when “calling out” is bullying

A student in one of my classes raised her hand to say something about 20 minutes into a university class guest-lecture I was doing, then smugly told me she didn’t like my use of the words target and setting my sights on something, because these were “references based in violence” (her words).

I didn’t feel like it was a moment of enlightenment for me, nor that she was trying to be helpful; I felt like it was a moment to humiliate and to control. It felt belittling. And I admit that, later, I oh-so-smugly chastised her over her own use of the phrase rule of thumb, a phrase she didn’t realize is tied to an excuse for spousal abuse that can be traced as far back as 1782.

I can be petty. It’s true.

As I noted in a blog called Have I offended?, this and other incidents prompted me to put a slide called modus operandi at the beginning of all of my presentations. I tell the group there are no stupid questions, that I welcome all questions though I might not have all the answers and will freely admit such, etc. And I also ask for no GOTCHA moments, where an attendee immediately becomes outraged at something I’ve said. I ask that, if anyone hears me say something that he or she thinks is offensive to please raise a hand and ask me to clarify, or to take me aside at a break and ask for clarification. I love training and teaching, and if there is an obstacle to my overall message getting out because of something I’ve said, or a perception of what I’ve said, I want that obstacle addressed post haste. So far, it’s been a good strategy: it’s cut down significantly on these gotcha moments where there’s very little learning and listening – but there’s a lot of efforts to control, and often, at least a bit of humiliation.

This all came to mind as I read this outstanding essay, What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic, by Asam Ahmad. It’s from 2015. From the essay:

Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on… In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being… It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out. More often than not, this boundary is constructed through the use of appropriate language and terminology – a language and terminology that are forever shifting and almost impossible to keep up with. In such a context, it is impossible not to fail at least some of the time.

I actually teared up as I read this. I so want to connect with my audience, or with other people at a community meeting, or my neighbors, on a human level, and for all of us to be able to treat each other with respect and openness. But sometimes, I’ve felt shut down by call-out culture, by people playing gotcha, and I haven’t felt like they were trying to be helpful or educational – I’ve felt like they were trying to humiliate me, to silence me. I love Ahmad’s assertion that “There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit. Paying attention to these other contexts will mean refusing to unleash all of our very real trauma onto the psyches of those we imagine represent the systems that oppress us.”

Ahmad cites Ngọc Loan Trần’s earlier essay to explain this further, and it’s also excellent at explaining how “calling out” can turn into shutting discussion down and shutting certain people out of a discussion altogether.

This isn’t AT ALL to say someone shouldn’t call out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. Absolutely: call that out! It isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be debates about what is and isn’t appropriate to say – English is a living language, culture is evolving, and there’s no reason to fight against it, to not be a part of it. Sadly, there will be those that will claim anyone saying that calling out can sometimes be used as a tool for bullying is just an effort to stop people from calling out threatening, harassing, abusive, oppressive, dangerous and/or illegal behavior. I’ve already had two people say just that when I shared a link to Asam Ahmad’s essay on social media, and I’ll expect it now as I share this blog.

Particularly when working with cultures very different from my own, and working abroad, I’ve heard words and phrases that I felt were inappropriate, even hurtful, but sometimes – NOT always, but sometimes – I also know the words might be open to interpretation in terms of meaning, motivation and intent, and I need to ask for clarification to make sure I’m understanding the speaker’s intent. And sometimes, asking the speaker some questions, getting clarification and even saying, “When you say that, here’s what I hear…” is a more effective strategy to elicit a change in mindset than immediately branding someone as racist, sexist, etc. And sometimes, the person doubles down and they really are a racist, sexist, etc. – and now, I’m sure, and it’s going to be very hard for them, later, to claim it’s not what they meant.

One way of addressing with compassion an issue someone has for what he or she perceives as inappropriate words or actions is “calling in”, which means speaking privately with the individual, addressing the word or behavior without making a more public spectacle of the address itself. I have appreciated this very much when it’s been done with me, when someone tells me, privately, that this or that word or phrase may be offensive to some people and why that is. Sometimes I agree with them and alter my language. And sometimes I don’t. But I always appreciate outreach that comes from a place of sincerity and care, not gotcha.

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