Here’s what went down during a discussion on “call out culture” at Bigsound 2017

Two years ago Welsh journalist and author Jon Ronson published a book titled So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, addressing the growing issue of (sometimes justified, sometimes not) social media outrage and what some people refer to as “trial by public opinion”. Since then the discussion has moved into specific spheres such as the music industry, a scene in which these types of social media “call outs” and the offensive behaviours which often necessitate them are far too common.

It’s for this reason BIGSOUND‘s Thursday panel last week “So You’ve Been Called Out…” felt like one of the most relevant discussions of the entire program, with insights provided by panelists Udaravi Widanapathirana (Mellum), Joel King (Evolve Media), singer-songwriter Bec Sandridge, and writer/moderator Shaad D’Souza (who contained and directed the panel quite brilliantly, may I add). “Call out culture” was dissected here, and although there was plenty left untouched, the hour or so spent musing on it and its relevance to the music industry provoked plenty of thought (and at times, outrage).

A “high profile call out” of recent times was used to kick it all off, with the case of U.S queer punk band PWR BTTM, in which the band was swiftly dropped from their management and label, in addition to having their music pulled from streaming services, in response to an allegation of sexual assault from the lead singer, uncovered in an interview with an “anonymous woman” for online publication Jezebel. They still deny the allegations.

On a more local scale, Aussie band and triple j Unearthed winners The Football Club had to cancel all their shows as the band’s lead was accused of sexual assault by multiple people. They too still deny those allegations, though one of the members did quit the band.

The question here is what has become of those “call outs”, and from this panel it was clear that call out culture needs to be about real discussion and real change rather than a punitive process of social shaming and demonisation. Getting “called out” should be seen and treated as – from everyone involved – an opportunity to change, and the real challenge lies with “How do we call out constructively instead of just vilifying”? As Sandridge put it, “It needs to be a conversation rather than, ‘Yeah, I’m calling you out in public’.”

Can we support these bands and artists who have been accused of something as terrible as sexual abuse? There are many out there who would put up a straight “no” on that issue, others, like King, think its more to do with integrity and responsibility; if the accused is showing genuine remorse, is genuinely apologetic, and is taking action to show that they have grown from this – an example being helping other victims and leading by example – then maybe they should be given an opportunity to redeem themselves.

Call outs and accusations such as the aforementioned also need to be taken seriously by the wider community, not just those who are affected. We live in a culture where we don’t listen to victims, as explained by Widanapathirana, and power structures need to be acknowledged so that these allegations are treated with seriousness and empathy and dealt with properly. It needs to be looked at on an individual basis, of course, but in the case of The Football Club it’s safe to say that the initial thought should be that the allegations are true; ten people came forward after all, and as Widanapathirana put it, “people don’t just make shit up”.

Then you have companies getting called out, and the example used here was Falls Festival and the backlash against the end-of-year event for not having enough women on their most recent line up. The panel concluded that this type of backlash is fair, with Sandridge adding that, “these companies should want to be the leaders of change”. Quotas is a big issue worthy of an entirely separate discussion, and as we learned on BIGSOUND’s Wednesday, equality is much more complex than just numerical values.

Reporting on call outs seems to be another hugely sensitive issue that deserves its own panel. The spotlight was put on Joel King for this, and as the publisher for Music Feeds, he was met with a very divisive audience on his claims that the publication’s stories on “call outs” are neutral and ethical. The topic of embedding tweets from people who may have not wanted the media attention was brought up, but King maintained that if it was in the public sphere then it was fair game for media.

That begs a number of questions. Should media maintain a level of neutrality when reporting on these “stories” or should they be taking a stronger stance? At what point are media overindulging in exploiting these situations for click-bait and profit?

Confected outrage is a big issue with media in 2017, and this kind of insincerity and at times opportunistic reporting does run the risk of worsening issues, suppressing the aforementioned importance of real discussion and real change and turning it into some kind of “good vs evil” narrative. “Outrage” is big business for modern online media, and exploiting it undermines and isolates issues.

I could write endlessly on media and its toxic role in encouraging a culture of rash judgement and shallow thought, but I’ll just wrap up with this. The panel was one of the most thoughtful of the week, and the biggest conclusion the audience could all agree on was that while the initial callout is crucial, the follow-up and what happens after those allegations – whether it’s more about isolating and demonising or it’s about creating real discussion in the wider community – is much more important.