Tea spilling, cancel culture, call out culture — unless you’ve made the perhaps very wise decision to ‘cancel’ any connection you have to the internet, you’ve likely come across one or all of these terms. Even if you’re unsure about what these terms mean, you’ve probably clicked on at least a few articles which would fall under one of these terms, probably with little to no thought as to where it came from, or how the lives of the subjects may have been affected by it. Synonymous with tabloids and gossip columns, ‘tea spilling’ and call out culture is the fuel driving our insatiable appetite for consuming entertaining content online. It has also quickly become the backbone of many online ‘activist’ communities. But at what cost?
With roots in black drag culture, ‘tea spilling’ is now a mainstream phrase which means to gossip about someone else. Call out culture on the other hand, can be described as publicly calling out someone else’s behaviour, while to ‘cancel’ someone simply means no longer supporting an individual due to said questionable behaviour or comments. In recent years, the terms have become inextricably intertwined, thanks in part to social media and online activism. Put simply, people like to be entertained online. They also like to feel like they are making a difference. As world famous drag queen, RuPaul would say: “Honey, get out the fine china because I’m about to spill the tea.”
On the surface level, it may seem like a little light gossip is harmless. After all, gossip magazines have been around for decades. And really, how much can a little ‘drag’ here or there online really hurt someone, particularly if this person has chosen to be in the limelight? The answer may be surprising. While call out culture, mob mentality and public humiliation has been around for centuries (see medieval stocks), never before has it been done on a scale of this magnitude. With the invention of the internet and social media, comes the potential for lives to be destroyed, jobs to be lost and reputations ruined. When the whole world is observing your behaviour online and criticising your every move, there is little room to make mistakes online, particularly if you’re a public figure. And there’s all the more reason to participate in what can arguably be described as cyber-bullying, particularly when the internet allows for anonymity. In the midst of a heated discussion online, it can be almost too easy to forget there are real people on the other side of the screens, each with their own problems. ‘Taking down’ someone online can become very tempting, particularly when you have not met them, cannot see them and strongly disagree with their beliefs.
On Twitter and Tumblr, for example, there are entire accounts likeYes You’re Racist, dedicated to publicly shaming racists. Not only are followers encouraged to call them out online, they are often egged on to take it a step further by contacting their employers or publishing the offender’s personal contact details. In a digital world, there can be very real world consequences for anyone who steps out of line. Online, this is known as ‘doxxing’, which can be described as the act of searching for and publishing information about an individual online, typically with malicious intent. In 2017, the group exposed a white nationalist named Cole White who attended a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Followers tweeted with glee after managing to track down his employer, identification and within a few short hours, he was fired.
But who gets to decide what behaviour is acceptable anyway? What happens, when it’s taken too far and lives are lost? How do we draw the line between appropriately calling out someone’s poor behaviour and causing the ‘offender’ irreversible physical or psychological damage? How many ‘mistakes’ is one allowed to have before being publicly shamed? These were just some of the questions raised recently when Brisbane university student, Wilson Gavin, took his own life following a trial-by-internet earlier this year. In spite of being gay himself, Gavin identified as a staunch conservative, opposing same-sex marriage. A leader of a rightwing student club at the University of Queensland, the twenty-one-year-old activist was publicly criticised after videos of him protesting at a drag queen story event held at a Brisbane library went viral. In the videos, Gavin, former head of the university’s Liberal National Club, is seen amongst other protesters yelling “Drag queens are not for kids” at performers.
Shortly after, the club’s Facebook page was flooded with outraged comments from those against the protesters’ actions. Condemned by other students as well as federal MPs, including the Brisbane National party MP, Trevor Evans, and LNP councillor, Vicki Howard, Gavin took his life just one day after the incident took place. Following Gavin’s passing, his friend, Drew Pavlou, and fellow UQ senator, tweeted about Gavin being a kind and decent person. “He had his struggles and made mistakes, and it is a tragedy for us all that he ultimately succumbed to his suffering and pain.” In a statement made by his family and published by the Brisbane Times, family members addressed criticism made online about their son. “To those who are now regretting words said or typed in anger that may have contributed to another person’s suffering – we know and share your pain all too well.”
While there are some very real issues with critiquing other’s behaviour online, without access to online platforms in order to do so, it’s arguable many movements would not be able to reach such a widespread audience. From the #MeToo movement to #BlackLivesMatter, an online presence has been instrumental in bringing awareness to cases of sexual abuse and police brutality that need to be talked about. In the US, there have been countless cases of alleged abuse from public figures recorded and posted publicly online. Cases like that of Sandra Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old African American woman who was found hanged in her jail cell three days after being arrested back in 2015. Bland, who had been travelling from Illinois to Texas, had been arrested by a white police officer for failing to signal a lane change. The case, which quickly drew international attention, was considered a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement after footage emerged of police officer, Brian Encinia, threatening an unarmed Bland with a taser over a seemingly small violation. Her family, who believe Bland died under suspicious circumstances, were awarded $1.9 million after winning a court case against authorities, while Encinia was fired and has agreed to never work in law enforcement again.
In some cases, call out culture has even led to the detection and arrest of individuals who have committed some of the most serious offences. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this is that of one of Canada’s most infamous modern day criminals. Serial animal abuser and murderer, Luka Magnotta, was put behind bars thanks to the dedicated efforts of a group of online sleuths. But this of course is an extreme example. For most of us, posting videos of yourself killing cats and humans online (as Magnotta did) may warrant public scrutiny, as does being a potentially violent racist. The problem is, it gets much murkier and difficult to distinguish between what is appropriate behaviour to call out and what’s not when it comes to more insidious ‘crimes’.
And with the rise of social media influencers, some are questioning whether call out culture has simply become another form of entertainment — or worse, a well devised tactic by some to increase views and pay cheques. Around this time last year, the internet was abuzz following a feud between some of YouTube’s most beloved beauty stars, James Charles and Tati. The drama first unfolded in May 2019, after thirty-seven-year-old YouTuber Tati, posted a video announcing the end of their friendship.
Up until this time, Tati and a then nineteen-year-old Charles had been close friends, both promoting each other online. However, the relationship supposedly turned sour after James promoted supplement brand Sugar Bear Hair on Instagram, a brand which is in direct competition with Tati’s own supplement line. In response to James Charles’ Instagram story, Tati created her own posts calling out her ex-friend and went on to release a 40-minute YouTube video which not only called out Charles’ Sugar Bear Hair promotion, but accused him of some serious allegations. In the video, which has since been deleted (but not until it amassed millions of views), Tati goes into detail about how she no longer wishes to associate with Charles because he allegedly coerces men into performing sex acts on him.
“Oh my god, you tried to trick a straight man into thinking he’s gay, yet again,” says the beauty guru, recalling a phone call of theirs where she says Charles shared these details with her. “And somehow, you’re the victim. It’s really disgusting to manipulate someone’s sexuality, especially when they’re emerging into adulthood and don’t quite have everything figured out.”
Unsurprisingly, following the video release, Charles lost millions of followers, while Tati’s subscription numbers continued to grow. Needless to say, for a YouTube star, losing millions of followers can also mean losing millions of dollars. Subsequently, James posted two of his own videos addressing the allegations. In one video titled “No More Lies” the beauty influencer addressed everyone of Tati’s claims against him with screenshots, texts, messages and more. “Tati made a video telling stories about me, publicly humiliating me, and now I have serious allegations against me, detrimental to my career,” says Charles, addressing the camera.
While many of us enjoy a good ‘tea spill’, the James Charles versus Tati saga highlights the worst aspects of call out culture. At the end of the day, despite the seriousness of such allegations, James Charles was a teenager being publicly called out online by a woman in her thirties. And at the time of writing a year on, the allegations against Charles are yet to be substantiated. “When James Charles was called a sexual predator, all of the top web sites were reporting on that,” says Angelica Nwandu, founder of the popular Instagram account The Shade Room, in an interview with WWD about the drama. “Media should have a responsibility to say these are unconfirmed reports, that there is no evidence.
While this is of course not to say Charles is innocent, what it does say is that in the online sphere, trial-by-media is not only acceptable, it is viewed as entertainment and tabloid fodder, something to gossip about. Fortunately for Charles, it seems he has survived the scandal relatively emotionally unscathed (although his business has appeared to suffer, with Charles deciding to pull a merchandise line as a result of the drama, as well as tickets to a tour). However, for many others like Wilson Gavin and his family, the outcome has been devastating. And sadly, there are plenty of examples where suicides have occurred as a result of cancel culture.
Back in 2018, adult film star, August Ames, took her own life after receiving harsh backlash online following comments she made about working with “crossover performers” (men who perform with both other men and women) in the adult film industry. The twenty-three-year-old had taken to Twitter to warn other female actresses against working with a male performer who had just shot a male on male scene. Despite being bisexual herself, Ames was quickly labelled a homophobe for concerns of contracting HIV. The backlash was brutal, with some taking to their keyboards to encourage the performer to take her own life. Gay male performer, Jaxton Wheeler, had tweeted: “The world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill.” Even after her death, the internet was less than forgiving. “I sleep just fine, I stood up for the gay and bisexual community,” Wheeler tweeted. After Ames’ passing, it was revealed she had been struggling with bipolar disorder and depression.
But it’s not just celebrities and influencers who are at risk of being ‘cancelled.’ Anyone with any sort of online profile is at risk of being exposed for their ‘missteps.’ In 2015, Paige Paz, then 20, was hospitalised after attempting suicide due to months of abuse from Tumblr bloggers over her “problematic” art of television cartoon characters. Her crimes? Making a plus size character thinner and replacing an alien character’s kinky afro hair with straight blond hair. Her criticisers, not only critiqued her work, but worked tirelessly to police her online conversations for any language which was not politically correct. Interestingly, in many of these cases, it is not far-right extremists or racist trolls doing the ‘calling out’ — it is quite often, liberal progressives who believe they are holding bigots accountable for their ‘questionable’ beliefs.
But of course, cyber bullying and cancel culture are not just exclusive to the left. Activists like sixteen-year-old Swedish school girl, Greta Thunberg, have been the target of online critique from many adults much older than herself. The environmentalist has been publicly criticised by many rightwing middle aged men, from US president Donald Trump to English media personality Katie Hopkins.
While Trump took to Twitter to post a series of sarcastic tweets mocking her mental health (“Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend!”), Katie Hopkins, a controversial rightwing columnist, was caught on camera at a media event labelling the teenager an ‘autistic wench’ at a taped awards ceremony, which was later published online. But it’s not just a herd mentality which can incentivise one to participate in call out culture. Part of the reason why call out culture is so appealing to activists on both sides could possibly be explained by the illusion that call-outs can only be making a positive difference (even when the opposite is true).
“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong word or verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, ‘Man, you see how woke I was. I called you out.’ That’s not activism,” former US President, Barack Obama, explained to a crowd at last year’s Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. And as other’s suggest, perhaps the problem with call out and cancel culture is it is all too easy to get carried away with. Instead of respectfully addressing an individual’s potentially problematic behaviour, ‘perpetrators’ often end up being made victim’s themselves, as activist and writer Ruby Hamad explains: “What can often start out as well-intentioned and necessary criticism far too quickly devolves into brutish displays of virtual tar-and-feathering.”
Some, like Anna Richards, a therapist specialising in conflict mediation, suggest a softer approach is required. Speaking to The Guardian, Richard says ganging up on a person gives the impression, “you’re taking this moral high ground, with a lot of righteous indignation, and inviting others to participate in a public shaming exercise,” which is not likely to be productive. Often, we are also more likely to be less lenient on other’s mistakes than we are on ourselves. Richards warns we should take this into consideration when considering calling someone out, warning against taking a “reductionist approach.”
“We tend to give ourselves really high context”, she says. “We think, well I was going through something, and there were certain norms at the time, I was following everybody else.” Although there isn’t a definitive method for calling someone out correctly, the therapist says the best approach is to learn to analyse our own motivations when criticising, consider the context and the possible consequences of our actions. Of course, this still doesn’t guarantee results. Depending on the individual in question, they may have a difficult time owning up to their mistakes. For someone to truly reflect on their actions and apologise, they need to have a solid sense of self-worth, according to Richards, who says oftentimes people are insecure and afraid of being wrong.
“People feel as though they’re already on shaky ground and if they have some sort of mistake highlighted, it would be drawing from an empty cup,” says Richards. “Generally what I see is just a total collapse, where the person’s sense of self is eroded, or a kind of counter-attack, where they double down on their position and don’t want to learn.” In other situations, call out culture has led to what some suggest as being fake apologies or ‘fauxpologies’ made to save face. It’s something many of us have probably seen before — the politician exposed for a scandal or the celebrity caught red-handed making offensive comments (cue the overly tearful public apology followed by the press statements).
But while Richards suggests an empathetic approach is the way forward in solving conflicts, this isn’t to say she believes it isn’t all down to the injured party to ‘take the higher road’, be polite and keep the peace.Instead, she believes anger could be better directed towards the systemic forces which give an individual the sense of entitlement to act in ways which are unkind. In other words, in certain instances, it could be better to confront the organisations or companies to implement change on a greater scale, rather than confront individuals. Sadly she says, an individual adjusting their behaviour is “not as common as we would like.”
And perhaps equally as sad is how frequently headlines are released announcing the death of yet another young person as a result of what could be interpreted as the latest trend in cyberbullying. Whichever side of the argument you sit on, it’s hard to deny there isn’t a problem when people are taking their lives as a result of messages online.
Because along with the recognition and awareness which social media can bring to societal issues, it can also become a weapon when used incorrectly. “It [cancel culture] comes from a great place, but what I’ve suggested is that we cancel the behavior and not the person because it’s becoming a toxic movement,” says Angelica Nwandu. “It’s not allowing anyone to make a mistake.” Nwandu has a point. After all, how can we expect anyone to grow if we don’t give them a chance to.