It’s probably the biggest phenomenon of calling out we’ve ever seen. On 15 October last year, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein being accused of sexual harassment and rape, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

The phrase and hashtag ‘Me too’ powerfully resonated with women across the globe and became one of the most viral occurrences in social media history. Not only did the campaign become a vehicle for women to share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment, it had real world consequences, leading to the firing and public humiliation of many prominent men.

One of the fall outs of the #MeToo movement has been a debate about “call out culture”, a phrase that refers to the practice of condemning sexist, racist, or otherwise problematic behaviour, particularly online.

While calling out has been praised by some as a mechanism to achieve social justice when traditional institutions fail to deliver it, others have criticised call outs as a form of digital mob rule, often meting out disproportionate and unregulated punishment.

Institutional justice or social justice

The debate around call out culture raises a question that goes to the core of how we think justice should be achieved. Is pursuing justice the role of institutions or is it the responsibility of individuals?

The notion that justice should be administered through institutions of power, particularly legal institutions, is an ancient one. In the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, justice was defined as the impartial and consistent application of the rule of law by the judiciary.

A modern articulation of institutional justice comes from John Rawls, who in his 1971 treatise, A Theory of Justice, argues that for justice to be achieved within a large group of people like a nation state, there has to be well founded political, legal and economic institutions, and a collective agreement to cooperate within the limitations of those institutions.

Slightly diverging from this conception of institutional justice is the concept of social justice, which upholds equality – or the equitable distribution of power and privilege to all people – as a necessary pre-condition.

Institutional and social justice come into conflict when institutions do not uphold the ideal of equality. For instance, under the Institutes of Justinian, legal recourse was only available to male citizens of Rome, leaving out women, children, and slaves. Proponents of social justice would hold that these edicts, although bolstered by strong institutions, were inherently unjust, built on a platform of inequality.

Although, as Rawls argues, in an ideal society institutions of justice help ensure equality among its members, in reality social justice often comes into conflict with institutional power. This means that social justice has to sometimes be pursued by individuals outside of, or even directly in opposition to, institutions like the criminal justice system.

For this reason, social justice causes have often been associated with activism. Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s march in Montgomery, Alabama to protest unfair treatment of African American people in the courts was an example of a group of individuals calling out an unjust system, demanding justice when institutional avenues had failed them.

Calling out

The tension between institutional and social justice has been highlighted in debates about “call out culture”.

For many, calling out offends the principles of institutional justice as it aims to achieve justice at a direct and individual level without systematic regulation and procedure. As such, some have compared calling out campaigns like #MeToo to a type of “mob justice”. Giles Coren, a columnist for The Times of London, argues the accusations of harassment should be handled only by the criminal justice system and that “Without any cross-examination of the stories, the man is finished. No trials or second chances.”

But others see calling out sexist and racist behaviour online as a powerful instrument of social justice activism, giving disempowered individuals the capacity to be heard when institutions of power are otherwise deaf to their complaints. As Olivia Goldhill wrote in relation to #MeToo for Quartz:

“Where inept courts and HR departments have failed, a new tactic has succeeded: women talking publicly about harassment on social media, fuelling the public condemnation that’s forced men from their jobs and destroyed their reputations.”

Hearing voices

In his 2009 book, The Idea of Justice, economist Amartya Sen argues a just society is judged not just by the institutions that formally exist within it, but by the “extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard”.

Activist movements like #MeToo use calling out as a mechanism for wronged individuals to be heard. Writer Shaun Scott argues that beyond the #MeToo movement, calling out has become an avenue for minority groups to speak out against centuries of oppression, adding the backlash against “call out” culture is a mechanism to stop social change in its tracks. “Oppressed groups once lived with the destruction of keeping quiet”, he writes. “We’ve decided that the collateral damage of speaking up – and calling out – is more than worth it.”

While there may be instances of collateral damage, even people innocently accused, a more pressing problem to address is how and why institutions we are supposed to trust are deaf to many of the problems facing women and minority groups.

Dr Oscar Schwartz is an Australian writer and researcher based in New York with expertise in tech, philosophy, and literature. Follow him on Twitter: @scarschwartz