The Destructiveness of Call-Out Culture on Campus

Reflections from undergraduates of the social media era

Regis Duvignau / Reuters

Last month, hoping to better understand how digital communications affects life on campus, I posed this question: “Were College Students Better Off Before Social Media?”

One undergraduate responded that what he likes best about the communications environment at his college, where there are about 10,000 students, is that “it has taught me a great deal about rapid-response crisis communications.” After graduation, he explained,  “I’m interested in pursuing a career working on political campaigns.” And campus life for his peers “has been a veritable trial-by-fire for crisis comms.”

Dozens of other college students sent answers to my inquiry, too.

Some felt that their generation has the better end of the bargain—that social media allows them to better connect with new people, or stay in closer touch with peers on campus or high school friends at other institutions. And the era one prefers is partly a matter of personality. Said one student, “In our day and age, going viral or gaining widespread internet fame is something of legend, a social conquest achieved by only those with a rare knack for cultural phenomena or those merely blessed by fate.”

But this self-electing group offered many more complaints and concerns about the social-media era than celebrations. And no negative aspect of the status quo preoccupied my undergraduate correspondents more than the stresses of call-out culture. They had no problem with objections to violence, or slurs, or other serious transgressions; but fretted that call-out culture now goes far beyond matters like that.

Even the aspiring crisis-communications pro noted that it was also his least favorite quality about college life. “Students get worked up over the smallest of issues,” he said, “which has led to the disintegration of school spirit and the fracture of campus.”

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Whatever differences there are in the moral psychology of today’s college students, as compared to their elders, there is little doubt that technology is driving some of the worry about violating social norms, getting called out, and becoming objects of stigma. Social media enables students to be hostile from behind a screen, or to pile on.

But there is a more subtle way that social media can increase stress over call-outs—one I hadn’t grasped before reading this email from an eager-to-please undergraduate.

She writes:

I actively try to keep up on opinion articles posted on Facebook and other social media sites, as well as statuses by friends, so that I can be caught up with the trends and not appear to be ignorant or outdated among my peers. One time, around Halloween, I read a piece that a friend posted about a Mexican Tequila-themed party that had happened at a small liberal arts school. A few members of the student government had attended and taken a picture wearing a sombrero. The entire school was so outraged that their student leadership had participated in cultural appropriation that they ridiculed them online and forced them to step down.

Now, reading this article was stressful for me because my roommates and I had planned a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend that same night. Admittedly, my school is less progressive and students tend to not get outraged at things like this as much as other schools, but I was concerned that someone would call us out for cultural appropriation, even though we didn’t call it a “Mexican” party or have sombreros there. We just wanted to drink margaritas and offered some chips and guac as snacks.

This made the party considerably more stressful for me. I was constantly welcoming people and telling them we hoped we weren’t appropriating, and watching out for people who may have reacted badly to the theme. I was making sure that we didn’t play music in Spanish—for some reason I thought that would go over better and make us look less like we were appropriating.

Since then, we haven’t had any tequila-themed parties. I also had always aspired to have a crawl, where each room was themed like a different part of the world (i.e. one room would be Russia and the people would drink white Russians, another room could have tequila and chips and salsa, etc.) but I never pushed that again for fear of being called out as an appropriator.

Another anecdote was with regard to some research I did in Peru a few summers ago. I had received funding to work with a local nonprofit group and do research on educational programs. Although I personally did not feel like I was being very problematic by going down there, and personally thought about this a lot, I didn’t post pictures of myself with any of the kids for fear of coming across as white-girl-who-does-international-volunteering-trip-just-to-take-picture-with-poor-brown-children.

Perhaps this student would have stressed about violating social norms in any era. But in bygone years, the social norms at her school would’ve been clear and static; whatever upset people there would’ve been easy to avoid doing. Today, so many people are declaring so many things problematic on college campuses that the next controversy is almost impossible to predict; it is increasingly common to have done something without any fear of giving offense (say, urging a sushi night in the dining hall) only to subsequently read that the thing you’re on record having done is the object of a huge controversy elsewhere. Does the faraway story portend a future where you’ll be the one in the hot seat?

No wonder so many students are stressed out by this. And the risk-averse have it especially hard. “I probably hold back 90 percent of the things that I want to say due to fear of being called out,” another student wrote. “People won’t call you out because your opinion is wrong. People will call you out for literally anything. On Twitter today I came across someone making fun a girl who made a video talking about how much she loved God and how she was praying for everyone. There were hundreds of comments, rude comments, below the video. It was to the point that they weren’t even making fun of what she was standing for. They were picking apart everything. Her eyebrows, the way her mouth moves, her voice, the way her hair was parted. Ridiculous. I am not the kind of person to be able to brush off insults like that. Hence why I avoid any situation that could put me in that position. And that’s sad.”

Why would someone who feels that way stay on social media? “I think that students, myself included, have somehow worked social media into our everyday lives so much that, whether we realize it or not, it effects us mentally, physically, and emotionally,” the student added. “Without it, many would probably feel empty … even like their life doesn’t have a purpose … like they’re disconnected from everything.”

Then there are the students who know they will be called out. For some, it is because they are ideological minorities: liberals at religious schools, conservatives at secular ones.

A student at a religious college in Mississippi wrote:

On our campus … identifying as a non-Christian, an LGBT person, or a Democrat will provoke backlash … The environment would be safer for students in some ways without this technology. Some people create fake Tinder profiles and set their gender preference to same-sex to figure out who's gay on campus.

Students who have an axe to grind with someone may dig up old embarrassing photos and "like" them so it shows up on everyone's timelines … Social media also requires students to curate more false identities and scrutinize more interactions. If you are not Christian, for example, you need to create a social media presence that seems close enough. When someone posted they've had a bad day, replying with "I'll pray for you" vs. "I'm sending good vibes" sends a signal about the type of person you are. Even small interactions like that are opportunities for slip-ups.

A student at the Claremont Colleges described the chilling effect this way: “I'd say that most people here quickly become sufficiently familiar with social justice culture that they are able to avoid involuntarily doing things that would get them called out; incidents where that happens, like the racially insensitive Halloween costume at Claremont McKenna, are rare. Most of the time, when someone is called out, it's because they chose to voice a conservative opinion that they knew would be controversial.”

Said a conservative student elsewhere:

From what I have experienced, most students would rather conform to group think than voice their opposite opinion in group settings. However on smaller, more isolated occasions, students are more likely to put in their two cents, without much fear of group criticism. The best opportunity for honest disagreement among students would probably occur within a group of one to three, with students that have at least met once or twice before.

To me, this is extremely sad.

I used to look forward to my college years as a time of open dialogue about the world's issues, but also as a time of open mindedness, not this reality that I live in, where students are hesitant to speak out against the group think.

As a conservative college student, I'm about as common as albino snapping turtle. My opinions are not only collectively frowned upon, but also offensive to the majority. It's rare that I open my mouth to put in my two cents. My views, if shared, would be labeled as racist, fascist, nationalist … I'm fine with disagreement, but I don't think it's healthy to label the opposing ideology as something it is obviously not in order to discredit it's worth.

But because call-out culture is most prevalent among liberals and progressives, they don’t escape it either. On some campuses, they are actually its most frequent targets.

A student at a women’s college, asked what she refrains from posting on social media for the fear of being called out or shamed, wrote, “my views on feminism, definitely.”

Those views:

I’d consider myself a radical feminist/gender abolitionist/second wave feminist, a point of view based on the fact that women as a class are oppressed based on material factors (i.e. female biology). This clashes pretty hard with a lot of queer theory/ideas about transgenderism. A friend of mine identifies as transgender and has drunkenly said things like “death to all transphobes” (a group that encompasses basically anyone who believes that biology isn’t a social construct or that womanhood isn’t an entirely internal experience). Others say similar things, usually with some (assumed??) layer of irony or exaggeration. I definitely find that worrying, although I doubt they’d follow through on any threats.

I worry about being cut off from everyone socially (including coworkers, RAs, etc.). I’m not sure if it would affect my relationship with my professors, given my major, but I can think of humanities professors I am otherwise close to who would be offended. I avoid any and all racial discussions too.

The most controversial kind of call-out is the anonymous accusation that someone perpetrated sexual misconduct. I’ve seen this pop up on YikYak, a platform aimed at college students that allows anyone to anonymously post within 1.5 miles of a given location.

A couple correspondents mentioned similar controversies. “Just last Monday, an individual posted a public, open access list whereby survivors of sexual assault or aggression can out their perpetrators and give others a ‘heads up’ or warning to increase feelings of safety,” a student in Indiana wrote. “While I believe this is perhaps well intentioned, this idea is simply irresponsible, and severely harmful. This made word-of-mouth news in hours. There were racial undertones and clear unfair and flat out wrong editing of this Google Doc. Disappointments were plentiful.”

But criminal accusations aren’t the typical concern, which more closely resemble what this student wrote:

There’s a lot of things I don’t say just because I don’t want to deal with the pain of having someone attack you—not only your opinion, but your appearance in your profile, bio, or any other thing strangers can use to snap back.

I know a lot of people on campus. When things go wrong, they end up knowing them too … I see the subtweets, the articles, and the memes retweeted in my direction. Its hurtful, but it’s also hard to put the phone down … Prior generations never have to know what it’s like to get blasted in front of thousands of viewers. To have your personal life turn not-so-personal. They could do a keg-stand at a party and not risk future employers seeing it … But job prospects aren’t as much of the problem as your peers are. I fear the backlash from people I know, and whose opinions I care about, more than an employer I don’t even know I’m looking at yet.

Nearly everyone who wrote me mentioned how others on social media made them feel, rather than how they felt about others after seeing their behavior on social media. This student was one exception. “Facebook is also a place where I see most of my classmates bad-mouthing one another, even though they present to themselves in class and everywhere else as a kind and friendly person,” she wrote. “It gives me a sense that most of my classmates have a two-faced kind of personality to them, but maybe this is why I abstain from using social media sites during college.”

My final correspondent, the always thoughtful Ron Magee Jr., saw ugliness on Facebook too, but interpreted it more charitably, even as he worried that the dysfunction that characterized so many exchanges has perhaps led his generation astray:

I recall multiple online debates with class members where we commented in short paragraphs on a classmate's Facebook status over race, religion, politics, etc. Other Facebook friends would join in and debates quickly degenerated into angry snark or passive-aggressiveness until it just died down with no real resolution. It is common knowledge that Facebook debates do not change minds, but this went deeper; no matter how heated or how deep of a division was exposed in our exchange on Facebook, we students (including I) carried on with each other in real life as though nothing was different. We didn't agree to disagree; we tacitly agreed online debates didn't happen or blew it off since everyone knew that everyone was their worst online. It was like Facebook was this bottomless well down which we just cast all of our very real discord where it wouldn't hurt anyone because it couldn't do much of anything at all.

I feel like we came to college eager and prepared to engage with other ways of thinking, even if only for the purpose of coming up with more intelligent counter-arguments. And Facebook was there with easy access to all our new classmates, offering a place to scratch that itch relatively painlessly, but also completely ineffectually.

I worry that, for those of us who indulged in social media in college, so much of our lack of faith in the value of reasoned debate comes from the observation that our online debates solve nothing. It is an observation that we inappropriately broaden to assume all debate is equally useless. Figuratively, it is akin to those cases of severe alcoholism where the patient has been drinking their meals; social media is the whiskey that quells our innate hunger for understanding and purposeful engagement with a false sense of satiety while leaving higher ed institutions' body politic chronically bereft of the essential benefits found in true debate.  And like so many who struggle with that terrible disease, albeit with less immediate and far less tragic effects than those who suffer the actual illness, we know there is a problem and we can identify the cause but still we shun real nutrition for the familiar comforts of the bottle.

I believe that removing social media could close off the path of lesser resistance while leaving that hunger for knowledge intact, thus directing students back to the face-to-face, messy yet infinitely more satisfying exchanges that have proved so useful in moving our society forward thus far.

I thank everyone for writing. Stay tuned for future articles on other aspects of what college students wrote about how social media has changed campus life for better and worse.