Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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Calling out calling out. It’s time we stopped inciting people to call others out.

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Lesedauer: 3.5 mins

 



I’ve long harboured a nagging doubt about the widespread, and growing, use of the word – beg your pardon, phrasal verb –, call out. Like all bad things (junk food, Trump, overuse of like), it comes from across the sea, like a linguistic bubonic plague.

[You are being “ironic”, aren’t you? Just checking. Ed.]

It has perplexed me for quite a while for several reasons. First, it seemed to be usurping the role of gentler and more nuanced criticisms, such as, ahem, criticize, censure, deplore, and the like.

Second, it seemed to exemplify that remorseless trend to sex up yet literalize (or make more graphic, concrete, depending on your point of view) language, a trend that replaces, for example, available with out there (in one of that phrase’s meanings), while at the same time spraying a layer of beguiling imprecision around the word, like dry ice.

Most importantly, it also struck me as the language of the playground: if I don’t like what you say/who you are/what you do, etc. I will call you out, and Yah, booh, sucks, take that, you nasty person! (Imagine an icon with a childish face and a big tongue sticking out. Or, better still, that uppity brat up at the top of this post.)

The phrasal verb in the sense of, as the OED defines it, “To expose or identify (a person) as acting in a dishonest or otherwise unacceptable manner; to challenge or confront [orig. and chiefly U.S.]” is first recorded from 1981, but now seems to be sweeping all in its path.

In that definition, “to challenge or confront” is the active ingredient. In increasingly confrontational encounters, aided and abetted it has to be said by Twitter, in our increasingly confrontational society, being exhorted to “call someone out” epitomizes the verbal fisticuffs culture in which we now seem to be trapped. If you call someone out, generally you are not “challenging” them to an intellectual duel, far less to a civilized Socratic dialogue. Basically, you are slagging them off.


The reasons for my distaste finally crystallized yesterday when I came across a tweet “protesting” against the killing of grizzly bears. (The background is the recent approval by the Wyoming Wildlife Commission of the first bear hunt in decades.) I can’t find the tweet, but no matter. Let’s pretend this is radio: I’ll describe the scene.

One tweeter (person 1) had posted a picture of himself, possibly self-satisifiedly, above the corpse of a grizzly. Another tweeter (person 2), ostensibly for an enlightened motive, had retweeted that picture and called on people to “call out” the perpetrator, pointing out that it was hardly a fair fight between an unarmed bear and an automatic rifle.

“Yeah, right, let’s get the b*****d” might be everyone’s gut reaction. Surely only a despicable moron would do such a shocking thing as kill one of Nature’s most magnificent creatures (and he deserves to be kicked where it really hurts).

Or perhaps not.

Let’s reconsider. For a start, we don’t know from the tweet all the reasons why person 1 killed the bear, do we?

But even if we did, and it was just for sport, does that justify us in hounding him? For that is what “calling out” someone in this particular case amounts to. Naming and shaming, hounding, harassing are other ways of putting it. It is an implicit incitement to violence, though probably only to verbal, not deadly violence. All the same, it is disingenuous, to say the least, if not downright hypocritical.

Just to make one objection, how can we possibly predict what the consequences of “calling” this person “out” might be?

To take an extreme scenario, an animal rights nutter might track him down and shoot him, or burn his house down, or kidnap his children, or who knows what.

And even if nothing so dire happened, the call-out-ee might still feel belittled, humiliated, ridiculed, and so forth.

Would achieving that be a morally justifiable result? I’m far from convinced.

‘Ok…I’ll admit they’re kind of cute, but I still say their herds need to be thinned.’


Meanwhile, person 2 (who as far as I recall was a biologist) has the almost erotic satisfaction of feeling morally superior and of having done the “right thing.” But in my view, all they have done is appeal to a sort of moralistic herd instinct or even mob rule, the sort of virtue-signalling sides-taking encouraged by Twitter that has largely poisoned public discourse in the political sphere and turned debate into a Manichean struggle to the death — mostly figurative, but just very occasionally literal.

Would “calling out” bring the bear back to life?

No.

Would it stop others killing bears?

No.

It might even achieve the opposite and harden the riflemen in their determination to shoot grizzlies.

(In any case, there is a set number of shootings allowed.)

The issue has been discussed, different viewpoints have been presented, and a decision has been taken.

As with any decision, some people dislike it and disagree with it.

The exhortation to “call out” is the online version of the rotten tomato/egg thrown at a politician.

It achieves nothing except to inflame the thrower’s moral narcissism and self-regard while belittling and humiliating the opponent.

Yet, being online, it is ultimately more effective, more horribly pernicious and divisive. Stop it, please. Just stop it.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on “Calling out calling out. It’s time we stopped inciting people to call others out.

  1. Isn’t it redundant to say “protesting against”?

    Love your blogs, Michelle Ask me about audiobooks! Or click *here * to see & hear titles I have narrated!

    On Thu, Sep 13, 2018 at 10:31 AM Jeremy Butterfield Editorial wrote:

    > Jeremy Butterfield posted: “Lesedauer: 3.5 mins I’ve long harboured a > nagging doubt about the widespread, and growing, use of the word – beg your > pardon, phrasal verb –, call out. Like all bad things (junk food, Trump, > overuse of like), it comes from across ” >

    Like

    • To protest as a transitive verb is not a syntax I personally use. If you look here, you will see examples with and without ‘against’ in 1.1. and 1.2. The directly transitive version is to my ears an Americanism which is now fairly standard in British English, too. However, I stick with the syntax I grew up with. There is probably also a meaning distinction, as the dictionary suggests, with protest + direct object conjuring up physical action, demonstrations, etc.

      Like

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