This is the scariest bit. I have to address, in part, those doing the call outs. I have to in some ways speak directly to black people, to people of color, to already-disenfranchised people. I have to speak even with every terror that what I say will yet again be twisted, taken out of context, or used against me, weaponized for attack. I have to dig deep into myself and question my own behavior with call outs, and my own reasons for doing so, and shake my own foundations. I have to examine my own deeply held ideologies and values to see if they still work. Maybe even discard some.
I’m calling out the call outs. The caller-outers, to some extent.
I’m asking a question that it has taken me two years of panic, anxiety, hiding, and almost giving up my work and career, to ask.
What are you* hoping to achieve with this call out?
*“You” will be used a lot in this post as a general form of address. If you, actual reader, would like to apply it personally to yourself, sure. But it’s not meant to target any particular group or individual. It’s not an attack.
(There’ll be a lot more qualifying statements like that, too.)
So yes, indeed, my white cisgendered ass is questioning how many of us, myself emphatically included, define and respond to things, I’m questioning if those definitions and responses are sometimes, or for certain individuals, perhaps actually more about a performance than genuine effectiveness.
NOTE: If you haven’t read Part I of this, do that first. I’ve mentioned before that there are plenty of good reasons to call out someone for saying ___ or doing ___. There may even be good reason for shaming them. But I no longer believe that it should be the default setting for activism. I no longer think that it’s an effective response in a large number of circumstances. It may even be doing more individual and social harm than good in many cases.
It needs to be scrutinized. It needs to be reassessed. It may need to change.
I have a whole lot of ideas, and I suspect this is going to be disjointed and emotional, but I’m writing it anyway (with thanks to my therapist, who is also a person of color, btw, and has encouraged me in this series of blog posts). All of the usual, aforementioned caveats apply.
I’m taking the step of asking all of us calling out others, including myself: what are you calling out? What are you hoping to achieve by doing so?
What is the purpose of said call out? To vent? To gain the approval of ___? To speak up on behalf of ___? To make a statement, take a stand on ___
If, considering the recipient of your particular call out, is that likely to be effective?
Essentially, are you/we using the right tools for the job?
Hell, is this even a job or repair that needs to be done? Is ___ actually what is going on in ___ situation?
Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a moment and think before responding, especially lashing out in anger and pain.
As I mentioned last time, calling out someone’s privilege, as in, “Hey, look,you have privilege!” is not always necessary. Furthermore, privileges are not things someone needs to be made to feel shame over. Yes, some women get to be SAHM, while others have to work to pay bills. Is it necessary to remind every mother at the playground of this? Yes, reading a book is an act of class privilege. Is it necessary to say so to every person reading a book in public? Yes, men advance in their careers quicker and further than women. Does that mean when any white male you know gets a promotion, you need to remind him that he probably doesn’t deserve it, and there are women being overlooked for his same job, and he shouldn’t accept it? Yes, getting an education is an incredible privilege. Is it necessary to shame, even dismiss, people in college or with educations as “not real” or “out of touch” or (as I’ve heard many many many times) “not true Americans” because of that privilege?
Roxane Gay gets into this in Bad Feminist, with the whole Oppression Olympics mindset. Does a black man have more/less privilege than a white woman in America? Is ___ group more oppressed than anyone else? How do you quantify it, measure it, and then assume that those measurements work in every situation?
It’s not possible.
For just one example, I’ve known many black women who attended Ivy League universities and had parents who wholly supported their educations both emotionally and financially, whose parents and even grandparents were educated themselves and valued college. A few were even legacies of top schools or sororities or other educational organizations. OTOH, I struggled through community college while working two jobs for years, and was told that my education was “elitist” and “a waste of time,” and when was I going to get married and have children? I had to pay for college myself, and didn’t qualify for most scholarships and financial breaks. However, I know damned good and well that if I had gotten pregnant and had a child out of wedlock, it would be seen differently than a black woman my age. I know that I was not watched in stores the same way black girls were when I was a teen.
Is it worth enumerating and quantifying all the ways who has what privilege and when, and then calling them out and shaming them for it? Blaming individuals for the structures long established?
What are you hoping to achieve with that call out?
It turns out, all of the rhetoric about “it says more about them than you” is right, because there are many cases where call outs, justified or not, are more about a performance than anything else. And that’s our topic for today.
The Performative Call Out
Many of us have an impulse via call outs to right the wrongs, speak up for the oppressed, and raise awareness. It usually can come from a well-intended, valuable, and/or neglected place. That’s the tricky part. The idea of asserting oneself, having a voice, reclaiming power, is important.
But does the ideology match that particular situation? Is a call out about education and awareness and helping someone else understand a new perspective? Or is it about you (or me, because I’m interrogating myself too) demonstrating your values, making your voice heard, taking a stand?
Are you asserting yourself and your voice, your narrative? Or are you silencing someone else and destroying their self esteem? Why?
I cannot overstate this:
CENTERING MINORITY/POC VOICES DOES NOT MEAN SILENCING EVERYONE ELSE.
Again, there are times where one absolutely does need to perform or demonstrate or make a production to prove a point about racism being fucking wrong. To fucking clock an assaulter or stand by the person who did, or take a loud and public stand.
But not always.
For instance, do you (and remember, that’s a general “you”) go up to a person who is laughing with friends, and remind them that your sister is dying of cancer right now, in order to raise awareness? Do you confront the person with the new puppy to tell them that your dog just died, and that they’re triggering you, and you are going to take a stand about your emotional well-being? If you’re visibly pregnant, should you not appear in public, lest it cause pain to the women who miscarried or the parents who lost a child?
If you overhear a private comment or joke out of context, do you use that as an example of rape culture, and publicly shame the men? Or turn on the person who called them out with threats of rape and murder?
If you go to a Mexican restaurant, and the Hispanic servers put sombreros on the heads of customers who order the giant-sized margaritas, do you call out those customers for cultural appropriation and racism? Do you call out the white fan you invited to sing along to your song for using the same words that you used? Are those teen K-Pop and K-Drama fans really “just the same” as historical colonization?
Or, in my own case, since I am agnostic, and find a lot of overtly Christian/religious rhetoric very distressing, even panic-inducing, do I confront everyone responding on someone else’s FB thread with “prayers sent!” or “Trust in God” with my own anger and disgust, “You know, a lot of people have been sexually and emotionally abused in the name of Jesus, so shove your religious bullshit up your ass instead of down others’ throats!”?
And yet call out culture, especially the performative call out, can be that same sort of action: Conflating a person with the system, and holding an individual responsible for the latter, shaming them personally for the system. Attacking an individual as symbolic for something. Performing publicly a confrontation or attack in order to gain sympathy, or feel empowered, or cause an argument. Misrepresenting a situation in order to make a larger point.
But also, telling someone they can’t feel happy, safe, joyful, calm, hopeful, no matter what their personal situation might be.
Making them feel guilty and ashamed for who they are. Denying them humanity, denying that they have a complex network of human needs and responses.
The pushback I’ve heard most often is variations of “I don’t care about Karen’s/Kevin’s sense of security, because [minority group] doesn’t feel safe or secure!” and “___ NEEDS to feel uncomfortable!” If Person A feels attacked, silenced, or disenfranchised, they have every right to attack, silence, or disenfranchise others. If Person B has ___, it must be at Person C’s expense. You know. “Your success = my failure.” WHICH IS FUCKED UP AND NEEDS FEMINISM, for starters.
But it also sounds like the same Conservative bullshit. You know, how there’s a “they,” a “them” rooted in race/class/culture/gender that is our enemy, and if not for THEM, everything would be fine, and THEY are ruining America. “They’re taking our jobs!” and “I don’t want MY tax dollars paying for-” and “social justice warrior libtards!”
I’ll repeat what I said last time, just in case anyone’s forgotten:
The issue is, not everyone is Brock Turner or Roseanne Barr or Harvey Weinstein. Not everyone is the internet MRA troll in a feminist discussion group. Not everyone is your racist, Trump-voting, homophobic cousin at the holiday dinner table. Most of them are just… people. Sometimes they’re a person who just did a one-time stupid thing when they were young, or had a private conversation or joke taken out of context and used as proof about some bigger oppression. Sometimes they’re someone who just hasn’t had the experience or opportunity to think about ___ yet. I’d even suggest most are people who want to learn and understand and be respectful. They just haven’t had the same life experiences as you and, know what? That’s not something that people should be called out for and shamed.
The performative call out also demands a performative response… and it punishes anyone who doesn’t perform the right response (whether they’re even capable, but we’ll get to that).
A call out like that demands that someone else meet your standards/expectations … and that they magically understand your standards in the first place. It demands they prove themselves to you, prove their worth. Otherwise, BAM! Swift and aggressive punishment descends upon them.
That’s literally the OPPOSITE of healthy living, progressiveness, education, and awareness. Other people are not here to live up to your expectations. Many can’t.
In fact, what you think of as “uncomfortable” might be no big deal to one person, and distinctly triggering and traumatic to another. Who gets to define “uncomfortable”?
Many argue that the shaming after someone doesn’t respond the way they think someone should after a call out is even “punishing [them] for [their] mistake.” Hey. Who fucking gave you the right? You (and I), individual, are not the sole arbiter of punishment and justice for the rest of the human beings on this planet. Yes, Cassie Tweeted a joke about being a “basic white bitch” when she got her first pumpkin spice latte of the season (#PSL #fall #Uggs #llbeanboyfriend #overtheriverandthruthewoods).
You (general) are so sick of pumpkin spice everything, find Cassie annoying, and, especially, you think that white people calling themselves “basic” is misappropriation of a very real issue regarding popular culture and access. However, if you (general) call out Cassie for using the word “basic” and thus minimising racism… and Cassie doesn’t respond the way you (general) think she should have responded, what the hell gives you (general) the right to decide that she then needs to be punished for not living up to your (general) expectations or needs?! HOW THE FUCK IS THAT EVEN HUMANLY, FUNCTIONALLY, SUSTAINABLY POSSIBLE?
I’ve had this argument looping aggressively IRL for years now: “But -ism is bad!” Yes. But is this instance an example of that? Or is it a personal emotional trigger for you? That’s fine if it is, but that doesn’t mean that dumping it on someone else is effective, or warranted, or moral.
It would do all of us some fucking good to stop and think for a second before rushing to judgement and exploding into an angry call out every. single. time.
Shaming someone for lack of knowledge/awareness is profoundly damaging. And yes, it means that, rather than become educated and aware about said issue, that recipient of a shaming, public call out may only get more defensive and double down on their own stance. Or freak out and hide, because it’s too hard to engage with these ideas, or they feel threatened. Or get angry, and attack those doing the call outs as the “real” problem. Or break down completely.
Is that effective? Always?
Isn’t it more effective, before deploying a RDS-220 call out and mass shaming, to consider, perhaps, WHY does this particular individual in this particular situation lack knowledge? Have they rejected said education before? Repeatedly? Weaponized it against others? Personally annoyed you? Been one of three dozen people this year who have asked/said/done ___? Those ain’t all the same.
For example, let’s look at males who clearly don’t understand how periods work. Blame the education system. Blame sexism. Blame religion. There are tons of reasons, all rooted in systemic oppression. If it’s a fucking lawmaker who fucking argues that women shouldn’t be allowed bathroom breaks or sanitary protection because they can “just hold it”? If it’s your religious leader arguing that sex ed is harmful because periods are “gross” and shouldn’t be talked about? Call them out. They are adult men, and have been presented with factual information multiple times. Often they choose to ignore it, in order to continue arguing their bullshit sexist agenda. If they’re part of a large organization, things like boycotts or lawsuits or demonstrations might even be part of a call out. These people are directly responsible for harmful laws and actions.
But don’t fucking then call out their wives/daughters/mothers/sisters (unless they’ve actually said something), even if you think that it’s an example of “female complacency” or whatever. It’s also an example of acting like women are responsible for men’s actions and behavior. No.
What about if he’s a teen boy who Tweets something ridiculous, stupid, and sexist, then what? Mock him? Sure, maybe, especially if he keeps insisting he’s right and knows more about how periods work than literally thousands of women. But… dox him? Publicly shame him with a campaign to send him feminine hygiene products? Stand outside his school with signs? Interview him so he looks even more stupid? Contact his family, his girlfriend, and call them out, too, for contributing to this dolt’s lack of knowledge?
Is the objective at that point educating this poor, teenaged product of a crap school system and bro culture… or just mocking and shaming him? Is that going to effectively help women? Change laws about access to tampons and pads? Is humiliating this dumb kid with repeated call outs + shame going to make him go “Yeah, you were right, I don’t know shit.” Or is he likely to go “OMG, women are total bitches, I hate them, fuck all of them” and spend hours on various MRA Reddits becoming even more ignorant and loathsome, and potentially dangerous?
There are, as I’ve been saying, dozens and dozens of possible reactions between either ruffling his head affectionately and sending him on his way, or dragging him through a global, public experience of call outs, insults, and shaming.
What is going to be effective with this particular situation? What’s the next step?
He has white male privilege, after all, so why not attack that very system that oppresses us by attacking him?
OTOH, he’s a teen. A dumb teenager with a still-underdeveloped brain. What if I, specifically, call him out repeatedly and shame him, and get others in on it, too? He may be male, I may be female, but I am also an adult, with money, an education. I’m a professor. Who has the systemic power in that dynamic?
What about explaining? “It’s not my job to-” “That’s not my burden.” But doesn’t that also depend on the context, and require scrutiny?
What if this dumb kid (or any dumb kid, really), after a few rounds of “Just hold it!” Tweets, messaged me privately, or another male reading about the story asked me, “Um, okay, truthfully? I don’t understand why women can’t just hold it?” would I take the time to explain it? Even if he can Google it his own fucking self? It would depend on the situation. I’ve had thousands of asshole dudebros over the decades pull the “If you’d just EXPLAIN ___!” followed by “No, that’s wrong” or “You still didn’t explain ___!” bullshit in order to deflect criticism, or manipulate a conversation. To hell with them. But I’ve also had productive conversations with people of all intersections who just hadn’t known facts or been able to ask questions.
It. Depends. On. The. Situation.
Once more for the folks in back.
These things fucking depend on the fucking situation.
There is not a one-size-fits-all response to any and every instance of wrongness in the world.
And this brings us specifically to the dynamics behind shaming, both as part of the performative call out, and as a supposed tool for changing the recipient’s behavior.
We have time to stock up on Klonopin and Xanax before we continue.
I mentioned last time that there has been a marked shift in who gets to define an action. It doesn’t matter if you “didn’t mean that to sound racist,” or “were just trying to be nice.” That shift to empowering the recipient over the giver of the action dynamic means that one valid and real response is “It’s not my problem how you feel.” If the guy trying to hit on you or the person trying to be your best friend despite your own clear signals that this is unwanted feels hurt or embarrassed that you don’t respond to their overtures, no, it’s not your problem how they feel.
But that’s also not a one-size-fits-all response, either, especially not with calling someone out. It may not be “your/my problem” how someone feels about being called out or shamed for something they’ve done… but… is it an effective solution to systemic oppression in this particular situation, or with this particular person? Is it THAT PERSON’S problem how YOU feel?
If this shift from giver to receiver is a thing, then going back to the whole thing about it being okay to make ___ group feel uncomfortable is flawed, because then the recipient is disempowered all over again. Who gets to define “uncomfortable” in a given situation? Remember, “uncomfortable” for Person A looks like an engaged and lively discussion, “uncomfortable” for Person B looks like boring platitudes, “uncomfortable” for Person C looks like a whole pile of PTSD triggers, and “uncomfortable” for Person D looks life-threatening.
I increasingly think, for reasons personal, professional, psychological, and practical, that call outs are not only NOT always effective, but actually have often become reciprocal abuse.
Yeah, I said that.
Call outs can look more like abuse than anything useful or helpful.
After some personal issues not long ago with having my words misattributed and being called out and shamed publicly by a group, a friend sent me a link to Hannah Gadsby’s special, Nanette. If you haven’t seen it already, please take the time to do so. It’s so important, for so many reasons, on multiple levels. For me, much like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, it was one of those things that came along at the right time, with the right words, words I needed desperately to hear after experiencing my own round of call outs and public shaming.
“When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts of self-worth.” Hannah Gadsby.
Ironically, perhaps, many of those same people would call me out and shame me all over again for finding value and inspiration in Gadsby’s words, because I am a white, heterosexual female, and this is for queer women, oppressed women, and how dare I steal their things?!
No, I’m not gay. But I was still a child who was soaked in shame. I was abused, sexually, emotionally, and physically. My earliest memories, from ages 3 and 4, were being yelled at, molested, abandoned, and, most often, shamed. That continued until I was in my mid-20s and started rigorous psychological treatment.
I have always felt worthless. I cannot ever remember a time when I felt unbroken, whole, undamaged. It was the most natural feeling in the world for me to feel utterly without value. Even now, it still is. It was and is the most prominent, continuous feeling in my life, going as far back as I can remember.
Shaming like that is abuse. It destroys people. I spent decades of my life wanting to not exist, feeling like my presence on this earth caused nothing but problems. I hated myself. I had no reason for being here, I sucked, I was horrible.
Even if someone has done something you think is wrong, do they deserve that kind of public shaming? Do they deserve to feel like that, worthless and broken?
Are you, we, the ones to decide that? And dole it out?
After you’ve watched Gadsby’s Nanette, please take the time to watch this:
“It was easy to forget that that woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”
It’s the cliche about “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” That’s what we do when we call out and shame some people in these ways: we kill their dreams. We kill their sense of self-worth. Destroy the essence of who they are as a human being, with any sense of hope or safety or peace. Even if we think the person deserves it (and yes, in the case of egos like the current occupier of the White House, it may be), is it useful?
All the time?
Sure, some blowhards and dumbshits and assholes need to be taken down a peg or two. If someone is causing active harm and endangering someone — like calling the police on “suspicious” black people, which can and does result in said black people being fucking MURDERED — that’s an important thing to call out.
But that dumb teen on Twitter? Karen your well-meaning co-worker? That stranger who you have no idea what their contexts and history might be? Does your/my need to perform a call out outweigh everything else, all the time?
All call outs are not, CANNOT BE, created equal. That is impossible. Yes, certain jokes stem from rape culture, but that DOES NOT MEAN they are “just the same as” rape, and as a survivor of sexual abuse myself, fuck you for conflating those things and the traumas that result. No.
Call outs are also packed with a shit-ton of assumptions and, frankly, misinformation.
Too often, when someone is called out by someone else, Person A has no true concept of what Person B’s situation is. Person A sees whiteness/straightness, and assumes unassailable privilege. Person A sees money, power, education, and assumes that someone is impervious, in power over them. Person A sees Person B oppressing them, and reacts accordingly, often in a very limited situation or setting. In some cases, Person A doesn’t even have experience with what they’re calling out Person B for; they haven’t seen the movie, heard the song, watched the show, read the book, but they just don’t like the sound of it, so they react. (Please see my aforementioned experience in the previous blog on the subject. Sorry if you find the title of a show or a paper or a product offensive or problematic, but you can’t make assumptions about it if you haven’t actually engaged with it in any meaningful way.)
Person A misdirects their valid anger, fear, and criticism and instead of calling out X, the systemic problem, they call out Person B, a bystander, and hold them responsible for or as symbolic of their oppression.
Is that fair? Useful? As my therapist asks, is it done in good faith?
What about those recipients of said call outs? I know, I know, “it’s not my/our problem how that person feels” because fuck their feelings, right? Just apply that “fuck your feelings” response across the board, because that’s effective. Or shame them for caring too much about your feelings, because that’s wrong too.
Jon Ronson’s 2015 book on some of the experiences of call out culture, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, addresses the limitations of perspectives that can have detrimental, even life-threatening effects, when call outs snowball. Someone posts or says something stupid to a limited audience. Sometimes it’s an out-of-context joke. Or a picture from a decade ago. Then, for whatever reason, it goes viral, still out of context, and turns into a whole mass of call outs and accusations and more. The person at the center of it is blamed not only for the situation, but for “putting it out there” to begin with. They “should have known better” than to take that picture, post that joke to friends, Tweet that, say that in public. They deserve to be called out and humiliated for their crimes. Ronson notes that when things like this take on global dimensions and go viral, when that mob mentality takes over, “the people on the other end of these Tweets don’t see her as a human being. And when people don’t see others as human beings, the depths of cruelty they will resort to have almost no limit.”
Is that kind of cruelty merited? Always? All the time? Is it effective?
As Lewinksy points out in her talk, “Humiliation is a more deeply felt emotion than happiness, or even anger.” Calling out someone and soaking them in shame for things like their lack of knowledge, a misunderstanding, a tasteless joke, a different belief, a thoughtless response or question, is something that is going to stay with them for longer than we realize. Maybe even a lifetime.
It has the power to kill them.
“Good!” a lot of people shout. “They deserve it! Their actions caused harm! I know the right answer here, and they’re wrong!”
So… causing reciprocal harm and trauma, enacting abuse, even violence, is unquestionably okay in every single situation? With call outs where it’s more about the empowering performance of calling someone out, no matter who or what the recipient?
But those (pardon the pun, and/or don’t publicly shame me for using “racist language” because, for fuck’s sake-) situations aren’t always black-and-white.
The person doing the call out reacts first, claims power… and silences any and all response or discussion. We react first, and ask questions later, often out of anger or emotion or any number of valid feelings (but don’t allow recipients of the call outs to do the same? BULLSHIT. We’ll get to that, too.) Across-the-board call outs with shaming and often public humiliation are limiting and limited. They leave no room for error or growth. They don’t consider whether the person on the receiving end has the tools or capabilities to deal, manage, or process everything.
The goal is shattering someone’s self-esteem, inflicting trauma, inflicting pain, causing new problems. ABUSING SOMEONE.
What are the results of those kinds of call outs, in those kinds of situations? Is it helpful? Does it address, much less fix, the problems of systemic oppression? Or is humiliating and shaming without question going to actually reinforce systemic oppression?
Know what my mom used to tell me after another one of my stepfathers’ raging temper tantrums, complete with smashing things, hitting, verbal abuse, and utter terror? That I had to understand because they were (pick a combo) abused himself as a child/had been in Vietnam/had grown up with alcoholic parents/struggled with self-esteem issues. So that abuse was wrong, but because they suffered it, somehow, it was okay for them as adults to enact those same abuses and horrors on me, a child?!
That’s what so many of these performative call outs are starting to sound like: well, they were abused, so it’s okay to abuse others. They were victims, and that’s why they now victimize other people. We need to cut them slack, give them a break, understand, despite the harm they are causing. They can enact the same systems of abuse, unquestioningly, because it now makes them feel empowered?!
HOW THE FUCK DOES THAT HELP ANYONE?!
And with that, let’s all schedule a few more therapy sessions before the next installment.