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Thursday, February 16, 2023

Call Off the Call-Out Culture War

The cause of freedom needs educators, not inquisitors.

Photo by Julia Taubitz on Unsplash

You don’t hear much about “call-out culture” anymore. The term has been supplanted by “cancel culture.” This is unfortunate, because the former is a more fundamental problem to be addressed than the latter.

Cancel culture is a subset and outgrowth of call-out culture.

“Calling out” is public shaming to inflict social punishment for non-conforming behavior (especially wrongthink) in order to enforce behavioral conformity. And cancelation is simply one of the harsher forms of such punishment.

The implicit threat of all shaming is disassociation: fewer friends, fans, followers, customers, job opportunities, business partners, etc. And cancelation is near-total disassociation: that is, social ostracism.

Cancelations are just particularly brutal battles within a broader, constantly raging war of mutual shaming that is pervading our public discourse, especially on the internet. To avoid the battles, we must resolve the war.

Call-Out Culture as Indoctrination

To see why this war is so pernicious and futile, let’s consider a typical example of call-out culture in action.

Say a social justice warrior gets wind of someone expressing a heresy against the woke orthodoxy. The SJW publicly “calls out” the heretic. A woke mob gathers and an online “struggle session” begins.

How might the heretic respond?

She might get angry at the attacks and as a result resentfully cling even more tightly to her heresy. The call-out might backfire.

Or it might succeed. The targeted heretic might get rattled by the denunciations and frightened by the threat of disassociation implicit in the attacks. She doesn’t want to lose friends, fans, followers, customers, business partners, etc. So she kowtows, expresses regret, renounces her past heresy, and professes the orthodoxy, even to the point of becoming an orthodoxy-enforcing inquisitor herself.

Now, why would she do that?

It’s conceivable that the shaming and its implicit threat might have driven her to reexamine her beliefs which might have led her to accept wokeness in her heart and genuinely repent.

But it’s much more likely that she is conforming with the orthodoxy primarily for the sake of self-preservation and self-advancement: for preserving and advancing her social standing among the woke set.

That was exactly what her inquisitors were probably doing when they called her out in the first place: virtue signaling for the sake of woke cred.

The inquisitors may congratulate themselves for having “taught her a lesson.” But that kind of “lesson” is not true education, but indoctrination.

What’s the difference? Education is helping someone accept a set of beliefs by helping them understand those beliefs. Indoctrination is using imposed consequences to induce someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. Those imposed consequences may be “carrots,” like bribes, or “sticks,” like threats of cancelation.

Indoctrinating the Truth?

Call-out/cancel culture is often associated with the political left, but many conservatives and libertarians partake in it as well. Some argue that call-out culture is only bad when the values being enforced are bad: that, for example, using shame to enforce woke leftist values is bad, but using shame to enforce conservative and libertarian values is good.

Now, shame does have a social function and can be educational; it can communicate good values in a way that prompts individuals to genuinely question their own errors and vices. But in today’s culture of online discourse, the deadly sin of wrath too often drives us to overuse and abuse shame. Overdone shame induces, not introspection, but terror: not education, but indoctrination.

And while it’s possible to indoctrinate people into conforming with good values, it’s not advisable. Indoctrinated beliefs tend to fall away once the carrots and sticks that propped them up are withdrawn.

Moreover, indoctrination is a losing game for proponents of good and true beliefs. That is because successful indoctrination depends on how effectively (and ruthlessly) the inquisitors wield their carrots and sticks, and not on the goodness or truth of the beliefs being indoctrinated.

By participating in the call-out culture war, champions of the good and true are throwing away their single, unique, decisive advantage in the contest of ideas. The winning game for truth and justice is not indoctrination and inquisition, but education: not merely establishing and enforcing outward conformity, but facilitating genuine understanding and heartfelt conviction. That is the playing field on which goodness and truth are the deciding factors.

As Leonard Read wrote, those who favor freedom and virtue must “rid ourselves of that troublesome notion which leads many people to conclude that the techniques used by communists, for instance, to destroy a free society can be effectively employed to advance an understanding of freedom.”

The cause of freedom needs educators, not inquisitors.


  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of FEE.org. He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including FEE.org (see his author archive), Mises.org, Antiwar.com, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.