The Rise of Toxic Call-Out Culture

I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of Lara Spencer’s work. But that has nothing to do with the instantly infamous comment she made this week in reference to 6-year-old Prince George taking up ballet. During the correspondent’s regular pop culture report on Good Morning America, she stated, “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet. I have news for you, Prince William. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

Was Spencer intentionally shaming boys who like to dance? Latent homophobia or gender role stereotyping, perhaps? It’s clear from the clip she was going for a laugh, and she absolutely got it. Viewers can see the audience laughing and clapping, they can hear co-host George Stephanopoulos’s boisterous laughter to her right. It’s Spencer who is taking the hit for the comment she scripted, but isn’t Stephanopoulos and the audience at-large—the nation at large—just as complicit for rewarding her with laughter? A certain slice of the public must like that brand of humor, she’s been with GMA for twenty years.

Like I said, I’m not a fan of Spencer’s work, which is different from disliking her as a person. I’m not a fan of her work because I’m not into saccharine pop culture gossip or the personalities who dish it.  It leads to the public saying, We need to be having a conversation about this kind of thing, but not creating a dialogue that is substantive. Instead, we shred one another. Lara Spencer is being shredded on social media at this very moment. I’ve seen some calling for her resignation. In typical call-out culture response, hellfire rips through social media and we lose all sense of humanity.

Does she deserve to be publicly humiliated or fired? For that comment? Hardly. For delivering America’s morning schlock and not delivering it well? Well, that’s for GMA and the American court of public opinion to decide. America gets what America wants.

Since this whole discourse stems from a “joke,” let’s talk about jokes. 

When she was still with us, Joan Rivers could have pulled off a Prince George joke. Pop culture comedy was her brand. Hers would have jabbed deeper, got a bigger laugh, and the audience would have cringed. But if the public roasted her for it, she would have turned it around with the kind of cut-to-the-bone insight and intelligence that only could be delivered by someone who knew what the hell she was talking about. That was her genius. She would have put us in our place and given us permission to laugh at something off-limits. When it’s funny, it’s funny because it’s about something that has been lived. It has an element of tension and pain. Because it’s a reflection on all of us as deeply complex and flawed beings, and we can understand ourselves better when we can examine ourselves with levity. It’s a joy to witness how ridiculous we are. Oddly enough, Joan’s brand of edgy and even crude humor had a loving humanity to it.

Lara Spencer’s comment wasn’t funny because we didn’t know what we were laughing at. It wasn’t speaking to her truth and it wasn’t speaking to our truth. So, what was her point? We don’t have a history of her making this kind of comment, so it feels out of context. No setup, no tension, just an offhand comment, left in the ether at the end of segment, for us to look at one another and go, What the hell was that?

If laughter is born out of a truth, was there a truth within Spencer’s comment? We can find a kind of truth. The truth is, boys who join ballet will be shamed. So, when she says, “We’ll see how long that lasts,” she’s absolutely right. It’s just not funny. How long before a young man will be shamed into dropping his interests that fall outside of society’s perceived gender norms? Still, in 2019, with all our human rights achievements, anti-discrimination policies, and sensitivity trainings. Still, in 2019, despite our history of Mikhail Baryshnikovs and Arthur Mitchells, and today’s young talent like Troye Sivan and Kim Petras, who are bold pop culture role models singing and dancing within the mainstream and outside of archaic gender expectations, we have public figures and parents who shame boys for dancing. A public education system that overwhelmingly values and finances men’s football over men’s dance, or any other arts curriculum for that matter. We still shame our boys for everything. In 2019, our boys, regardless of their gender expression or extracurricular interest, are growing up anxious, ashamed and angry. All of that said, the acceptance, even embrace, of “difference” has tremendously improved. In many cases, it no longer identifies as difference, it’s merely variation. It’s humanity.

So, what are we to do about Lara Spencer? I don’t mean Lara Spencer herself, but what she represents. We can replace her name with any celebrity who has said something dumb, or anybody at all who has made a mistake. What are we going to do about the mistake-makers of the world who make these seemingly offhand comments that miss the mark and offend? Does she get a one-time pass or does she get fired? Is her apology enough or does her career have to be destroyed? More and more, and thanks to the proliferation of call-out culture, it’s the latter. That leaves our culture at large with a big question to tackle: Where’s our humanity?

Humanity is the theme of comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix standup special, Nanette. A masterclass on tension and truth. It should be required viewing. It is the single most brilliantly executed comedy and commentary on gender stereotyping and LGBTQI bullying that has ever been delivered, and with a mix of laughs and tears that will have your stomach hurting for reasons that will leave you relieved, informed, vindicated, empowered, put in your place, mind blown, and emotionally spent. I don’t know Gadsby, but don’t think she’d allow a Lara Spencer-like comment to be swept under the rug without examining it for its societal underpinnings and transforming into something useful. But she’d do so with humanity.

In Nanette, Gadsby says, “This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic. It’s juvenile. It’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with.” That last statement? It’s huge. It covers a lot of territory. It’s the right prescription delivered during a very difficult time for its audience to swallow the pill. That audience is all of us. The 2019 and beyond, us.

I believe, or naively hope, most of us agree that making fun of a boy for being in ballet is ridiculous and damaging. I believe Spencer knows that too. We haven’t heard much from her yet beyond a short Instagram-issued apology. We certainly don’t know her personally and we haven’t heard her side of the story. That doesn’t matter in today’s call-out culture. In call-out culture, even if she does tell her story, it’s too late. These are the days of, You did what? You’re dead to me. I’m no Lara Spencer expert, but I have a hunch she made a joke that went south; not at all indicating she’s a malicious person deserving of career destruction. In fact, dare I say, and despite not liking her brand of entertainment, she seems just lovely. Of course, she should realize that her comment gave the impression that boys don’t belong in ballet. She needs to know the history of persecution that boys and men have endured, still endure, for daring to step outside of the gender conformity box (not that a boy taking a ballet class is even that). She has a platform to teach these lessons. None of that makes her a monster.

That. Right there. Where I said she seems lovely? Not a monster? That is not a permissible part of the conversation we, as a public, are supposedly having. Not in our call-out culture. If anybody comes to Lara Spencer’s defense while this fire is still burning, they will be tossed on the flames for sympathizing with a perpetrator. Same goes for someone like me who does not feel Lara Spencer is suddenly the epitome of dominant culture rearing its ugly head again. She is an individual who made a bad choice. I get that we’re angry and want change, but where is our anger taking us? I see a society that is angrier, more anxious, more depressed, and more combative than I’ve seen in my lifetime. We are building walls. We are isolating. We are killing each other. Even those of us who seek justice in the name of equality have this little conundrum about humanity.

Nobody should get away with shaming. Nobody should get away with bullying. But destroying another human for their mistake—getting tossed to the lions on social media—is just the other side of the same coin. It’s a form of bullying. The difference is, when it’s our form, that always makes it justified compared to their form. An us vs. them mentality. If we want walls down and healing, this us vs. them thing we’re doing is not the way to do it. It’s backfiring big time.

Earlier this year David Brooks wrote about call-out culture for The New York Times. He writes,

“You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.

You also see how once you adopt a binary tribal mentality — us/them, punk/non-punk, victim/abuser — you’ve immediately depersonalized everything. You’ve reduced complex human beings to simple good versus evil. You’ve eliminated any sense of proportion.

I’d say civilization moves forward when we embrace rule of law, not when we abandon it. I’d say we no longer gather in coliseums to watch people get eaten by lions because clergy members, philosophers and artists have made us less tolerant of cruelty, not more tolerant.”

A great number of us are tired with the status quo—that sick societal malaise that idles on while marginalized people are working to climb from holes that have been dug for them, for us, by people in power. Our outrage insists we won’t accept anything but progressive change. Our insistence is right to challenge damaging comments and actions at every turn. But not in a way that destroys people. Not when outrage enters the dark territory of hate. History shows, anger combined with self-righteousness and mob mentality can and will go catastrophically wrong.

Humanity begets humanity. How we do that is the conversation we ought to be having.

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