Calling People Out Is Not a Good Way to Cause Change
We need compassion, not pain and isolation
On January 14, 2019, columnist David Brooks published an article in the New York Times on the role of call-out culture in stifling social change. He references an NPR podcast, Invisibilia, which looks at callout culture in the context of a case of sexual harassment in the hardcore punk rock community in Richmond, Virginia.
Emily and her best friend were in a van, heading to a performance in Florida. On their way, they received a call from the venue: their performance was canceled. A woman had publicly accused Emily’s friend of sending her a sexually explicit photograph and she had told the promoter of the show. While the band-mate's friends mostly defended his character and dismissed the allegations, Emily was extremely conflicted. “In her head, there was no easy way, no middle ground. She felt she had to choose between her very best friend in the world and the cause she was becoming passionate about.”
But there was a voice in her that felt “betrayed…because what he was accused of doing had happened to me.”
She wrote a Facebook post in which she outed and denounced her friend as an abuser, “I disown everything he has done. I do not think it’s O.K. These are horrible things. These are not OK. I am not OK with it. I believe women.”
Within months, the bandmate had left the band, disappeared from the punk scene, been fired from his job, kicked out of his apartment, and moved to a new city. He was not doing well. She thought about texting him several times to reach out, but didn’t. In her mind, she was doing the right thing. “We as punks are supposed to be better than that…We’re supposed to, like, police each other.”
However, months later, the same thing happened to Emily herself. In 2016, Herbert Rafael Vasquez-Castro, a friend from high school, accused Emily of cyberbullying, replying with an emoji making fun of a girl at her high school that had a nude photo posted online. She was only one of several people who engaged in comments and behavior making fun of the girl, whose pseudonym is “J”. J would tell NPR that any time she saw a post about Emily’s feminist activism, “it really just pissed me off. It just — I felt like it was very unfair.”
Yet, according to Brooks, the “post denouncing Emily also went viral. She, too, was the object of nationwide group hate.” Despite taking responsibility for her actions, Emily, like her former bandmate and best friend, was kicked out of the punk scene, dropped by her friends, and alone.
She tried to leave Richmond and vanish. “It just wouldn’t stop. It just, like, wouldn’t stop. I was scared.” Emily said.
When Herbert Rafael Vasquez-Castro was asked if he knew how Emily was doing and what happened to her, he responded, “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming…I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”
The podcast caught the interest of Richard Wrangham, prestigious anthropologist, who commented on his own experience in the world of anthropology academia. His colleague, Jean Briggs, was embedded within the Inuit community in the late 1960s, and she lost her temper several times at the tribe because of the tribe’s sensitivity to displays of anger. They taught Briggs a valuable lesson: they socially isolated her.
According to Wrangham, for his friend, Briggs, “the social pain is intense. It is an extremely effective way of trying to get other people, someone who has offended the community, to change their ways.” For prison inmates and prisoners of war, there is a similar effect in that solitary confinement is as painful as physical abuse. Social flogging and punishment were used to reinforce society’s moral code, and Wrangham, when asked what he himself thought of it, he said “it’s not personal. It’s just what people do.”
Wrangham then tells us more about the arbitrary nature of human life, as we can all be the victims, much as we can all be the executioners. “The human dynamic is so strange because we feel morally uprighteous, and yet circumstances can move us in one direction or another to be on the top or the bottom.” I’m sure each of us in our own groups and group dynamics have been on both sides of executioner and victims, violators of moral code and reinforcers of it. As someone who has been on both sides of the spectrum, I resolve to be high in empathy, towards both the victim and the aggressor in whatever way I can, because moral uprightness and condemnation are plentiful enough.
Emily did not allow herself to tell her story or speak publicly about herself in her situation. It would signal to others that she was focused more on herself than her community. She said that “she had no right to tell her story” to the NPR interviewers. Yet she suffered, and suffered profoundly. “I didn’t leave my house for, like, what felt like months. I was scared. I did nothing for so long. I hid.” One time, when Emily did go out, she ran into a woman from the hardcore punk scene who grabbed her arm and urged her not to go to an upcoming show. She did not want to be in the same place as Emily, because she would fear for her life. For the woman, “Emily’s presence triggered her PTSD.”
“I don’t know what to think of myself other than, like, I am so sorry. And I do feel like a monster,” Emily said. The message for her was that she should not be around, and even good friends unfriended her on social media and refused to say hi to her. “It’s just psychologically, like, fucked me up for so long.” In the call-out culture of her hardcore punk community, Emily knew she would never be forgiven. Mostly, she hoped that people would forget about her.
“I just feel like I’m in a limbo. Like, it consumes me. Like, I lay awake. And I’m like, fuck. This is my life now. Nobody’s around. I have nobody to talk to.”
Emily began erasing herself from public life. All she wanted to do in her community was be invisible. She felt in pain, all the time.
Herbert, when asked again about Emily, felt like Emily doesn’t deserve any mercy. Emily directly harmed a girl in high school, and when Emily approached Herbert about it, she allegedly referred to him being a person of color in an offensive way. “She was like, I was initially nice to you because you were a person of color.” Those words meant that “Emily deserved to suffer.” The reasoning behind it was ultimately spun as being for Emily’s own good, that she needed to learn from her actions and that progress required people to be hurt along the way.
To the interviewer, it didn’t seem like Herbert cared at all about Emily’s well-being. He wasn’t even a committed part of the hardcore rock scene any longer. Herbert himself was abused by his father when he was younger, suffering bruises on his body until he was a teenager, and being constantly called into the principal’s office. One day, he stood up to his father — he fought back and his father never beat him again. “Herbert in his own life had proof of how pain could move you forward. He’d confronted his abuser. It was painful for both of them, but now they were good.”
To Herbert, the suffering of the abuser has purpose and a point. It was vigilantism, “a way of proving that you are owning your sins and would not sin again.” For the sinner, the exile and condemnation are ways back into that world and community. Herbert refers to the dopamine rush sensation of inflicting pain on Emily like an orgasm and “getting high,” something that he now regrets feeding into. For the interviewers of NPR, this justice seemed imperfect: others were possibly harmed by Emily worse than J, and there is no doubt that there are far worse abusers than Emily towards women who are not called out. The call-out culture has also created a community of fear. However, was that the only option to cleanse the scene of hardcore punk sexism in Richmond? Some say the change was happening anyways.
Wow. That’s the only word I can think when I read the story of Emily, her friend, Herbert, and the hardcore punk community of Richmond. And I don’t think the instance of call-out culture exhibited by this community is an anomaly: I have personally seen it happen. Communities I am a part of have completely shut individuals out for not following the group’s unspoken code and creed. Our cultural moment now calls for martyrs. If there’s something that seems dreadfully wrong with call-out culture, Brooks best puts it into words: “You’ve immediately depersonalized everything. You’ve reduced complex human beings to simple good versus evil. You’ve eliminated any sense of proportion.”
In Brooks’s perspective, abuse is never over, but perpetuated in a “vengeful game of moral one-upmanship in which annihilation can come any second.” This podcast about call-out culture rings to me like Schadenfreude on steroids: although Emily accepted her actions in high school with responsibility and accepted her banishing from the hardcore punk community, there has to be another way, and a better way to advance civilization and humanity forward than ostracizing the people we once loved who we discover have erred. It’s admirable that some people prioritize the good of the whole group over themselves, but call-out culture is a brutally and, dare I say, regressive way of doing it. I side with Brooks in saying that the quest for justice must be “infused with a quality of mercy, an awareness of human frailty and a path to redemption.” We don’t need more martyrs and scapegoats. We need more compassion.