A few months ago, I listened to a podcast that has haunted me since — because it captures something essential about our culture warrior moment. It was from NPR’s always excellent Invisibilia series and it was about a woman named Emily.
Emily was a member of the hard-core punk music scene in Richmond, Virginia. One day, when she was nearly 30, she was in a van with her best friend, who was part of a prominent band.
They were heading to a gig in Florida when the venue called to cancel their appearance. A woman had accused Emily’s best friend of sending her an unwelcome sexually explicit photograph.
His bandmates immediately dismissed her allegations. But inwardly Emily seethed. Upon returning to Richmond, she wrote a Facebook post denouncing her best friend as an abuser. “I disown everything he has done. I do not think it’s OK … I believe women.”
The post worked. He left the band and disappeared from the punk scene. Emily heard rumors he’d been fired from his job, kicked out of his apartment, had moved to a new city and was not doing well. Emily never spoke with him again.
Meanwhile, she was fronting her own band. But in October 2016, she, too, got called out. In high school, roughly a decade before, someone had posted a nude photo of a female student. Emily replied with an emoji making fun of the girl. This was part of a wider pattern of her high school cyberbullying.
A post denouncing Emily went viral. She, too, was the object of a nationwide group hate. She was banned from the punk scene. She didn’t leave the house. Her friends dropped her. She was scared, traumatized and alone.
“It’s entirely my life,” she told Invisibilia tearfully. “Like, this is everything to me. And it’s all just, like, done and over.”
But she accepted the legitimacy of the call-out process. If she was called out it must mean she deserved to be rendered into a nonperson.
The guy who called out Emily is named Herbert. He told Invisibilia that calling her out gave him a rush of pleasure. He was asked if he cared about the pain Emily endured. “No, I don’t care,” he replied. “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming. ... I literally do not care about what happens to you after the situation. I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”
When the interviewer, Hanna Rosin, showed skepticism, he revealed he, too, was a victim. His father beat him throughout his childhood.
In this small story, we see something of the maladies that shape our brutal cultural moment.
You see how zealotry is fueled by people working out psychological wounds. You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people.
There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness. The podcast gives a glimpse of how cycles of abuse get passed down, one to another.
I’m older, so historical alarm bells were going off — the way students denounced and effectively murdered elders for incorrect thought during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and in Stalin’s Russia.
But the Invisibilia episode implicitly suggests that call-outs are how humanity moves forward. Society enforces norms by murdering the bullies who break them. When systems are broken, vigilante justice may be rough justice, but it gets the job done.
Do we really think cycles of cruelty do more to advance civilization than cycles of wisdom and empathy? I’d say civilization moves forward when we embrace rule of law, not when we abandon it.
The problem with the pseudo-realism of the call-out culture is that it is so naive. Once you adopt binary thinking in which people are categorized as good or evil, once you give random people the power to destroy lives without any process, you have taken a step toward the Rwandan genocide.
Even the quest for justice can turn into barbarism if it is not infused with a quality of mercy, an awareness of human frailty and a path to redemption. The crust of civilization is thinner than you think.
—David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.