Why 'call-out culture' is worth defending

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.. Photo: Stocksy

 Recently, I received a message from someone I hadn't spoken to in years.

He wrote: "Many years ago, I made a rape joke on Facebook. You commented on it letting me know how distasteful and terrible it was. I just wanted to thank you for that.

"At the time I thought not being a rapist was enough. It is not. The idea I would always try to stop rape if I saw it in person was enough. It is not. I thought a rape joke is just a joke. It is not. I'm ashamed of myself for once believing those things. It was a bitter pill at the time, but I really needed to take it. Thank you for always putting yourself out there and stopping/teaching ignorant people like me. I don't know if you ever get discouraged, but I know personally you helped at least one boy to grow up a better person."

It felt like a breath of fresh air.

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Any outspoken feminist will likely tell you that it all sometimes feel thankless. Even in this supposedly progressive age, calling people out for their racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist or homophobic remarks and actions often results in being made into a pariah – you're humourless, too PC, a "social justice warrior" (a term that's meant to be pejorative but actually sounds awesome – where's my sword?). I've lost friends after calling out their behaviour in person and online. I've questioned the ethics of editorial decisions in past workplaces, and had my concerns silenced and dismissed.

But I know how transformative calling out problematic behaviour can be on an individual level, because I was once that person, too.

As a teenager, I nonchalantly used homophobic slurs, told racist jokes and claimed I wasn't a feminist because I shaved and didn't hate men. I argued with the outspoken feminists in my university tutorials, who I considered dogmatic and unreasonable.

And I changed my mind because people called me out.

At first I shrugged them off. As a woman of colour who had gay friends, how could I be racist, sexist or homophobic? They were just jokes, after all. But as time passed, I started listening – and eventually, I recognised the cognitive dissonance between my thoughts and actions.

Especially in the digital age, "call-out culture" is growing – but not everyone is on board, with much online discourse around its perceived toxicity and mob mentality. Asam Ahmad writes that it has a "mild totalitarian undercurrent" and encourages "armchair activism", as well as serving as a pissing contest of political correctness (or as I like to call it, not being a dick). Flavia Dzodan calls it "reductionist", and asserts that it is "performative" and "legitimise[s] aggression and rhetoric violence".

It's true that in the age of likes and retweets, progressive circles can often resemble an echo chamber, with dissenting opinions immediately decimated. Being at the centre of a call-out storm in the fast-moving digital world can feel terrifying, with notifications flying like tiny bullets.

But it's essential to put pride aside to remember that "aggression" is often a by-product of the repetitive force of oppression.

If someone from an oppressed group reacts aggressively, refusing to listen unless they take a softly-softly approach is a microaggression itself. It's called tone policing – silencing by derailing, rather than digesting the content. Chances are they're angry because they've had to have the same frustrating conversation a thousand times before – there is no obligation to handhold.

And while call-outs may certainly boost a smug sense of moral superiority for some, they more importantly allow the oppressed to protect themselves from everyday language, actions and microaggressions that threaten their safety, and hopefully influence a trickle-down shift in societal thinking.

The emotional labour involved in feminism and other forms of activism is often exhausting, and no oppressed group owes the privileged an education. For the person doing the calling out, sometimes it's easy to feel fatigued and want to tap out altogether, and succumbing to that doesn't weaken one's convictions – preserving mental health is crucial. Call-outs are often emotionally taxing, and the role of an ally is to listen and learn, not bite back.

At 18, I would never have imagined that I'd ever be like the feminists in my tutes who annoyed me with what I perceived as proselytising. At 27, I admire them for their unwavering passion in trying to educate a stubborn girl like me.

Receiving that message last week was an affirmation. In a world where feminism is still largely a dirty word, where women are harassed for standing up for their views, it's heartening to know that these often uncomfortable conversations can have a positive effect.

Personal interactions can make a difference, and staying silent in the face of prejudice solely for fear of social retribution is complicity. In every 100 instances of being called a sanctimonious feminazi bitch, there might be one like this.

And it's worth it to know that he'll probably call his mates out on their rape jokes from now on, and if they learn and pass it on, and if their mates learn and pass it on – that's how progress happens.