"Call-out culture" might be at its peak on college campuses, but the underlying phenomenon is familiar to anyone who uses social media. Someone says something provocative, lug-headed, or flat-out racist/sexist/transphobic, and the response is a tsunami of criticism that often drives the offender from the debate.
Is this way of operating good or bad? Does it effectively chase bigots back under the rock they should never have crawled out from? Or is it just a form of self-congratulatory showing off that leaves everyone worse off?
Many have weighed in on the merits of the constant contest to see who is most "woke" online, including President Obama (not a fan of call-out culture) and public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates (who points out that kids being loud on Twitter is really not our main problem).
So has science, and study after study suggests that while saying dumb, cruel, or bigoted things is very bad, jumping in to attack every public misstep both harms those dishing out the moral outrage and strengthens the beliefs of those who are called out.
Sorry, but your online outrage is counterproductive
When someone says something dumb or cruel on social media, the immediate pile-on of loud criticism often makes it look like the whole world is united in judgment. But don't mistake the loudest members of the conversation for all the members of the conversation.
While criticism tends to snowball on social media, quieter processes are going on in the background, research reveals. One recent series of studies showed that online outrage convinced onlookers "it was 'more normative' to express condemnation." However, they also thought the "outrage was excessive and felt more sympathy for the offender," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog.
Or, to put that into everyday language, shouting at people online causes those that witness the fight to think shouting at people online is more OK. But it also tends to make them feel bad for the person being shouted at. Intense outrage actually makes people sympathize for the recipient of that outrage.
That's pretty much the worst possible pair of outcomes. Call-out culture erodes the social norms that allow people to have measured and potentially opinion-changing conversations, while at the same time causing people to feel bad for the very person angry commentators were trying to make a pariah. People don't feel angry at those who say offensive stuff, but they do feel more free to go on the attack at a moment's notice.
No one likes a moral grandstander
And it's not just that online pile-ups of outrage are counterproductive in their goal of shaming away troubling beliefs. They also say less than positive things about those who take it upon themselves to act as public thought police, according to other research on "moral grandstanding."
This is another term that might not be familiar to people who don't spend massive amounts of time on Twitter, but it's a behavior you've definitely encountered. It's when people publicly show off their values for others to admire.
"Moral grandstanding occurs when people use moral talk ... to promote themselves or seek status," explains psychologist Joshua Grubbs on The Conversation. "For moral grandstanders, conversation is a means to an end -- not a free exchange of ideas."
Most of us know from being on the receiving end of such moral self-congratulation that it can be intensely annoying. But obviously people lose sight of that truth or call-out culture wouldn't be as popular as it is. Grubbs's research confirms that we pay a reputational price when we forget this truth and try to show off how holy we are.
Everyone moral grandstands to some degree, but people who spend a lot of time touting their moral credentials "were more likely to experience discord in their personal lives" and "reported more toxic social media behaviors."
For those deeply committed to social justice, being a bit less popular might sound like a fair price to pay for a more equitable world, but if that's you, see the study above (as well as other research showing that foisting information that contradicts people's worldviews on them usually backfires, causing them to dig into their existing beliefs). Bashing people just makes others sympathize with them and usually strengthens their beliefs. The fact that it also makes people dislike you is just a nasty byproduct of this failure.
It's still not OK to say bigoted stuff
All of which isn't to say we should all just smile and nod along when people say wretched, wrong things. Pushing back against bigotry and irrational thinking remains essential. All this science just suggests that outraged shouting on social media is probably the worst possible way to do that. What works better? Sorry, it's a lot more labor intensive.