Calling-Out Call-Out Culture: The Oppression Within Social Media

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Facebook feeds once consisted of daily horoscopes and Candy Crush invites. Instagram was purely a place to upload selfies and pictures of social gatherings. Twitter served as a space for meaningless strings of tweets when one was bored. There came a day amidst these times when we began to notice that our social media accounts were no longer spaces of futility and innocence, but rather spaces of where we thought twice about the articles or videos we shared. Many may argue that their social media accounts no longer feel like they belong to them; owned by the public sphere of those who allow us to second guess ourselves and scroll with apprehension. These feelings are the fuel to the fire of the newly found controversy of “call-out culture.”

Call-out culture can be defined as the collective attitude of people who engage in the public ridicule of others (cradled by, but not limited to, social media) for actions/rhetoric that go against their beliefs. It was only recently that voices began to speak up on the toxicity of call-out culture and their belief that it is inherently oppressive.

Professor of Sociology at The American University in Cairo, Ilka Eickhof, believes that calling-out causes more harm than help. “I think calling someone out on social media is quite dangerous - a) because of its intrinsic algorithm; who sees what posts on his/her wall, and how that regulates how others engage with the material, and b) because social media is very much regulated by ego ('likes'), and popularity.”

The superficiality that exists within social media is notorious among users, and oftentimes, popularity could be all it takes to avoid a call-out. Those who engage in call-out culture are often perceived as “more well-read” or “more intelligent” for publicly posting their arguments with plentiful research and advanced vocabulary, or for defending an argument that is highly controversial, which is not necessarily true.

Despite that social media largely caters to social hierarchies, it is important to bear in mind that not all social media interactions will conform to what is popular or to one's personal preferences. Conor Friedersdorf, founding editor of The Best of Journalism, conducted a project in which he interviewed college undergraduates, asking if they felt they were better off before the age of social media; an overruling percentage of correspondents mentioned the stress of call-out culture. It was reported that too often students got worked up over the smallest of issues, such as memes or album covers meant to counteract politically-correct culture. Hari Ziyad, writer from Afropunk Magazine, believes that anger towards even counter-politically-correct-culture, is deserving of a call-out. “The anger and the harsh tone that generally come with call-out culture can just as often be a sign of love, as it can indicate the belief in the recipient’s capacity to be a better person. Anger at injustice is a right. If we deny that someone can show anger publicly and still come from a place of love –a place that is constructive– we are denying people their full range of emotions,” he says.

Within the context of Egyptian society, a highly talked about case of call-out culture took place just this summer, with entrepreneur and fashion blogger Hadia Ghaleb. Ghaleb announced her engagement on social-media, finally revealing who her mystery man was and introducing him as her, “French-Egyptian fiancée” who is “supportive of her career due to the fact that he is French.” This description led to the spewing of venom between many individuals; some thought Ghaleb was promoting a toxic mentality of Western superiority, while others saw her introduction of him devoid of any of these conflicts. In response, Ghaleb posted a video explaining that she believes the fact that her fiance is so supportive of her career is, “most probably because he is French” and that she did not appreciate the backlash she received. Those who had conflicts with the rhetoric of her announcement remained angered, and those who did not have any conflicts with her rhetoric continued to support her.

Another call-out took place with TV presenter, Reham Saeed. Often scrutinized for her misogynistic rhetoric, the last blow-up with Saeed was her biggest. Saeed had shared private photos to Facebook of a guest on her show who was sexually assaulted, in an effort to blame the victim for her assault. Saeed was sentenced a year in prison; but the sentence was reduced to a month, then two weeks.

The case with Ghaleb wades in the gray areas of call-out culture, where some people may have viewed the call-out as appropriate, whereas others may have not. Saeed on the other hand, receives a more black/white audience with her call-out. Ghaleb continues with her popularity on social media despite the hundreds of followers lost. Saeed is no longer the television sensation she was, but excerpts from her show are still sometimes shared and she is often referenced in relation to internalized misogyny in Egypt, which demonstrates that popularity is not always founded based upon “goodness,” but also controversy. The effects of call-out culture can have a spectrum of consequences, with Ghaleb’s case, consequences were more mild, but those of Saeed were severe.

Social media has enabled any and all of its users to call-out behavior they deem inappropriate. Some may argue that call-out culture is needed due to its ability to draw attention to problematic political and socio-cultural issues, while others believe it leads to toxicity and should not be entertained. Avoiding call-outs all together may lead to activism without implemented change, so some believe they have found a new and improved approach: to “call-in.”

Sian Ferguson, writer of “Calling In: A Quick Guide on When and How” and Ahmad Assam, writer of “A Note on Call-Out Culture,” both define “calling-in” as “reaching out privately to someone who is engaging in behavior which one disagrees with, and communicate as to why their perspective should be altered.” This perspective is viewed to be neither oppressive, nor a form of futile activism. In regards to calling-in, Eickhof states, “I don't think that privately reaching out can be termed as ‘remaining silent.’ It is may be more [of] a withdrawal from a sensationalist audience. In these terms I think it can be healthier, depending on who is involved, and what the problem is.”

Assam notes that “call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.”

Ziyad, however, believes that those against calling-out are oblivious to the fact that calling-in has even worse effects. “Calling-in could only lead to more abuse and an even more dangerous lack of accountability, whereas calling-out can help shine a light on the many violences that others have too easily been able to erase or ignore for centuries,” he says.

The three-way road between calling-out, avoiding all forms of calling-out, and calling-in, is a new phenomena that today’s generation has a lot to contribute to, and regardless of which road is chosen, it is crucial that we take into consideration that our actions include accepted diversity, and exclude oppression.

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