The most nuanced conversations I have about current political issues are private. In large groups, I nod in agreement. With close friends, I engage.
I know I am not alone. In public, my peers and I concur without a second thought: “open the borders, tax the rich, health care for all!” But privately, we think twice. The balance between border security and humanitarian ideals is a delicate one. Few of us have ever paid taxes, let alone studied the economics needed to fully grasp the effects of changing them. Nor can we know the costs of making health care free. But you wouldn’t know about that nuance if all you looked at was our public discourse.
My friends and I don’t remain silent because we are apathetic or sheepish. We have strong ideas and big questions that we genuinely want to puzzle over together. But we have also grown up in a call-out culture, a world in which using the wrong term or unintentionally offending someone can get you into trouble.
Agreeing with the group to fit in is nothing new, but intentionally using peer pressure to create conformity of belief is something much more insidious. I have been shamed, embarrassed and chastised by counselors, friends and teachers enough times to have learned that it is often safer for me to say nothing at all than to challenge their beliefs and risk being seen as the enemy. Call-out culture implicitly warns us not to ask big questions, not to debate, not to even consider the other side of really sensitive issues.
In high school, my best friend was called out by a teacher. One unit of my high school health curriculum was dedicated to gender. After we had learned about the ways in which male and female bodies develop differently, we were told that the lines between genders were blurry, if they existed at all. The issue of gender fluidity was new and complicated, and certainly politically charged, but it was taught matter-of-factly: Sex is binary, gender is fluid, end of story.
Our teacher explained to us that people who are born males but identify as females should be able to play on women’s sport teams — to forbid them to would be to challenge their very identity and personhood. My friend was not convinced. He raised his hand and wondered aloud whether it was really fair to allow people who are born in male bodies — stronger, faster, bigger bodies — to compete against women. The question is a legitimate one debated by Olympic committees and a perfectly valid inquiry for my 16-year-old friend to make.
But rather than sparking discussion, my friend’s comment received glares from classmates and a chastising explanation of why his reasoning was offensive and incorrect. He never raised his hand to ask a question in health class again.
My friend still discusses questions like these with me privately. He was not convinced to fall in line with the group that day in high school, but he did learn the high cost of expressing dissent. In many places, but especially on college campuses, the costs of disagreeing with the dominant mindset are high. When faced with call-out culture, speaking out is rarely worth it.
By pushing people’s questions and ideas under the surface, we do ourselves a disservice. When you engage with someone, you can change their mind: better yet, they could even change yours. When you shame someone, you polarize them, isolate them and make it unlikely that they will ever come to see things as you do.
Even the most reprehensible beliefs are better combatted with conversation than humiliation. Call-out culture makes it more likely that people who disagree with an “acceptable” view will find each other and communicate privately — it is no coincidence that the alt-right started in private online chatrooms. The best way to combat beliefs that we see as dangerous or offensive is not to shame them: It’s to engage with the people who hold them. Otherwise, we only become more polarized and it becomes increasingly difficult to find common ground.
By calling each other out, we don’t change minds, we just change the venue of important conversation. Rather than thinking through big issues aloud in class, we consider them in hushed tones with only the best of friends, under the assumption that our truest beliefs will never be shared. Call-out culture has reduced political dissent to the status of gossip — shameful, secret and only to be shared with the most tight-lipped of friends.