The internet has yielded a golden age of public shaming and callout culture, and the past few weeks have exemplified this trend. After years of online backlash to its owner’s homophobic beliefs and donations to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations, Chick-fil-A was recently banned from opening a branch in the San Antonio International Airport. Multiple art museums such as the Guggenheim are now distancing themselves from the Sackler family due to their alleged profiting off of America’s opioid epidemic, and Representative Steve King has been eviscerated nonstop on Twitter and elsewhere for his blatantly racist comments concerning white supremacy.
The outrage in all of these cases is, of course, justified, but our national focus on shaming and punishment through individual rather than institutional means may blind us to the real, structural change that must occur if meaningful change is desired.
This is not to say that we should stop using our online voice to draw attention to injustice, nor should we tolerate private entities such as the Guggenheim being affiliated with people like the Sacklers. However, our prioritization and focus on this way of correcting societal wrongs and missteps may become a problem. There are broader issues at stake here beyond Chick-fil-A’s place in the San Antonio airport or a Sackler wing of the Met.
For example, while it’s problematic that Chick-fil-A’s owners are homophobic, the much more pressing issue is the fact that in 32 states it is currently legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. These policies embolden people like the owners of Chick-fil-A to publicly state their regressive opinions. Banning Chick-fil-A from opening up shop does not do anything about this underlying problem.
Similarly, while Steve King is equal parts hated and laughed at throughout much of the country, he is still a sitting member of Congress and a member of the Republican Party — despite the fact that he is a proud white supremacist. The Sacklers may become social pariahs, but will that mean anything to them after they have amassed such a large fortune profiting from opioid addiction? Will U.S law cease to favor wealthy individuals such as the Sacklers due to thousands of angry rants on Twitter?
I do not want to create unrealistic expectations, and obviously all the moves described above against Chick-fil-A, the Sacklers, and Steve King are steps in the right direction. The danger lies in the possibility of complacency and failing to see the big picture. The internet has made it exponentially easier for us to venture online and publicize our rage. But this is still much easier to do than, say, vote or canvass for a candidate who would be a voice for LGBTQ+ civil rights or demand that Steve King resign immediately.
If we rely on public outcry campaigns or private institutions to correct our injustices, then real societal change will be much more difficult to achieve.
For any systemic change to occur, it cannot be based on the whims of the board of the Guggenheim or the officials of the San Antonio Airport. It must be based on more methodical advancements through legislative achievement. Anything other than such an approach has the potential to offer us the appearance of social activism and schadenfreude at the expense of unsavory political characters, but achieves very little in terms of actually altering disadvantaged people’s lives and reducing the inequalities in the U.S. legal system.
It is only through a dependence on our public institutions and through faith in our democratic system and its ability to right wrongs that we can hope to make real improvements through political action. Internet campaigns are effective means of driving conversations and drawing attention to issues, but they cannot be goals unto themselves. To truly realize their potential, they must lead to concrete policy changes that will prevent the next Steve King or Sackler family.
As college students, we are called upon to take part in all kinds of activism. This is an important part of our college experience and of this transformative time in our lives when we begin to consider what we really care about and want to change. Callout culture is not as productive as we sometimes think it is. It is imperative that we aim to make those changes through the most efficient and broad ways possible, not the loudest and most convenient.
Benjamin Gelman is a first-year from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.