Many campus conflicts emerge from “call-out” situations that create deep rifts among former friends, leave people feeling exhausted and alienated, and even lead to violence.
Asam Ahmed has recently started an ever-expanding online conversation questioning the efficacy of the call-out, and suggesting an alternative, the “call in.”
By Ahmed’s definition, call-out culture:
refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behavior and language use by others.
The internet has been blamed for inflaming call-out culture to extreme proportions. Viral call-outs have led to firings, and tearful public apologies and some internet feuds instigated by a calling-out have lasted for years.
As part of the calling-out conversation, there are plenty of advocates for the practice. Noah Berlatsky, for example, argues that social media–as an unequal space that raises some voices and silences others–is part of the problem, and that calling out through that medium is a way to seek equity and justice, especially for the underrepresented:
Social media can be … in many cases a hostile environment, where calling out can be one defense, and one way of asking for help, against people who are determined to hurt you.
Maisha Z. Johnson further echoes the sentiment that call-outs are the means by through which people take back their power in spaces that are typically disempowering, and that the urge to draw the connections between what’s happening in our communities and the intersecting systems that cultivate oppressive behavior as the norm is a very valid one.
In the volatile world of the internet, you’d better be ready to be called out for calling out call-out culture.
It takes a certain amount of bravado to push back against the excessive aspects of call-out culture, proposing an alternative dubbed “calling in.”
Asam Ahmed, who got the conversation started in March, recognizes that the purpose of calling out is to hold people—especially those who claim to be allies in progressive communities–accountable for using the language and framings of the oppressor. However, he draws a line where the purpose of the call out is to draw attention back to the one calling out:
What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are.
He also questions the punitive nature of call-out culture:
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.
One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being, as if there is no difference between a community member or friend and a random stranger walking down the street (who is of course also someone’s friend). Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.
There are some who justify the use of the label, as in, “you are a —ist.” They argue that the label contextualizes individualized behavior within larger systems of oppression. But while the goal of making that link is powerful, it’s not as powerful as the goal of transforming someone’s behavior. As Jay Smooth says it so well, labeling someone disempowers them, suggesting they can never really change.
“Calling in,” as an alternative, involves, for Asam Ahmed:
“speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behavior without making a spectacle of the address itself.”
It can go beyond simply explaining to the wrongdoer how their language was oppressive:
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.
Ngọc Loan Trần has envisioned calling in as:
a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.
And yes, we have been configured to believe it’s normal to punish each other and ourselves without a way to reconcile hurt. We support this belief by shutting each other out, partly through justified anger and often because some parts of us believe that we can do this without people who fuck up.
These invocations of the call-in resonate with restorative justice principles and practice. First, both writers critique those aspects of calling out that emulate the very systems that social justice activists are struggling against, in particular, the criminal justice system. They also draw attention to the ways in which zero-tolerance and disproportionately punitive approaches to harm can permeate social justice spaces. And they advocate for a values-based approach to social justice activism in which the means–the practice–justifies the ends, rather than the inverse.
In ideal circumstances, that is, in tight-knit communities where people have constructed relationships that they value and want to maintain, the call-in can go further to take the form of a “restorative conversation.” This means asking the following questions before leaping to conclusions:
Asking questions first before judging allows the person who has done some harm to explain what they did and what they were thinking and feeling at the time. The restorative conversation then gives the one who has experienced harm a chance to explain its impact. Before starting a restorative conversation, both participants have to agree to listen to one another with open minds and hearts. This gives the one who has engaged in offensive language or behavior a chance to be accountable right away, determine what needs to be done to make things right, and to have a transformative experience which will reduce the likelihood of further offensive behavior.
Calling-in means privately drawing attention to a deed, rather than laying a label on a person. As Gandhi put it: “hate the deed, not the [person]).” This leaves an opening for real transformation.
In this video, Francesca explains the basics of repairing the harm:
“A genuine apology is made up of two parts. The first part is that you take responsibility for what you’ve done, and then the second part is that you make a commitment to change the behavior.”
In advocating for restorative “calling in,” this challenge remains: To engage in calling in, a person has to feel like they’re doing so from a position of some power. Generally speaking, the call-out is the domain of those who see themselves as lacking power. Through the lens of people who are constantly on the receiving end of oppressive language and behavior, anything short of a full-on attack is considered as a capitulation. As Maisha Johnson warns, oppressed people are in fact programmed to capitulate in this way:
As a woman, I’ve been taught by the mainstream media that my role is to put other people’s needs, wishes, and desires before my own. As a survivor of intimate partner violence, I’m still unlearning the tendency to distrust my own feelings and do whatever those around me want me to do.
Consider who you’re silencing when you encourage people not to speak up and call out the people who’ve harmed them. I already face many obstacles, like the angry Black woman stereotype, that invalidate my right to express my feelings.
So for my healing, it’s important for me to be empowered to take care of my own needs first. If someone causes me harm, the last thing I need is for someone else in my community to step in and urge me to take care of that person’s feelings or ask me to share space with them.
Some social justice spaces are experienced as a zero-sum game of oppressors vs. survivors. In these spaces, the call-out is the weapon of choice in the fight against oppression, and people demand the right to wield it. It’s unfair to demand that all survivors of oppression switch tactics to the call-in:
There are many valid reasons why you may not want to call in a person who’s been oppressive towards you. For example, you may not feel safe approaching the person on a personal level. You might also be facing the challenge of the implicit or explicit power dynamics between you and that person.
After all, oppressive behavior works through a top-down system–so the conditions that allow it to happen give the person causing harm more power than the person who’s harmed.
For instance, a white person at a justice organization who commits a racial microaggression against a colleague of color is in a position to perpetuate the marginalization of their colleague.
Other factors – such as a hierarchy of positions in the organization, a person’s popularity in the movement, and additional differences between identities – can further contribute to an imbalance of power.
So the expectation for someone to approach a person who has abused power over them and get their needs as a survivor met is unrealistic, and it contributes to a culture of dismissing a survivor’s needs.
For the call-in to be a viable replacement for the call-out, people need to feel they are in community of like-minded folks working together toward a common goal. Twitter is obviously not one of those spaces, but organizations and cooperative living situations can be. These are spaces that can foster relationships with others that are worthy of “restoration” when harm occurs. Restorative practice emphasizes the importance of engaging in intentional communities. This involves taking the time to identify shared values and principles for communicating and engaging, and committing to them. In that kind of space, when harm occurs, it’s not a huge leap to a call-in or restorative conversation. And better yet, designate a restorative call-in practitioner whom everybody trusts to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.