specifically. But a reference is reasonably implied; she cites essayist Mark Fisher’s 2013 seminal screed “Exiting The Vampire Castle,” in which Fisher bemoans the “witch-hunting moralism of left-wing Twitter.” When Frost lambasts “[nasty students] who are cut off from the kinds of material political activity that actually yields dividends,” you can sense her diagnosis applies to both to the bullies in the seminar and in the digital stratosphere.

But well before the birth of social networking, the Left had been here before. The current concerns about call-out culture are less a referendum than a redux; a contemporary rehashing of a debate about coalition-building and in-group accountability that has defined the last half-century of progressive-left politics. Much of this conversation takes place on—and about—the internet. Nonetheless, the debates about call-out culture go back further than the lifetimes of most of the writers who have weighed in on it.

The year Mark Fisher was born (1968), the so-called “New Deal” coalition of progressive whites, people of color and the working poor was at its peak. But as the contentious 1960s concluded in a haze of assassinations and anti-war protests, the paternal liberalism of the post-WWII consensus was not enough to address the specific ways that capitalism disadvantaged women, people of color, immigrants and sexual minorities. Historian Daniel Rogers reflects on this liminal period in his 2003 book Age of Fracture, writing that “the terms that had dominated post-WWII intellectual life began to fracture. One heard less about society, history and power, and more about individuals, contingency and choice. The dominant tendency of the age became disaggregation.”

Far from encouraging any master narratives about the greater American saga, the American bicentennial of 1976 furthered a trend towards localized micro-histories and stories about particular subgroups. Roots, an epic about slavery, became the most-watched television miniseries of all time when it debuted in 1977. Popular music—once a domain of protest titans like Joan Baez, Nina Simone and John Coltrane—had already shifted to a more indulgent, inward sense that politics were a realm of frustration. The true path to individual salvation became the pursuit of personal pleasure. “The laws never passed, but somehow all men feel they’re truly free at last,” sang Stevie Wonder on his 1973 ballad “Visions.” “Could a place like this exist, so beautiful—or do we have to fly away to the vision in our minds?”

In their recent essays, Day and Herzog each deal with this climate of political disaggregation—“the cultural turn,” as Marxist scholars of postmodernism put it. But neither do it as directly as Amber A’Lee Frost, who writes, “It’s obvious to anyone who isn’t in denial that a retreat into the cultural at the undeniable expense of the socioeconomic has been responsible for the decline of the progressive movement.” And yet this narrative of “decline”—so nostalgic for a golden age of activism under capitalism that never existed—played out for reasons that Frost falls short of explaining.

The New Deal coalition fell apart because the most disadvantaged Americans were unhappy in it. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of trickle-down progress under Keynesian capitalism and fed up with organizing under the auspices of white liberalism, racial minorities and others pushed the fragile post-WWII consensus to a fork in the road. Sure, the liberal framework was responsible for a far-too-late Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and a weakly enforced Fair Housing Act in 1968, but it did little to address police violence or poverty. Additionally, white liberals only seemed to prefer buttoned-down, clean-shaven Black political actors who played to stifling white cultural norms. “Even at its zenith, liberalism was far less secured than it appeared to be,” scholar Kim Phillip-Fein writes. Its pace of change wasn’t fast enough for those who needed change the most.

In a sense, progressive whites were “called out” in 1968. Would they continue organizing and protesting into their late 20s and 30s, when it was no longer chic or comfortable to do so? Or would they desert the New Left, cash in on identity-based civil rights programs like affirmative action that disproportionately benefitted white women, and age into comfortable lives while denouncing the “divisive” identity politics of their contemporaries? The subsequent years—lasting right up to the present day—were a symphony of call(-out) and response.

The cacophony ended in conservatism. As African Americans and others questioned the value of cultural integration and grew more outspoken in their political demands, many American whites grew defensive. The neoconservative movement—composed of white liberal intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol who once championed civil rights reforms—developed in response to the radicalism of groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.

At the same time, whites who had spent the previous century erasing their old-world ties suddenly rediscovered their roots as a way to augment their reactionary politics. For African Americans and other subaltern groups, the embrace of ethnic specificity was a way of distancing themselves from racism, and ultimately capitalism; for whites, it was a way of reinvigorating their commitment to it. Movies like The Godfather (1972), Rocky (1976) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) provided intensely racialized narratives of grit and self-reliance that complimented American neo-conservatism: If John Travolta could dance his way out of dire straits and the Corleones could kill their way to the top of the food chain, what right had American minorities to ask for welfare?

Anyone who wonders how it was possible for America to go from the high-water marks of liberalism in 1968 to the deluge of conservatism with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 should understand that, in the interim dozen years, the progressive movement saw a massive outflow of whites who graduated out of the relative radicalism of their youths.

It’s this tradition—the tradition of post-1968 reactionaries—that Day, Frost and Herzog access in their essays. The “retreat into culture” that Frost bemoans was actually precipitated by the retreat of whites into conservatism. The dearth of “dissent” in progressive circles that Herzog describes appeared in the shadow of 50 years of whites depopulating the progressive movement. With all due respect to the earnestness and insight of their writing, most of their major observations about the downfall of a progressive consensus have already been uttered in one way or another by jaded liberals who marched with King and then somehow voted for Reagan. All meager exceptions admitted, a call-out never pushed away anyone who didn’t already have a foot out the door.

As white flight decimated the New Deal coalition, people of color were left to fend for themselves. In this long, unending post-1968 period, popular culture has become a repository for the jaded Black political imagination. The sitcom Living Single (1993–1998) is back this month on Hulu, offering a fictional glimpse into the kind of Black planet that has never had the chance to thrive in America, because white liberals dismantled Reconstruction; because much-lauded working-class whites repeatedly burned down affluent Black towns in the Jim Crow South; because white progressives fled the New Deal coalition; because white neoliberals subjected Black urban centers to gentrification and displacement.

For all those years, we took the abuse, and took it quietly. As house servants, we raised white children on poverty wages that didn’t allow us to take care of our own; as Pullman Porters, we suffered white condescension with a grin; as schoolchildren, we watched as indifferent white teachers got paid to put in minimal effort; as churchgoers, we bowed beneath a white Jesus, believing that his afterlife promised something better than what we suffered in the present. When the dam finally broke and we began returning to the political arena with a taste of what it was like to have idols fashioned in our own image, there was no turning back.

What many critics call “call-out culture” is actually a past-due moral balance being called in. With interest added. Had our pain been spoken more consistently over a longer period of time, perhaps our anger would be a manageable trickle, and not an avalanche. But we never asked for the condition that required us to remain silent in the first place. Oppressed groups once lived with the destruction of keeping quiet. We’ve decided that the collateral damage of speaking up—and calling out—is more than worth it.

Of course, this means potentially alienating a few peers. It also dictates that we not cheapen our struggles by making social justice mountains out of mundane molehills. I’m reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ musing in We Were Eight Years In Power, in which he mocks ambulance-chasing activists who “overcompensate and turn every dustup into the Montgomery bus boycott.” For all their imperfections, white progressives—avowed socialists like Meagan Day in particular—have been far more reliably on the correct side of history in regards to racial justice than their liberal (and certainly conservative) counterparts.

But this conversation is ultimately about the changeability of white activism, not its concreteness. We’ve seen white progressives and even radicals graduate into conservatism before. The capitalist social ladder incentivizes whites of any ideological orientation to separate themselves, even subconsciously, from a radical base and radical tactics.

For many upwardly mobile whites in search of activist cred, call-out culture is a way of reaching downward for social capital. We’d be naïve to think this dynamic does not also work in reverse; to think that woke whites are not capable of elevating themselves above their activist peers in order to appear separate from the liberal mob. Fresh off the smash success of her essay about call-out culture, Herzog is apparently already being recruited by the likes of the GOP. Seen in this light, critiques of call-out culture seem less like a mechanism for improving the Left and more like a way of pivoting to the center.

In the end, there is no imagined community that “call-out culture” corrupts; no solid consensus that it dissipates. All the dreaded call-out does is expose fissures that already exist between those who need change and those who say they want it. If the rhetorical identification of privilege and racism is on its own enough to alienate people who claim to be progressives, there’s good reason to assume that they were never as progressive as they claimed to be in the first place.

The criticism of our peers should not be enough to drive us to the arms of our enemies. Unless of course we secretly wanted to end up there anyway.