Call-out culture: Are social justice warriors stifling sensitive but important conversations?

Article by Brett Williamson /
ABC /
March 31, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

Ever been in a situation where you have referred to a poverty-stricken country as the “third world” only to be shouted down by friends claiming it is the “developing” world?

Recently, ABC Radio Adelaide Drive presenter Jules Schiller came under scrutiny from his listeners after using the term “third world” when discussing the issue of alcohol poisoning in Bali.

“The tone and the intent of the conversation was not to put down the developing world,” Schiller said.

“I just used a term that many people, not without reason, find offensive.”

The discussion about the poisonings soon got side tracked and the audiences’ focus shifted to that of correct phrasings.

This was not an uncommon occurrence in the hyper-vigilant modern world of social media, according to Lauren Rosewarne from the School of Social and Political Sciences at Melbourne University.

She said we were in the midst of what is known as “the call-out culture”; a culture being driven by social justice warriors (SJWs).

“Debates are being hijacked because of a tendency to police language,” Dr Rosewarne said.

Dr Rosewarne said this kind of language scrutiny had even invaded her university lectures on feminism and gender studies.

“Invariably when I am speaking about women in the generic [terms], I will have someone call out to remind me that not all women have vaginas or not all men have penises,” she said.

“These are fair statements, but ultimately I can’t teach without some level of generic [terms].”

Dr Rosewarne said social media and a tendency towards crowd-driven outrage meant reactions to language often were off-topic and inflammatory.

“The problem with call-out culture is that it puts the person doing the calling out as the arbiter of what is appropriate,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“It also means the [original speaker’s] intention is often completely lost and it becomes a linguistic debate.

“You get left politics being boiled down to a debate on language.
“We are a society with a whole lot of people whose views are different. How do we manage that and how do we all have a voice in that space?”

Dr Rosewarne said those who were called out for the wrong choice of phrasings often abandoned conversations and, ultimately, the causes.

“You are going to get people to opt out of conversations that are really important because they don’t want to be shamed,” she said.