Tag Archives: justice

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.

Also see:

Police: use social media to invite community participation, show compassion

handstopI’m noticing a big social media misstep this week: lots of law enforcement agencies, mostly police departments and sheriff’s offices posting in solidarity with Dallas, Texas police – as they absolutely should – but that were silent after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this week.

Of course you should support your own tribe – I certainly do, when it’s one of my tribes: aid workers abroad, nonprofit workers here in the USA, journalists, and Kentuckians.

But it’s also a time to counter narratives that create mistrust and call for violence. It is a time when we all need to show that, even if we disagree, we do not believe violence is the answer, and we stand together, as humans, from a place of compassion and rational thought.

Here’s some ideas for phrases for law enforcement agencies to post on, say, Twitter, when there is a shooting by police of a citizen, and there is controversy about that shooting:

We are closely following events in [[name of city where shooting occurred]]. We hope for compassion  for families affected, peace at protests. 

We strive to build connections in our community. All are welcomed to apply to ride along with 1 of our officers. Info: [[link]]

We welcome local #blacklivesmatter activists to our citizens’ academy, to talk with our officers, ask questions: [[link]]

We provide many ways for any community member to meet with officers, face-to-face, talk with us. Info: [[link]]

We will have a meeting on [[date]]; community members welcomed to come, ask questions re: our policing policies [[link]]  

These are deliberate messages that acknowledge what has happened, and even if you think a civilian shooting is justified, you are showing that you acknowledge that there might be a disconnect with some in your local community, and you want to bridge divides.

Yes, you are going to get hateful responses to such social media messages. But it’s not those people you are reaching out to. You are reaching out to local people in your own community who have had negative experiences with the police, or who are skeptical of law enforcement, for whatever reason. You are saying to those members of your community, “We hear you, even if we don’t agree with everything you are saying, just as you don’t agree with everything we are saying. But we do want to meet you, to know you, to talk with you outside of law enforcement situations. We welcome you. ‘Protect and Serve the community’ means YOU too.”

Of course, you cannot say any of that if it’s not true… but I think, for the majority of law enforcement agencies in the USA, it is. Let’s stop the cycle of outrage with sincere, honest community outreach, transparency and understanding.

Also see:

MLK words for what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, USA

“I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Grosse Pointe High School, March 14, 1968

Reconciliation

I need a better word than reconciliation.

It’s become a loaded term, a political term, an undesirable term. To many, it means appeasement to an oppressor or abuser. It means to relinquish any demands for justice for atrocities committed. It’s not a word most people want to think about during the heat of conflict or in the immediate aftermath of such.

What reconciliation is supposed to mean is peacefully co-existing with those with whom you have been in conflict, and laying those conflicts aside. It is an acceptance of the past, without agreeing with it, and a mutual understanding that, in the future, there will be reciprocated respect and cooperation.

Even when one group militarily defeats another, many of us expect reconciliation, as happened with the Allies and Axis countries after World War II (a war many believe was caused because of the lack of reconciliation and, rather, the focus on punishment, after World War I). Isn’t reconciliation the 21st Century goal for every conflict now, whether in the Middle East or Ferguson, Missouri? Yet, to say the word in regard to the eventual resolution of conflict – and all conflict must resolve at some point, even if only because one runs out of ammunition and funding – can produce immediate resistance, an utter dismissal of the idea. You don’t get a too soon! response, you get a NEVER response.

But what is the alternative to resolutionI don’t think there is one. At least not one we can live with.

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) is a non-governmental organization and think tank in South Africa. It was forged out of the country’s now legendary Truth and Reconciliation process in 2000. It’s allowed South Africa to move forward in a way I never dreamed I would see in my lifetime. South Africa has so, so far to go, so many massive challenges, many of which make my stomach churn. Yet… what would have been the alternative to attempting even this incomplete reconciliation?

Reconciliation is an ongoing process. For many countries – for many individual people, for just their own daily relationships – it’s a never-ending process. It’s a constant struggle. Rarely do you hear of a person that has completely reconciled with an abuser or oppressor, with someone that has done a grave injustice to that person. Rarely do you hear of two formerly-warring factions, or two populations – one the oppressor, one the oppressed – that have achieved complete reconciliation. You hear that they are still struggling, still debating, still trying to respect and understand, still bristling at the lack of respect and understanding. But even just that ongoing process, that struggle – isn’t that what we should strive to reach after every conflict, whether its a civil war, a war between two countries, or a divorce following a horrific marriage?

I need a better word than reconciliation.

Further reading:

From Resolution to Reconciliation in Postconflict Societies, by Daniel Bar-Tal, in World Politics Review (you get the full article for free if you’ve never visited the site before, so be sure to download it and read it offline, because after a few days, it goes away and asks for a subscription – and if I could afford to subscribe, I would).

Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook, from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2003, available from the United Nations web site.