Is Call-Out Cul­ture Toxic?

Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - ONLINE LIFE -

Call-out cul­ture is a form of on­line ac­tivism where you di­rectly chal­lenge dis­crim­i­na­tion, ‘nam­ing and sham­ing’ per­pe­tra­tors of prej­u­dice on­line. To ‘call some­one out’ is to put prob­lem­atic be­hav­iour pub­licly in the spot­light – the way Rose McGowan called out Har­vey We­in­stein on Twit­ter (re­peat­edly, along with men and women in Hol­ly­wood she claimed pro­tected him) as part of the #MeToo move­ment. Not only did it sig­nal the end of We­in­stein’s ca­reer, it also helped other women come for­ward.

But there is a flip side. Can you tweet that some­one was racist or sex­ist if you don’t have proof? What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween free­dom of ex­pres­sion and defama­tion? And when does call-out cul­ture turn into cy­ber­bul­ly­ing?

You’re ready to move on – but the In­ter­net isn’t

‘Last year, a tweet of mine went vi­ral,’ says Le­sego ‘Thick Leey­once’ Le­gob­ane, an in­flu­encer in the body­pos­i­tiv­ity move­ment, model and pho­tog­ra­pher in Jo’burg. ‘A guy had tweeted that girls who look like me are into him but he’s never into us.’ He was re­fer­ring to Le­gob­ane’s curvy shape. ‘I replied with: “I don’t like you.”’ Le­gob­ane’s sim­ple, punchy re­sponse ex­ploded, with more than 300 000 retweets. Then things turned. ‘Peo­ple found that I’d writ­ten some­thing of­fen­sive on Twit­ter about skinny girls in 2013. I’ve been called out ever since,’ she says. She had tweeted, ‘I feel so bad for skinny bitches whose thighs don’t touch! I bet their vagi­nas are frozen AF when it’s cold out­side’ – worlds away from the body-pos­i­tive Thick Leey­once we know to­day. She wrote that tweet dur­ing a dark time. ‘It was a psy­cho­log­i­cal re­sult of be­liev­ing I wasn’t enough,’ she ex­plains. ‘I was 18. I had self-es­teem is­sues. But I hope I don’t have to keep apol­o­gis­ing for the same thing for the rest of my life.’

When her old post was high­lighted, peo­ple tweeted things such as, ‘ Thick­lee is an ex­am­ple of an in­di­vid­ual who forms part of a marginalised group but is also prob­lem­atic and con­tra­dicts her own pol­i­tics.’ It was a bru­tal ex­pe­ri­ence for Le­gob­ane. Peo­ple were col­lect­ing re­ceipts. ‘ That tweet resur­faced again and again,’ she says. ‘When any­thing big was about to hap­pen in my life, peo­ple would be like, “Don’t be too quick to cel­e­brate her – she’s this kind of per­son be­cause re­mem­ber what she said”.’ Le­gob­ane had grown since 2013, and af­ter a heart­felt apol­ogy she wanted to move on – but her re­ceipts wouldn’t let her.

WTF is col­lect­ing re­ceipts?

The lan­guage at­tached to call-out cul­ture is as­so­ci­ated with col­lect­ing ‘re­ceipts’. This ‘re­ceipt’ trail is like dig­i­tal bread­crumbs lead­ing back to ev­i­dence such as screen­shots of so­cial me­dia ac­tiv­ity point­ing to prob­lem­atic be­hav­iour. Be­cause if you post some­thing on the In­ter­net, you’d bet­ter be ready for some­one to screen­shot it, and know it’ll live on­line for­ever.

‘I don’t think peo­ple re­alise how per­ma­nent so­cial me­dia is,’ says so­cial me­dia lawyer and founder of the Dig­i­tal Law Com­pany Emma Sadleir. ‘You can send a nude now and it’ll come back in four years. It’s not just putting con­tent on so­cial that can leave you vul­ner­a­ble: it’s What­sApp mes­sages that get screen­shot; it can be the way you be­have in pub­lic that gets recorded on cam­era and shared on­line.’

Re­ceipts can high­light in­con­sis­ten­cies and sep­a­rate truth from fic­tion. But at the same time, if you’re ac­tively hunt­ing for dirt on some­one’s pro­file, you’re bound to find it. Af­ter all, we’ve all had a bad mo­ment, stupid tweet or drunken post we re­gret.

Le­gob­ane is now an ad­vo­cate for body pos­i­tiv­ity. (Side note: we adore her.) But she’s had to atone time and again for some­thing she said years ago. Sure, it’s im­por­tant not to ig­nore on­line be­hav­iour that per­pet­u­ates the sys­tems we’re work­ing hard to dis­man­tle – racism, sex­ism, body sham­ing. But when do we dis­tin­guish be­tween call­ing out for the cause and cy­ber­bul­ly­ing?

‘Peo­ple change,’ says Le­gob­ane. ‘What I tweet to­day could be dif­fer­ent to what I tweet next year.’

What does the law say?

Call-out cul­ture can be used as a de­fence against trolls. If you con­stantly get abu­sive DMs, you can take con­trol by shar­ing screen­shots with your fol­low­ers – and of­ten si­lence a troll who re­sponds to be­ing shamed in front of the world. For many, it’s the only way to draw at­ten­tion to the dis­crim­i­na­tion they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. But know this: your call­ing out of some­one on­line isn’t above the law.

‘It makes no dif­fer­ence whether call­ing out hap­pens on What­sApp, Face­book or on the front page of the Sun­day

Times – all of our pub­li­ca­tion laws kick in as soon as even a sin­gle per­son has seen it,’ says Sadleir. ‘If you’re call­ing some­one out on­line, what you’re say­ing needs to be in the pub­lic in­ter­est (such as any­thing il­le­gal tak­ing place), and it needs to be true. If those things don’t add up, you could be sued for defama­tion.’

Defama­tion is if some­one says some­thing ma­li­cious about you that hurts your rep­u­ta­tion, isn’t true and isn’t in the pub­lic in­ter­est to know. ‘You have to show that the be­hav­iour you’re out­ing is in the pub­lic in­ter­est,’ says Sadleir. ‘You can’t just get away with say­ing what­ever. But you can be sued if what you say hurts some­one’s rep­u­ta­tion.’

‘When we read stuff on­line, we’re quick to jump on what’s trend­ing with­out nec­es­sar­ily un­der­stand­ing what’s go­ing on,’ says Le­gob­ane. ‘I’ve done it my­self. Be­fore you do any call­ing out, do your re­search. Go on their time­line, see what they’re about.’ In essence, give some­one the ben­e­fit of the doubt that you’d ap­pre­ci­ate your­self.

If you post some­thing on the In­ter­net, you’d bet­ter be ready for some­one to screen­shot it, and know it’ll live on­line for­ever

‘My rule is the “bill­board test”,’ says Sadleir. ‘If you wouldn’t put it on a bill­board, with your num­ber next to your face, you shouldn’t put it any­where on so­cial me­dia.’

What about the Cy­ber­crimes Bill cur­rently be­ing pro­posed by the gov­ern­ment? Mur­ray Hunter, spokesper­son for the NGO Right2Know, says it might de­feat the role the In­ter­net plays in ac­tivism. ‘It lays the ground­work for heavy-handed state polic­ing of so­cial me­dia users,’ he says. ‘Free­dom of ex­pres­sion must be pro­tected on­line.’ At the time of go­ing to print, the bill had not yet been passed.

When call­ing out be­comes cy­ber­bul­ly­ing

‘Call-out cul­ture can be in­for­ma­tive and non­toxic,’ says Le­gob­ane. ‘I’ve been called out on stuff I didn’t un­der­stand at a par­tic­u­lar time – some­body would be like, “Nah, sis, you’re wrong”, and I learnt some­thing. But some peo­ple have ma­li­cious in­ten­tions – they’ll come at you ag­gres­sively, specif­i­cally to hu­mil­i­ate you.’ That’s when it can be­come cy­ber­bul­ly­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2017 Statista sur­vey mea­sur­ing the im­pact on women ex­pe­ri­enc­ing on­line abuse, 66% of re­spon­dents had a feel­ing of pow­er­less­ness in their abil­ity to re­spond to abuse on­line. Bul­ly­ing is typ­i­fied by some­one tak­ing power away from some­one else, and mak­ing them feel worth­less or help­less. It’s also of­ten repet­i­tive – re­peat­edly tweet­ing some­one or post­ing about them rather than call­ing some­one out and mov­ing on.

Be­ing cy­ber­bul­lied? Here’s what you can do

‘You can take le­gal ac­tion by get­ting a pro­tec­tion or­der, send­ing a let­ter of de­mand or a cease and de­sist let­ter,’ says Sadleir. The Pro­tec­tion from Ha­rass­ment Act in­cludes on­line and phys­i­cal ha­rass­ment – the same rights ap­ply on­line as off­line. You can ap­ply for a pro­tec­tion or­der even if you don’t know the per­son harassing you. Take these steps:

Com­plete an Ap­pli­ca­tion for Pro­tec­tion Or­der (you’ll find it at Jus­tice.gov.za), and fill in an af­fi­davit at the near­est po­lice sta­tion.

Lodge the com­pleted form with your lo­cal mag­is­trate’s court. (Look for the Clerk of the Court.)

The court may is­sue an in­terim or­der to pro­tect you dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Divorcelaws.co.za, ‘A pro­tec­tion or­der, also called a re­strain­ing or­der or do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in­ter­dict, is a court or­der that tells an abuser to stop the abuse and sets cer­tain con­di­tions pre­vent­ing the abuser from harassing or abus­ing the vic­tim again.’

If nec­es­sary, the court will make this a fi­nal or­der and is­sue a war­rant of ar­rest if the ha­rass­ment con­tin­ues.

Can call­ing in be a bet­ter way?

There is an al­ter­na­tive to call-out cul­ture: call­ing in. But call­ing in risks pro­tect­ing per­pe­tra­tors of so­cial vi­o­lence. Writer Asam Ah­mad, who coined the term, sug­gests that the pub­lic na­ture of call­ing out can do more harm than good. ‘Call­ing in means speak­ing pri­vately with an in­di­vid­ual who has done some­thing wrong, in or­der to ad­dress the be­hav­iour with­out mak­ing a spec­ta­cle of the ad­dress it­self,’ he says.

But this kind of com­pro­mise could make con­ces­sions for op­pres­sors – you can still be at­tacked in the pri­vacy of your in­box. And why should it be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of op­pressed groups to ap­proach big­ots and give them an op­por­tu­nity to con­vince us that they’re not the worst?

This is the chal­lenge of call­ing in – but there are sce­nar­ios where peo­ple will re­spond more pro­duc­tively to a pri­vate con­fronta­tion.

Call-out cul­ture shouldn’t be about hunt­ing peo­ple down and bul­ly­ing them – and if you’re call­ing out with the right in­ten­tion, it shouldn’t need to be. Be­sides, if call-out cul­ture can bring down Hol­ly­wood’s pa­tri­archy, cor­rupt gov­ern­ments and racist in­sti­tu­tions, then it has the power to do im­mense good.

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