The court of public opinion can be a cruel and sometimes fickle place — especially now as social media becomes one of the most prevalent sources where individual opinions have the power to rally the masses. What’s been known as “call-out culture” or “cancel culture” was initially seen as a way to unite people to voice their collective opinions for positive change. But as this phenomenon has grown so has its reach and its lasting impact, leaving some to question if “call-out culture” and “cancel culture” have turned into a new form of cyberbullying.
Call-Out Culture vs. Cancel Culture
Call-out culture, also known as outrage culture, is a form of public shaming where people identify offenses and publicly “call out” the offenders in an effort to shame and punish them. By placing the supposed offender and their offending actions in the public eye, accusers hope to hold them accountable for their actions.
Cancel culture describes a social media-based boycott for when someone is called out for doing something offensive. “Victims” of cancel culture are left “canceled” — with a significantly smaller following and a tarnished reputation. This can happen to anyone, from school outcasts to cheerleaders, or famous actresses to influencers.
According to Insider, call-out culture came first around the 2010’s, while cancel culture is a term and idea that began developing around 2016 on Twitter.
While these ideas may be new to social media Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center reminds us that the idea itself is not new at all. “Cancel culture is a new name for something that’s been going for a long time,” she tells Parentology. “In other words, cancel culture is, in some forms, boycotting.”
What’s the difference? According to Rutledge, the intent is differentiating factor. “The calling out has more of the educating and the canceling has more of the bullying/shaming element.”
The Good vs. The Bad
Call-out culture can be an effective way to gather support, especially for a group of marginalized individuals. The most notable example of this is probably the #metoo movement.
“It started out as a means of unempowered people who were afraid to come forward, so that there became that collective sense of agency. It enabled people who were feeling vulnerable or marginalized or unheard a chance to step forward and be heard,” Rutledge says.
The hashtag became a way for millions of people on social media to feel less isolated, and eventually brought on the call for social change around sexual harassment and abuse. Now, however, everyday citizens risk being canceled if people on social media simply don’t agree with your beliefs.
Rutledge warns that this nuance makes “cancel culture” different from traditional boycotting or even a greater social movement like #metoo. That’s because social media moves at such a rapid pace that complex thoughts are often distilled into succinct posts or even hashtags, so the context and distinction behind those thoughts are often lost.
“Those kinds of things truncate thought and they keep you from any nuance,” Rutledge warns, noting that people’s calls for cancellation are usually quick and not always thought out. Where there is a lot of information available because of the internet and social media, not all of it is accurate or factual. Rutledge cautions individuals to take their time and examine a situation completely before acting.
“It’s when you’re encouraging other people to take an action [against someone] without critical thinking,” she tells Parentology. “This is really where people have to figure out their values and really rely on critical thinking instead of emotional response.”
Is Canceling Necessary?
Before social media, it was possible to disagree with someone’s political views or even their behavior, but that alone did not necessarily necessitate that person or company should be “canceled” for it. In fact, Rutledge warns that this idea is fairly contradictory to one of the tenets of our justice system.
“Accusing people of something violates the entire justice system—innocent until proven guilty — whereas there are elements of cancel culture that take people down without due process,” she notes.
Cancel culture seems to have grown rapidly in recent years, but will it always be this way? Rutledge doesn’t believe so.
“It’s definitely hit a crescendo,” she says. “There is an awareness now that’s growing where people start to say ‘We’ve been doing this, but why?’” Rutledge believes that it’s not an issue of free speech, but determining what kind of speech is meant to be productive and positive and what kind of speech is only seeking to hurt.
“We’re in that difficult period where it hasn’t really gone away, but what are the implications?”