Is call-out culture making perfect the enemy of the good?

Zoya Patel 18 February 2021 37
Wedding cake toppers

Should heteronormative assumptions be called out, even if the speaker is a passionate supporter of LGBTQIA* rights? Photo: File.

Call-out culture is a phrase that seems to twig the ears of every far-left and far-right keyboard warrior out there (I can almost see you flexing your knuckles and getting ready to dive into the comment section from here), but at its core, the concept is not a bad one.

Before it became synonymous with snowflakes and self-proclaimed victims everywhere, the notion that we should actively and regularly call out people for their prejudice – be it racist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic or sexist – is a good one. Of course, people should be held to account for their views, when they’re linked to systems of inequality.

If someone says something or behaves in a prejudiced way, they should absolutely be called out for it and advised of the potential consequences of their views and actions. I can also accept how this extends to the use of language that is in our common vocabulary, but that is grounded in prejudice that was the norm in the past.

For example, it is no longer appropriate to use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. I grew up with things being labelled ‘so gay’ as a synonym for ‘pathetic or uncool’. Now, thanks to a continuous conversation on LGBTQIA* rights, most of us accept that the term ‘gay’ should not be used in a derogatory way. The same can be said of ableist slurs like ‘retard’ (once the catch cry of schoolyard insults), and many other terms that once were used widely and now are recognised as being insulting and inappropriate.

Some would call this “political correctness gone mad”. I would say that progressing our collective vocabulary to be more inclusive and conscious of discrimination and inequality is a good thing – even if it takes individuals some time to get used to it.

I think that awareness and change happen in phases, and the same methods won’t work forever. Where call-out culture has played an essential role in building awareness of the normalisation of prejudice in society, it now borders on undoing its own gains by becoming so ubiquitous as to be irrelevant.

The missing factor, in my opinion, is context.

For example, if someone is a progressive person who you know isn’t homophobic, and they’ve demonstrated their support for LGBTQIA rights, and you witness them accidentally reverting to heteronormative assumptions (for example, asking a man they’ve just met about their wife, without considering that they may be gay), is it necessary to call this out expressly and tell them that they’re being heteronormative? Or could you just say, “I’m gay, actually, and my boyfriend is well”, without making a bigger deal out of it?


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Or, as happened to me recently, if you know that someone is an out and proud feminist who has spent almost their entire working career in the women’s sector, writing feminist content and advocating for gender equality, should you call them out for using gendered language (in this case, using the term ‘guys’ as a gender-neutral term for a group, which can be seen to be not inclusive of women and non-binary people)?

Or should you assume that they have no intention of excluding anyone based on gender and that they’ve demonstrated this in action, to the point where you can be confident that their use of a term isn’t intended to be prejudiced?

I have no problem with being called out and am more than happy to remove the term ‘guys’ from my vocabulary (though it’s proving difficult to train my brain to drop it). I accept that there is always more to learn and that we can all continuously improve our understanding of equality to build a more inclusive society.

But I did pause to wonder if this degree of call-out culture is perhaps going to be the undoing of its efficacy. People already feel that everyone is too sensitive about political correctness. Once the politically correct start policing their own, and context or past behaviour is wiped out by a single error, surely it’s opening up the movement to ridicule and irrelevance.

I have no doubt that there will never be an end to the need to actively call out and address prejudice when it occurs – but are we getting too bogged down in the detail, and making perfect the enemy of good? Is there still a role for call-out culture to play, or do we need to change the dynamic to stay effective?


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37 Responses to Is call-out culture making perfect the enemy of the good?
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Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 7:21 pm 22 Feb 21

What this article demonstrates more than anything else is the amount of energy we waste on trivialities. There was I thinking that we’re all big boys and girls (and yes there are only 2 genders, the rest is in your head). So what if someone mistakenly asks a gay guy about his presupposed “wife”. After all, this is a term that applies to that large proportion of the population that is straight, married and chooses to call their life partner their “husband” or their “wife”. And before we get away from that thought, isn’t it also true that a significant proportion of gay guys who choose to exercise their right to marry proudly call their partner their “husband” while a similar proportion of gay women in that situation choose to call their life partner their “wife”? If they didn’t do this, what would have been the point of that great push to be allowed to be married? The gay community was determined to appropriate these terms from traditional marriage and they got their wish through the 2017 plebiscite, which included them in the marriage circle. And before everyone gets hung up about my interpretation of the use of the word “guys”, I also acknowledge and participate in that other relaxed use of language, whereby someone addressing a group comprising people from both genders uses the terms “guys” as a collective noun for the group. That’s actually a sign of people being relaxed about trivialities and instead focussed on what really matters in life. Perhaps we should all try that!

    IrishPete IrishPete 1:54 pm 23 Feb 21

    In my biology classes in a Catholic secondary school 40 years ago, we were taught (rightly) there were more than two genders/sexes. Is Australia really so far behind the rest of the world? It’s basic genetics.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:29 am 24 Feb 21

    If they believed and taught that one could say that the Catholic Church actually “practiced what it preached”.

cockneyreject cockneyreject 6:48 pm 21 Feb 21

This article is a hoot. “Once the politically correct start policing their own, and context or past behaviour is wiped out by a single error, surely it’s opening up the movement to ridicule and irrelevance. “. Oh dear. You wouldn’t want that.

Here’s a suggestion. Option 1 is for someone with appropriate qualifications in gender studies etc to write a really complex rule book for the call out Hall Monitors setting out rules on (a) what should be called and what should not; (b) who should be called out and who should not (hint, that might depend on your skin colour etc); (c) the severity of punishment (ritual punishment of Twitter followed by the usual grovelling self-abatement, or loss of job?).

That would be a long book and would have to go through multiple committees.

Option 2 is to bring back Donald Trump, with no more Mr Nice Guy this time.

Option 3 is to bring back John Stuart Mill and Voltaire, at least in spirit. That would be my preferred option.

    Annie Mills Annie Mills 1:30 pm 22 Feb 21

    Trump was never nice, and if you think he was you are as deluded as he is orange.

    Here’s another suggestion, how about treating others the way you would like to be treated. But I guess that is too difficult for one such as yourself.

    keek keek 1:40 pm 22 Feb 21

    Ahhh, another instance of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
    Many such cases!

    cockneyreject cockneyreject 4:50 pm 22 Feb 21

    Precisely. 🙂

    cockneyreject cockneyreject 4:34 pm 22 Feb 21

    No he’s not nice. I was being ironic. The point I was trying to make is that the excesses of one side of politics may lead to even worse behaviour by the other.

    Annie Mills Annie Mills 5:15 pm 22 Feb 21

    Except people on the conservative side of politics like to take umbrage at being held to account for their racism, misogyny, sexism, bigotry etc when those very people have born the brunt of far worse but are now having the audacity to say “enough”.

    cockneyreject cockneyreject 7:46 am 23 Feb 21

    Except except…

    Most practitioners of cancellation have thought they are justified. As someone has noted here, it’s been around for a long time. Ayatollahs, witch hunters, provincial Red-Guard committees in China in the 1960s (probably the rough template behind adopted now on Twitter), puritans and roundheads, families who sobbed in there own during the period of the Committee of Public Safety in France, the masses who resented successful Jews in the 1930s in Central Europe. Yada yada.

    And generally the practitioners haven’t been the oppressed. They’ve generally been middle class self-appointed ‘champions’ of the (supposedly) oppressed.

    And usually the ‘movement’s fizzle as autophagy sets in, which is probably what we’re seeing now.

    Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 7:24 pm 22 Feb 21

    Suggest you should get acquainted with the world of irony.

Annie Mills Annie Mills 8:39 am 20 Feb 21

It’s funny that people think ‘cancel culture’ is a new phenomenon. It’s been around for ever, it’s just now the conservative side of the political spectrum is being held to account and they can’t cope. Makes it easy to spot the real snowflakes doesn’t it.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 3:31 pm 20 Feb 21

    Held to account for what, asking for reasons why the loony-left people want to change things?

    PS: Plenty of snowflakes in the northern hemisphere at present. Why is this happening when you predictions were it wasn’t going to snow again?

    Jay Bee Jay Bee 9:46 pm 21 Feb 21

    There’s a thing called a polar vortex. It’s been predicted for years that exactly what is happening now in America would happen as consequence of global warming.
    You might want to read about it before making your next comment about how cold weather means global warming is not a thing. Or not. Having read your previous contributions I suspect you’ll go with the latter option.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:07 am 22 Feb 21

    Yeah, I’ve heard of it. It’s a permanent phenomena like climate change and it activates periodically due to natural solar changes. Like glaciers receding and advancing every 30 years it’s a totally normal.

    I’m not surprised that you warmists have “claimed it” like “extreme weather” as a consequence of your claimed man made carbon dioxide fueled version of climate change.

    Sorry, global warming is “not a thing”, either.

    Annie Mills Annie Mills 1:29 pm 22 Feb 21

    for starters, people to the left of you on the political spectrum are not necessarily ‘lefties’. In fact, given your inability to grasp basic concepts, people to the left of you would still be right wing. And change is inevitable. Get with it or get off the bus.
    As for your second ridiculous statement, try Newton’s third law.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 7:54 am 23 Feb 21

    Next thing you will be saying “go to your homes and await instructions”. Am I on your list already?

Acton Acton 11:20 pm 18 Feb 21

Latent totalitarian tendencies are evident in those who bully others into linguistic submission. Here is a manifestation of ‘Newspeak’ that George Orwell warned us about in 1984. Control people and suppress thoughts by controlling language. Our ancestors fought against these totalitarian traits but they bubble to the surface in this new generation.

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 9:00 pm 18 Feb 21

“Calling out” – the concept and the phrase, is too often deployed like the moral equivalent of a Star Wars lightsaber, by people who seem to think that it magically gives their views, opinions and prejudices the sanctity of incontrovertible truths and makes them a self-appointed witch-finder.

franky22 franky22 4:54 pm 18 Feb 21

Yep chewy14 is spot on. I would love some organisation to stand up to the cancel bullies & refuse to sack the person concerned.

DJA DJA 2:39 pm 18 Feb 21

People who work with projects and other change management activities have always known that ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good’. Perhaps your title does not mean what you think it means?

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:25 am 18 Feb 21

“I grew up with things being labelled ‘so gay’ as a synonym for ‘pathetic or uncool’. “

I grew up with gay meaning happy. It was a word used a lot in poetry. I can’t understand how it was chosen to masquerade as another word for homosexual.

    JS9 JS9 1:14 pm 18 Feb 21

    Well CR, it has been, whether you can comprehend or not how it was.

    Like many words, meanings deviate and change over time.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 3:16 pm 18 Feb 21

    Not in my house JS9.

    JS9 JS9 8:42 am 19 Feb 21

    Well we both know CR you ideal house is a cave, so it doesn’t suprise me.

    But you are simply denying reality if you think words meanings don’t deviate over time.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 11:11 am 19 Feb 21

    The point I was making JS9 was that I can’t understand how the word “gay” was chosen to masquerade as another word for homosexual.

    Why wasn’t “sad” chosen instead?

    astro2 astro2 12:47 pm 19 Feb 21

    The word “gay” was chosen” instead of “sad” because we’re not all bigoted homophobes.

    keek keek 2:51 pm 19 Feb 21

    LOL
    When one of the eternally offended is outraged by a question of how a word came to have a different meaning.

    This is your mind on “woke” and social justice. Remember kids, not even once.

    JS9 JS9 3:57 pm 19 Feb 21

    Put it in the same basket as me wondering why some people in this world truly would prefer living in the dark age, and are resistant to any change to almost anything…

    keek keek 4:55 pm 19 Feb 21

    Probably the same basket as me wondering why people look for things to be offended by, and think everybody should follow their “Cult of woke” mentality.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 6:17 pm 19 Feb 21

    Remember that old caveat covering competition results, changes in regulation, policies etc.?

    “The judges decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.”

    Instead of debating why the meaning of a word changed, I am abused and called a cave dwelling homophobic bigot.

    astro2 astro2 9:54 pm 19 Feb 21

    It’s already been debated, you just didn’t get the outcome you wanted. Definitely time to move on.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 11:50 am 20 Feb 21

    Sounds like I have been cancelled.

keek keek 8:52 am 18 Feb 21

Yeah, I have better things to care about than the feelings of the eternally offended. Quite happy to continue to be politically incorrect.

chewy14 chewy14 7:56 am 18 Feb 21

It’s funny that the author thinks call out culture is a good thing yet then goes on to describe the exact reasons why it isn’t.

Call out culture (and it’s cousin Cancel Culture) have nothing to do with ending prejudice, they are all about controlling people, their thoughts, their speech and their language.

They are attempts to force people to conform to the identity politics that pervades so much of modern left wing thought, with a slippery slope of ever more ridiculous demands as outlined neatly by the author.

Which is extremely ironic considering these people claim to be the bastions of diversity, whilst in reality being more rigid and dogmatic than most religions in their unwillingness to hear differing thoughts.

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