The Rise of Toxic Call-Out Culture

Finding humanity and forgiveness in a time of public shaming

Posted Aug 24, 2019

I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of Lara Spencer’s work. But that has nothing to do with the instantly infamous comment she made recently in reference to 6-year-old Prince George taking up ballet. During the correspondent’s regular pop culture report on Good Morning America, she stated, “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet. I have news for you, Prince William. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

Was Spencer intentionally shaming boys who like to dance? Latent homophobia or gender role stereotyping, perhaps? It’s clear from the clip she was going for a laugh, and she absolutely got it. Viewers can see the audience laughing and clapping, they can hear co-host George Stephanopoulos’s boisterous laughter to her right. It’s Spencer who is taking the hit for the comment she scripted, but isn’t Stephanopoulos and the audience at-large—the nation at large—just as complicit for rewarding her with laughter? A certain slice of the public must like that brand of humor, she’s been with GMA for 20 years.

As I said, I’m not a fan of Spencer’s work, which is different from disliking her as a person. I’m not a fan of her work because I’m not into saccharine pop culture gossip or the personalities who dish it. It leads to the public saying: We need to be having a conversation about this kind of thing. But not creating a dialogue that is substantive. Instead, we shred one another. Lara Spencer is being shredded on social media at this moment, some even calling for her resignation. In typical call-out culture response, hellfire rips through social media and we lose all sense of humanity.

Since this whole discourse stems from an apparent “joke,” let’s talk about jokes. 

When she was still with us, Joan Rivers could have pulled off a Prince George joke. Pop culture comedy was her brand. Hers would have jabbed deeper, got a bigger laugh, and the audience would have cringed. But if the public roasted her for it, she would have turned it around with the kind of cut-to-the-bone insight and intelligence that only could be delivered by someone who knew what the hell she was talking about. She would have put us in our place and given us permission to laugh at something off-limits.

When it’s funny, it’s funny because it’s about something that has been lived. It has an element of tension and pain. Comedy is a reflection on all of us as deeply complex and flawed beings, and we can understand ourselves better when we can examine ourselves with levity. It’s a joy to witness how ridiculous we are. Oddly enough, Joan's brand of edgy and crude humor had a loving humanity to it.

Lara Spencer’s comment wasn’t funny because it wasn’t speaking to her truth and it wasn’t speaking to our truth. What was her point? We don’t have a history of her making this kind of comment, so it feels out of context. No setup, no tension, just an offhand comment, left in the ether at the end of the segment, for us to look at one another and ask: What the hell was that?

If laughter is born out of a truth, was there a truth within Spencer’s comment? We can find a kind of truth. The truth is, boys who join ballet will be shamed. When she says, “We’ll see how long that lasts,” she’s absolutely right. It’s just not funny. How long before a young man will be shamed into dropping his interests that fall outside of society's perceived gender norms? Still, in 2019, with all our human rights achievements, anti-discrimination policies, and sensitivity training. Still, in 2019, despite our history of dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Arthur Mitchell, and today’s young talent like Troye Sivan and Kim Petras, singing and dancing within the mainstream and outside of archaic gender expectations, we have public figures and parents who shame boys for dancing.

A public education system that overwhelmingly values and finances men’s football over men’s dance, or any other arts curriculum for that matter. In 2019, our boys, regardless of their gender expression or extracurricular interest, are growing up anxious, ashamed, and angry. All of that said, the acceptance, even embrace, of "difference" has tremendously improved. In many cases, it no longer identifies as difference, it's merely variation. It's humanity.

What are we to do about Lara Spencer? I don’t mean Lara Spencer herself, but what she represents. We can replace her name with any celebrity who has said something dumb, or anybody at all who has made a mistake. What are we going to do about the mistake-makers? Do they get a one-time pass or do they get fired? Is Spencer's apology enough or does her career have to be destroyed? More and more, because of the proliferation of call-out culture, it’s the latter. That leaves our culture at large with a big question to tackle: Where’s our humanity?

Humanity is the theme of comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix standup special, Nanette. A masterclass in tension and truth. It should be required viewing. It is the single most brilliantly executed comedy and commentary on gender stereotyping and LGBTQI bullying ever delivered, and with a mix of laughs and tears that will have your stomach hurting for reasons that will leave you informed, vindicated, empowered, relieved, put in your place, mind blown, and emotionally spent. I don't know Gadsby, but don't think she'd allow a Lara Spencer-like comment to be swept under the rug without examining it for its societal underpinnings and transforming it into something useful. But she'd do so with humanity.

In Nanette, Gadsby says, "This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic. It’s juvenile. It’s destructive. We think it's more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” That last statement? It’s huge. It covers a lot of territory. It’s the right prescription delivered during a very difficult time for its audience to swallow the pill.

I believe, or naively hope, most of us agree that making fun of a boy for enjoying ballet is ridiculous and damaging. I believe Spencer knows that too, but we haven’t heard her side of the story. But that doesn’t matter in today's call-out culture. In call-out culture, even if she does tell her story, it’s too late. Today, people think: You did what? You’re dead to me

Despite not liking her brand of entertainment, she seems lovely. Loveliness doesn't excuse bad behavior. She should have known that her comment would give the impression she thinks boys don’t belong in ballet. She needs to know the history of persecution that boys and men have endured, still endure, for daring to step outside of the gender conformity box (not that a boy taking a ballet class is even that). She has a platform to teach these lessons. In that sense, she should be called out, but not demonized. And that's what we get wrong with call-outs.

However, calling her lovely and not a monster is not permissible in this conversation. Not in call-out culture. If anyone comes to Spencer’s defense, they will be tossed to the flames for sympathizing with a perpetrator. The same goes for people like me who do not feel Spencer is suddenly the epitome of dominant culture rearing its ugly head again. She is an individual who made a bad choice. 

I get that we’re angry and want change, but where is our anger taking us? I see a society that is angrier, more anxious, more depressed, and more combative than I’ve seen in my lifetime. We are building walls. We are isolating others. We are killing each other. Even those of us who seek justice in the name of equality have this little conundrum about humanity.

Nobody should get away with shaming or bullying. Call it out. But don't destroy another human for their mistake. We all make them, we all say dumb things sometimes, one day it will be us. Getting tossed to the lions on social media is just the other side of the same coin. It’s a form of bullying. The difference: Our form is justified compared to their form. Us vs. Them. If we want walls broken down, Us vs. Them is not the way to do it. 

Earlier this year David Brooks wrote about call-out culture for The New York Times:

“You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.

You also see how once you adopt a binary tribal mentality — us/them, punk/non-punk, victim/abuser — you’ve immediately depersonalized everything. You’ve reduced complex human beings to simple good versus evil. You’ve eliminated any sense of proportion.

I’d say civilization moves forward when we embrace rule of law, not when we abandon it. I’d say we no longer gather in coliseums to watch people get eaten by lions because clergy members, philosophers and artists have made us less tolerant of cruelty, not more tolerant.”

A great number of us are tired with the status quo—that sick societal malaise that idles on while marginalized people are working to climb from holes that have been dug for them, for us, by people in power. Our outrage insists we won’t accept anything but progressive change. Our insistence to challenge damaging comments and actions is correct. But it's not right when our outrage enters the dark territory of hate. History shows, anger combined with self-righteousness and mob mentality can and will go catastrophically wrong.

Humanity begets humanity. How we do that is the conversation we ought to be having.

I recommend Loretta Ross's recent opinion piece, I'm a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic. She writes, "Nor should we use social media to rush to judgment in a courtroom composed of clicks. If we do, we run into the paradox Audre Lorde warned us about when she said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”


This has been updated for length and additional resources.