Why the Toxic “Call Out” Culture on Social Media Needs to Go

Social Commentary

Why the Toxic “Call Out” Culture on Social Media Needs to Go

Illustration: Akshita Monga


I’ve learned a lot from social media. Apart from the addictive advantage of being able to stealthily stalk exes, frenemies, and nemeses, and seethe over their good fortunes privately, social media enriches my world every day. It helps me engage with ideas and people my real life would be hard-pressed to allow me access to. It’s sharpened my debating skills, helped me recognise gaps in my knowledge, and very often serves as the incisive gut check every writer needs. Existing on social media can be a humbling and elevating experience for those among us who have the good sense to not be swept away by ridiculous notions of self-importance.

However, life on social media has also given me crippling, can’t-sleep-all-night, can’t-face-the-world anxiety. It’s tough to pinpoint the exact moment that led to the feeling, but it’s crept up on me over the last few months, spiking uncomfortably every time I see someone reduced to one ill-conceived utterance, one bad joke, or one messed-up belief, after a swift, merciless trial by social media.

I’m qualified to call it swift and merciless because I’ve often found myself a part of the mob, fervently calling out the transgressions of others, content in greasing the wheels of interminable 24/7 social justice machinery. I have to admit that I’ve profited off of people’s PR disasters; swift to unpack unsettling beliefs, “cancel” problematic people, and argue dubious politics. From sexism to Islamophobia, racism to fat phobia, and casteism to bigotry, I never hesitated in opining on other people’s opinion, especially when said opinion belonged to someone famous. It seemed like important work — when you have millions of people hanging on to every word of yours, you need to be held accountable for your words. I believed — still do believe — that when you have the power to tilt public opinion on a matter, that power needs to be wielded with a lot of care and common sense. It is an unfortunate reality of our times that most of this opinion-shaping power rests in people thoroughly unqualified to help us form an educated, nuanced opinion on matters of consequence.  

So does Hardik Pandya deserve to be criticised for his sexist jokes on Koffee With Karan? Absolutely. Is it okay to question why Bollywood still manages to get it so miserably wrong when talking about sexual harassment and MeToo? Or pointedly wonder how men like Louis CK and Kevin Spacey find the confidence to try and stage comebacks even though all evidence points to them having learned nothing at all during their forced exiles? Hell, yes.

However, life on social media has also given me crippling, can’t-sleep-all-night, can’t-face-the-world anxiety.

But amid holding people accounting for what they say, it has to be remembered: People are more, much more, than one moment in their evolution. It’s a small but significant detail that is lost in the aggressively hostile calling out culture, fuelled by the dopamine hits that come with self-congratulatory virtue signalling and being hailed as the arbiter of change.

Who doesn’t want that? In the end, all anyone really wants is to be accepted and admired. But when the hunger for adulation becomes so all-consuming that it requires a deliberate and very public evisceration of what we deem unacceptable, there is a problem. Because far too often, in our haste to tear something down in an attempt to hoist ourselves up, we forget — or deliberately ignore because we no longer care about anything other than where we’re going to get our next fix of flattery from — that we’re ripping people, not ideas to shreds. And destroying people comes with far-reaching consequences.

It is entirely possible to dissect Pandya and his ilk’s misogynistic comments without unleashing the internet equivalent of a lynch mob on him or any of the countless celebrities who harbour similar sentiments, but have the sense to make the right noises when in public. If the point of calling out is to get a person to actually see the problem in their thoughts, words or actions, it requires engagement that runs deeper and is more meaningful than moving from one prey to another.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Hindu household, frequented by members of political parties that the adult me finds appalling. My grandparents were close friends with people I would now leave home to avoid if they were to be our dinner guests ever again. Naturally then, I grew up internalising deeply troubling ideas about caste, class, community, and religion. Ironically, even though I was always the black sheep within the family fold for rejecting the discriminatory rhetoric being spewed around me, outside, in a world devoid of the context of my upbringing, I would still qualify as an entitled, discriminating prick with blind spots the size of moon craters when it came to the politics of identity.

Even so, the internet never forgets.

It’s taken me over a decade of unlearning and re-educating myself to slowly chip away at the vexing ideas I had internalised. The person I was and the things I believed, 15 years ago, have very little in common with who I am today, and I thank my stars every day that I grew up at a time when there was no social media to immortalise every idiotic, half-baked, sometimes perplexing thoughts that tumbled through my head. And even then, when I sometimes read my tweets and Facebook posts from my early days on social media, they make me cringe before I can find solace in the fact that my acute embarrassment is proof that I have evolved and grown.

Even so, the internet never forgets. And every so often, when someone, somewhere takes umbrage to something I’ve said, their first line of offence is to dig up a tweet or a post from a lifetime ago and use it as evidence to prove what a phony I am. More than once, I’ve been sorely tempted to discreetly sanitise the archives of my public pronouncements simply to avoid the embarrassment if it comes back to haunt me in later life. But to do that would be to deny the journey of my growth: I did not arrive here on my own — I was forgiven a thousand times for a thousand stupid things I said and thought, along the way.

And that’s what’s lacking in the snitch tradition of the call out industry – the ability to forgive, or even simply empathise with human failings without using it as a label to define the person from that point on. This call out culture has no real friends, and no real beliefs either. Most of us choose the causes we support and tailor what we say depending on how popular our opinions are among our followers. Stripped away of its altruistic packaging, armchair activism is little more than an elaborate and ongoing market study in aid of personal brand-building.

When you’re part of the social media mob, it’s easy to be lulled into the false sense of security that it will never turn on you. But the call out culture is a ravenous beast that must be fed, and all it takes is one misstep for it to bare its fangs at you. Where do you hide then?