The Problem with “Call-Out” Culture

When working through issues both political and social, it often seems we operate based on the way we wish things were rather than the way the world really is. You see this all across the political spectrum; anti-choice advocates operating off the idea that successfully banning abortion will be the magic wave of a wand that stops all abortions forever, when all available data suggests that, of course, this is not the case. This philosophy is also employed, to no great effect, in the War on Drugs (ban the drugs and no one will ever do them again!), immigration (stop the boats and refugees will stop coming!), and so much more. 

Another socio-political technique in which this wishful thinking is evident is in "call-out" culture. For the unfamiliar, on paper, this is what it looks like: a respectful "calling out" of behaviour deemed problematic by peer advocates in order for equally respectful behavioural adjustments to be made and everyone to move forward in harmony and with a united purpose. In feminism, it's often raised by women to their non-feminist identifying or male allies, and in intersectional feminism in particular by POC feminists to their white feminist counterparts. In a perfect world, this would work fine. However, after having been involved with a number of feminist groups with advocates from a huge range of backgrounds and experience, I've observed the rise of call-out culture directly leading to confusion, aggression, a withdrawal from engagement with issues, and more often than not, a complete dissolution of the group itself. A net loss both for those looking to further our cause, and to new advocates hoping to become involved for the first time. 

I believe there are a few key issues that prevent call-out culture from operating effectively. Firstly is the issue of gatekeeping. When one individual is being "called out", there needs to be a clear consensus on who has the authority to do the actual "calling". The problem is that feminism is made up of many moving parts and many branches with many different areas of focus and trying to determine a unified sense of "authority" among sub-groups is much more difficult than you would imagine. Many groups seem to fracture while trying to determine exactly who is permitted to speak on behalf of one group or another. In a perfect world, the demarcations would be clear; however, in the real world, where grey areas are the norm rather than the exception, it's rarely easy to discern with any certainty, making disagreements frequent and derailing.

Relative to this is the second problem - the fact that call-out culture often eliminates the chance for productive dialogue. This is because "calling out" often isn't intended to start a dialogue at all, but rather to correct behavioural problems in another as identified by the gatekeepers. To be clear - being informed of potentially problematic behaviour is a good thing, and everyone embarking on this journey has to be willing to accept that they will make missteps. Of course, being corrected is uncomfortable but it's also part of learning and becoming better - and it should be embraced! But when you call someone out publicly – typically the case in call-out culture - what you’re doing is essentially relying on public shaming, often without a full explanation as to why the identified behaviour is problematic in the first place. This seldom leads to a positive result – particularly when those being publicly rebuked lack any background in feminism beyond a desire to learn more and make positive changes.

This leads to the final problem. I believe the reason call-out culture falters so often is that it operates on a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature and what really motivates a person to change. Movements that elevate gatekeeping and reservation of discussion for a certain few as a modus operandi can never flourish or foster positive change, and not only that - they are rife with individuals misusing the system. This often results in bullying - which is NOT the goal of most people when calling someone out. Having said that, I've seen first-hand several groups fall apart completely after being hijacked by individuals using the guise of call-out culture to engage in serious bullying and doxxing which had very real implications on the lives of some very dedicated activists, and the departure from the group of several would-be feminists hoping to become involved in positive change. People simply cannot be bullied, belittled, or humiliated into lasting change. They must be positively motivated to make better choices - something call-out culture, in my opinion cannot accomplish on a wide enough scale to be successful.

Having said all of this, I understand where call-out culture comes from. Every feminist, from every background, has the right to be angry - even angry at each other. Indeed, anger has its place. No doubt many of us were spurred into action by anger at the current system and a belief that things can be, and must be, better. But I also firmly believe that to truly change hearts and minds, we must be able to meet people where they are - which often means explaining things that you or I already know. No, we shouldn't have to do this. And yes, it's emotionally exhausting. I advocate taking breaks when necessary, directing those with questions towards existing resources or those who are ready, willing, and able to engage, and educating gently when interacting with people who are attempting to learn if they are doing so in good faith and not merely playing devil's advocate.

I also believe in taking ownership of what you don't know, and accepting that sometimes you will make mistakes on the often-uncomfortable road to change. But if we work together in mutual respect and correct others with kindness, patience and respect, we can reach our goals strong, united and above all, as equals - and after all, isn't that what feminism is all about?

By: Siri Williams


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