October 19, 2021

Call-out Culture: a powerful tool, bullying, or both?

By Alisha Stilwell

Spin class and political activism don’t typically go hand-in-hand, but today’s “call-out” or “cancel” culture changed that. 

SoulCycle touts itself as more than just a workout; “it’s an experience” that helps cyclists find their soul. That’s a bold promise, but it resonated with the masses as SoulCycle grew from being less of a gym into a profitable lifestyle and identity brand centered around inclusion and safe spaces. So when members learned that owner Stephen Ross was hosting a $250,000-a-plate fundraiser for President Trump this past summer, all hell broke loose. A SoulCycle boycott ensued that ultimately decreased overall memberships. The company has yet to regain ground.

The SoulCycle boycott illustrates the power of the mob and the dangers of stepping out of line with expectations. It’s a compelling tool to send a message and make an impact. Remember BBQ Becky and Cornerstore Caroline? Public shaming in the form of social media call-outs helped publicize the issue of white folks calling the police on innocent black individuals. It even led to some catchy nicknames.

credit: Katrina Cole

But mob mentality is often fleeting and we act swiftly without thinking things through. Knowing the impact of social media call-out culture, and that the underlying force is mob mentality, it’s easy to see how it could go wrong. 

The case of Justine Sacco is a prime example. Her infamous pre-flight tweet, while in poor taste, was taken out of context and ruined her career. Even Taylor Swift fell victim to call-out culture, only recently venturing back into the public eye to speak about her mental health struggles after being “cancelled”. This cancel culture could be seen across various fields including politics. Falun Gong activist Caylan Ford was cancelled when she made comments about white nationalism. Although she made it clear that her comments were taken out of context, she had to resign from her UCP candidature.

At the risk of adding more to your to-do list, I found Loretta Ross’s New York Times opinion piece on the toxicity of call-out culture a fascinating read. Does our urge to cancel those we disagree with crack the foundation upon which we can build understanding? Does the fear of public shaming prevent folks from pursuing dialogue on culturally-relevant topics they don’t know much about? Ross’s take: “The heart of the matter is, there is a much more effective way to build social justice movements.”

If call-out culture had rules, what should they be? Can we rein in call-outs and cancels, or is it too late?

8 thoughts on “Call-out Culture: a powerful tool, bullying, or both?

  1. You provide an insightful response to a complex issue, thank you. I mulled this over in the context of successful marketing campaigns—ones that get to the truth and get people to react on those culturally relevant topics you speak of. It is a balancing act that many marketers and communications practitioners face: To evoke a sense of truth, does it mean you have to ruffle feathers along the way? If you are not offending people, are you doing your job? I like Ross’s take, too.

    In response to your question, ‘If call-out culture had rules, what should they be?’ Twitter recently unveiled its plans for providing a better definition of public interest in relation to monitoring outspoken rule-breakers—namely certain world leaders who break their terms of service. This may not qualify as a “rule,” but according to the plan, Twitter has upheld that certain tweets are in the public interest even if they violate its rules or is controversial. It will keep the tweet, but the user is notified and is required to provide more context and clarity to the original meaning of the tweet in question.

  2. I think John Oliver is onto something when he says that those who choose a public life or “whose bad behavior affects others” should be held accountable by their public audience. However, there should be limits, as Monica Lewinsky’s take-down by American mass-media illustrates. The magnitude of her public shaming was far larger than her own responsibility as a young intern involved with the most powerful man in the country. The problem now is that people don’t self-regulate and in the age of social media. Any onlooker can spread the shame without knowing the facts. If a funny insight catches fire or they have a lot of followers, that person is wielding real power.

    The one place I find hope in all this is: it’s become more difficult for large corporations and powerful people to make racist or homophobic comments or support hateful political campaigns anonymously. Barilla pasta is a great example: the boycott of the brand sponsored by LGBTQ+ organizations like GLAAD was relatively ineffective financially, however the ongoing social media attacks on Barilla ended up spurring action when Barilla realized that the overall value of their brand was taking a hit. Today, Barilla is under new leadership, actively campaigns to win back LGBTQ+ fans and supports major anti-bullying campaigns. This wouldn’t have happened without call-out culture – and possible Chrissy Teigen’s tweet that “Barilla has a right to believe whatever they want. And I have the right to boycott them or fully fund a gay porn made in a tub of linguine.”


  3. I really found your post fascinating, Alisha!

    I didn’t realize that there was an actual name for this, but it nails a lot of things on the head of what has been happening in the news media. I do think that this “Call-Out” culture can be negative when it impacts a person’s livelihood or mental wellbeing. In the same vein, I feel like it also skews the story in the favor of the individual who tells the story first. For instance the recent Caroline Calloway scandal absolutely fascinated me. But, since her friend was able to tell her side of the story first in the CUT article, Caroline immediately became the bad guy. What if the roles had been reversed? Would Caroline’s friend been called out and not Caroline? I can’t help but think that the individual who tells their story first or the most persuasively has the power in Call Out culture.

    However, I do think Call Out culture does have some good in that it helps drive opinion and forces people to make a decision on how they feel around a specific topic. I feel that social media and the current state of our culture has caused a lot of people to not have opinions. Call Out culture seems to be filling that void by forcing people to take a side on a specific topic. Of course, this is only positive when it isn’t bullying or severely impacting someone’s life.

  4. I remember watching this episode of Last Week Tonight when it came out, and one thing that I really appreciated about this episode was John Oliver owning up to the segment he did on Monica Lewinsky (around 11:30). He could have easily been the target of a Call-Out himself after airing the episode had he not addressed his role in the Lewinsky shaming, because someone on the internet would have definitely found that Daily Show clip and posted it. Instead, he acknowledged the segment, took responsibility and used it as a teaching point to say, “Hey, nobody’s perfect.” I think we’ve all probably said or done something at some point that was insensitive, inappropriate or that came from a less informed place – we’re only human after all – and I don’t think anyone deserves to have their life ruined over it, especially if they’ve grown and matured since then. That being said, if someone’s action(s) have caused real harm, they are in a position of public trust and/or they remorselessly continue their inappropriate behavior (like Jay Leno at 12:00), I can see how a Call-Out could be very justified.

  5. You pose an interesting question, Alisha, about rules for call-out culture. I must say, I think there are benefits to communities holding public figures accountable–especially when their impact has been great, and the justice system has failed to intervene.

    I’m thinking specifically of figures such as Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, or the current president. In Cosby’s case, he admitted to using quaalude with his victims back in 2005, and still experienced limited legal ramifications for 10 years, returning to stand-up and making money in the meantime. Currently in our criminal justice system, money and reputation often play a large role in sexual assault cases, and unfortunately, often fall on the side of the perpetrators.

    I think cancel-culture can sometimes be a useful way to hold perpetrators accountable. For victims, even if the court case can’t be won, perhaps knowing there was reputational damage, or that the community is on their side is still a form of justice. And it may benefit the next survivor who comes forward.

  6. Love you post Alisha! I find the act of calling-out so fascinating. Even when I post things that might be on the edge I am always second guessing whether I should post or not. I really think that in the era of fake news and false social impact campaigns, it can be so hard for audiences to know which cases to support both digitally and non-digitally.

    This post made me think of KONY 2012 (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2016/09/kony-2012-quickly-became-a-punch-line-but-what-if-it-did-more-good-than-harm.html), while the campaign was upfront about its goal to generate awareness it raked in millions of U.S. dollars and Joseph Kony is still recruiting and using child soldiers – because the campaign was more about awareness versus action. The campaigned was called out but by then it was too late the money had already been donated.

    This isn’t the same as the Soul Cycle example you used, it just made me think about how sometimes there can be “good products” or “causes” that have strong cultures that we want to stand behind as consumers – maybe the problem is us as consumers, we aren’t doing enough research on the brands we stand behind before adopting them, we just go for bright colors and good design?

    Ok, I feel like I am going to a blurt out session. lol Great post!

  7. Great post, Alisha. I think you pose some interesting cultural and philosophical questions to ponder. For one, when is enough punishment enough and who gets to decide when enough justice has been meted out? There are hundreds of stories where a single, ill-thought out public comment made on social media ruins a person’s life. The example of Justine Sacco that you mentioned always comes to mind. Was the damning response she received comparable to her initial action?

    But it’s one thing to display poor judgement. You raise a very interesting question in what conversation does cancel cultural stifle? Would someone who is genuinely interested in broadening their world view hesitate or reconsider asking a question for fear they’ll say something wrong? I don’t know, but at the end of the day the big takeaway is make sure you’re practicing intention and respect when engaging in public discourse.

  8. When it comes to “rules” for call-out/cancel culture, I think John Oliver said it very well. The team asks them selves how much power this person has, what the ramifications might be, etc. As you mentioned, Alisha, call-out culture has drawn a lot of attention to issues folks have always faced, yet power structures have dismissed. Kristen mentioned Cosby & R. Kelly, and call out culture spiked reports during #MeToo, announcing misdeeds of other high profile perpetrators.

    Ultimately, one catches more flies with hhoney than vinegar. However, its important to remember who is calling out whom. Is the call out about drawing attention to an issue or is it about ego of the person doing the finger pointing? I’ve waved a finger or two of self-righteousness when a “call-in” would have been better suited to the situation. As John Oliver said, we all make mistakes – we have to own them, grow from them, and do better next time.

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