Thoughts on Call-Out Culture
There’s a beautiful story in the Bible that goes like this:
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I wrote about it before in a post called Cast the First Love. I’m bringing it up again in light of today’s Call Out Culture or Outrage Culture, which is defined as:
Call-out culture (also known as outrage culture) is a term for the social phenomenon of publicly denouncing perceived racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry. Denunciation (“call-outs”) can happen in person or online.
A good example of this were the recent events surrounding a horrific bullying video that came from a prominent high school in the Philippines. I’m not going to talk about what happened in the video. I know what I saw (and it looks bad), but I also know that I am many times deceived by what I see, either through not seeing the full picture or seeing things wrongly. This leads me to my first issue with Call Out Culture:
As seen in the definition, it is publicly denouncing perceivedevil acts.
There’s a big difference between publicly denouncing evil acts and publicly denouncing perceived evil acts.
A good example of this was given by the author Stephen Covey:
“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt like was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what do think, and I guess they don’t know who to handle it either.”
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”
His paradigm, his perception of the man and the situation, changed when he found out about the bigger story. At first perception, he felt justified to correct the man. With a clarified perception, a view that included the man’s pain, not only his own inconvenience, his righteous indignation turned to compassion. This leads me to my next issue with Call Out Culture:
Call Out Culture shrinks the humanity of both the offender and the offended to the pain and the offense, and this isn’t good for both of them. When a person is narrowed to their pain, they become a victim, and victimhood isn’t healthy at all, no matter how deserved it seems. When a person is narrowed to their offence, they become evil, they are stripped of the other elements of their humanity, which makes restitution not just unlikely but impossible, for who wants to be restored to evil.
What do the top coaches and psychologists make their patients who were victims of other people’s bad behaviour? They don’t shrink the person into the pain. They expand the person by making him or her realize that while the pain is real, he or she is much much more than the pain, and this helps them admit the pain, to come to terms with the pain, to master the pain. When a person’s identity is to tied-up to the pain they feel, it’s very unlikely they will ever enjoy freedom from that pain.
What do the some of the most eminent writers who suffered through inconceivable suffering, such as Viktor Frankl and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, say about evil?
“The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”
– Viktor Frankl
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
After suffering immensely from the evil actions of others, after witnessing the evil acts of others, their conclusion wasn’t “Kill evil people!” or even “Pay me back for the pain you caused me!” Instead, it caused them to reflect, and to honestly reflect, on the reality that evil is in all of us, including them! What amazing self-awareness leads you to that conclusion in the midst of your own suffering?
I find myself reading and rereading this particular text from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”
This brings me to my third issue with call-out culture: It distracts us from dealing with the evil in our own selves, even more, it causes us to legitimize our own atrocious behaviour with our pain. Again, we can turn to Viktor Frankl who puts it very simply:
“No one has the right to do wrong, even if wrong has been done to them.”
– Viktor Frankl
Even before Frankl, the Bible in 1 Peter 3 says
9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
When we are too busy repaying evil with evil by participating in the bullying of the bullies, isolating the isolated, shaming the shameful, and attacking the attackers, we fail to acknowledge and address the evil inside of us, and worse, we justify doing evil back, and so propagates a longer cycle of evil.
I once read somewhere that people are more consistent with giving their pets their vitamins than taking their own. It’s probably true. We are better at diagnosing and dealing with the problems of others than facing our own. It makes sense. Dealing with my own problems is painful, humbling, and with slow reward. Dealing with someone else’s issue has no risks, makes me feel righteous, makes me feel valuable, and those feelings come relatively quickly. But the quick satisfaction of feeling justified, of feeling part of a cause, goes just as quickly, and we are left with the reality of who we are without the causes, without the anger, without the rallies, without the latest outcry, and if don’t deal with our own evil, that evil will still be there at the end of the day, even as we cried for justice.
Focusing on our own demons, fighting them, is harder, less satisfying in the short-run, but more valuable in the long run. The point of life isn’t to make your world a better place, but to mature your soul (again, from Solzhenitsyn), and a world of mature souls is a better place.
Reacting to perceptions, especially impulse and incomplete perceptions, is not the mark of a mature soul.
Shrinking other people, other souls, to their pain or offences is not the mark of a mature soul.
Attacking the evil in others without dealing with the evil we can control within ourselves is not the mark of a mature soul.
I, personally, want to mature my soul. And I, personally, know, know without doubt, know with proof, that there is great darkness inside me. My spirituality isn’t from a man who has always loved to do good, but from a man who is willing to admit a great inclination for doing what’s wrong, so daily prays for strength. My insights, if you find them deep, aren’t from a wellspring of wisdom, but from the mining of a dark soul, looking for a glimmer of something valuable. And any success I may have achieved is not without its scars, painful lessons, and regrets. It’s all part of life, and it’s magnified when you try to live beyond yourself.
I have no doubt someone will call me out in the future for some past, present, or future mistake I’ve done or will do, some thing I wrote (or tweeted!), some action that offended others. I’ve done way too much, I do way too much, and I interface with way too many people, many of whom I’ve inconvenienced or wronged. But even more than what others may think and say, I know myself. I know myself better than ever. And I’m no longer shocked at the darkness I see in others because I face the darkness in me. If anything, I think I’ve become more understanding. But before you think I’m defending or rationalising bad behaviour, let me end the post with this:
When you wrestle with the reality of yourself, with not just the slightly imperfect, but the incredibly dark, dark, dark, darkness inside you, yet wake-up to try, even just try, with all your heart, mustering all the courage you can muster to do something greater in the world, knowing full well that you will fail at times, knowing full well that the crowds will stone you if you do, knowing full well that those closest to you will run for cover, knowing full well those who hate you will use it against you, knowing full well that the odds are against you, knowing all of that, and still doing the necessary inner work to achieve greater goals, I think that’s what makes a great man.
I hope, if you read this, you won’t join the mob calling for yet another public crucifixion. I hope, instead, you will choose to be great.