I want to conclude this series with “How to Respond When You’re Called Out: A Whole New Approach” or “Call-Outs II: The Last Judgement” or “Return of the Call Outs: The Final Call Out.” Frankly, most of these “how to” guides never, ever allow for some of the things I’ve been discussing here that are essential, and I’ll break them down into two key points: First, how to respond if you’re coping with anxiety, PTSD, social issues, or need to address issues of personal mental health and self-care? Second, how to respond if you’re called out incorrectly, or in bad faith, or by someone who just wants to make a big production of public action and performed activism?
Recapping: while call outs may have some useful ideology and essential questions packed in there, I have found that they are not effective in doing what they purport to be doing — educating people — and have been primarily weaponized to shame, hurt, silence, and/or erase individuals and entire groups of people. Individuals are being made responsible for other people’s own emotional responses to a thing. People aren’t being allowed to learn, move on, or even present an equally-diverse and fruitful viewpoint from their own experience.
For the most part, everything in person and in the media suggests that all call outs are conscionable, and if you react by getting mad/upset, it is proof that you are the one with the problem, and, well, you just better get used to being uncomfortable, you asshole, because even when you’re called out, it’s not about you or your feelings, so you aren’t allowed to cry or even feel emotions, because-
Pretty soon, it starts to sound like the MRA assholes’ insistence that “crying is blackmail.”
But as I said before, not all fragility is white fragility. And fragility, whether it’s due to social anxiety, PTSD, depression, or just being overwhelmed, is not something for you to be shamed for, much less be forced to deny.
There is also an essential double standard involved with call outs, and the idea that someone is speaking from their pain and hurt, that we have to understand that they might be acting first and thinking later or responding with anger because of their own pain and frustration… but the recipients of call outs who have literally the same feelings are told that it’s wrong. If one side of a situation — and yes, call outs create “sides” rather than allowing for a spectrum of ideas and experiences — is allowed to have a free-for-all of anger, pain, and hurt, while at the same time denying the object of their anger the same feelings, that’s not just unfair, it’s unrealistic.
Sometimes you’re not standing up for minorities or “speaking truth to power.” Sometimes you’re just an asshole.
And if call outs are about holding people accountable, you better be ready to be held accountable when you’re wrong, too.
This isn’t white-girl whining about “one likes to be called out.” For many people, confrontation is not just “uncomfortable,” but terrifying, and not because of our whiteness. If we cope with anxiety, have a history of abuse, or freeze up during public confrontations for whatever reason, we can’t always perform the desired response a call-out demands.
In fact, I’ve noted already that call outs and the usual “how to” guides in response are often literally in opposition of all psychologically healthy behavior and self-esteem. We’re told that, in order to be healthy, functioning individuals, we can’t constantly live our lives putting all our effort into worrying about what someone else thinks of us. We’ve heard it: “Don’t let others define you!” “Criticism often says more about the critic than you.” “No one else gets to manage your reactions!” “The only person you have to be good enough for is yourself.” “Live your truth!”
It’s also in direct opposition to healthy ways to manage the current political situations in countless nations right now, not just America and the UK (and I’ve been called out more than once for my white privilege when I say “I need to step back for a couple days” or “It’s time for more therapy because my anxiety is out of control.” Know what? Fuck you).
Making yourself feel crappy is not the path to enlightenment or wellness. It’s often instead a gateway to even worse self-harm. It takes work, if you’re actually not one among the narcissists we find ourselves surrounded by, to extend the compassion we feel for others to ourselves. So stop refreshing the page if it’s freaking you out. Unfollow a doom-and-gloom prognosticator. Take breaks. Find light in the heat. It’s okay. The resistance will be still be here when you’re replenished, and you need to keep your strength up.
Call outs often stifle basic healthy psychological functioning. They aren’t discussions or questions or ideas, and they don’t recognize nuance or different lived experiences. Instead, they work as rhetorical actions meant to silence, disempower, shame, or hurt. They seek to break people.
As I’ve said before, sometimes that is necessary. If someone is in your face with a picture of a miscarried third-term fetus telling you that you are just like the Nazi Holocaust for wanting to make your own reproductive decisions instead of having the government force you to carry any and every pregnancy to term, that kind of rhetorical performance might be essential, even.
But because someone is using a different definition of a word? Watches a show you think is ___? Reads a book you find problematic? Cue the orchestra for a reprise, because shaming over things like that isn’t effective compared to shared ideas and collaborative discussion. You know, “education”!
These are guidelines for those of us who have survived abuse, are neurodivergent, who manage disorders, and struggle to do the right thing in response to call outs.
How do we handle a call out when our brains are sending overwhelming messages that we are bad, horrible people who deserve to die alone, or that we are going to completely fall apart, or that we have ruined everything for everyone and are what is wrong with the world?
1. Remember that, rather than a personal indictment of you, callouts are a kind of rhetorical strategy.
Call outs are a performance, with an expected performed response in return. Sometimes the desired response is conversation, increased awareness, or even just an acknowledgement. As Roxane Gay puts it in Bad Feminist, “When people wield accusations of privilege, more often than not they want to be heard and seen.” Most of the time, it truly isn’t about you as a person.
In some cases, however, call outs can be performed solely for the purpose of empowering one person and disempowering another, or are one-sided acts intended to shame, silence, and humiliate the recipient. Sometimes they are performed in the heat of full-blown fury or pain. And yes, sometimes there are call outs that are just plain incorrect due to misunderstanding or misinformation. In these cases, no response will be the right one. There are very real reasons behind feelings of empowerment and disempowerment. However, that is not always proof positive that the person doing the calling out is right and the person being called out is wrong. While an important rhetorical tool in many situations, call outs can also oversimplify complicated issues, or deny that multiple perspectives and experiences co-exist. They are not always done in good faith, and it is important to acknowledge that.
2. You are under no obligation to respond to a callout, for whatever reason.
Whether it is due to a disorder, or simply being in a bad headspace at the time, just because someone calls you out does not mean you owe them a response. It’s also okay to acknowledge that a certain social media format doesn’t work for the kind of discussions/responses needed. It’s okay to refuse to respond, or to remove yourself from a call out situation. You have that right and that power to do so, and it does not diminish another person’s rights or power. Scripts include:
- Thank you, I’ll take time to think over what you’ve said
- I appreciate your time
- I appreciate the labor you’ve put in here
- I recognize that I have work to do
- I recognize the legitimacy of your pain and anger
- Your voice is important, and I hear you
- I believe you
- I’m going to reflect on this
- I need some space and time to think about what you’ve shared with me
- Now isn’t the best time/place to continue a discussion of this magnitude, so I want to give careful consideration before responding
- This is too important a topic for social media, but I value your insights and will take them to heart
However, sometimes someone may be increasingly insistent that you owe them a response, or will clearly be trying to keep you engaged, or even trying to provoke an angry reply from you that they can then jump on. If things escalate, or someone is clearly treating you in a harassing or abusive manner, the following scripts or variations might be necessary. (Please use these very carefully. These are not meant to be used to prolong engagement on your part, or to fight with someone):
- I’m sorry you feel this way. However, I won’t be treated like this
- No. That is not what I said. That is not what I meant. I will not engage this with you any longer
- That’s actually none of your business
- It’s not my job to manage your emotional responses
- It’s not my responsibility to shield you from unpleasantness
- I can’t do that emotional labor for you
And then disengage immediately. Once you have used one of the above scripts, that is your permission to leave the conversation for good.
That may mean removing yourself physically from a place, or turning off a device, even locking it in a drawer (or deactivating an account if you can do so without it notifying others). Don’t make a production of it. Just disengage.
LINK: Mob Rule By Social Media
3. Tend to yourself.
Find a quiet, safe space by yourself to de-escalate the situation.
Acknowledge your feelings, whatever they are. Remember that it’s okay to feel whatever you are feeling, and those feelings are valid because they are yours. No one else gets to define them for you. Identify those feelings. Say to yourself “I am afraid that I’ve hurt someone whose opinion I respect” or “I’m ashamed and afraid I’m going to cry/have a panic attack in front of everyone” or “I am furious that someone would think that of me!” or “This reminds me of all those times my mom kept telling me to shut up and that I was stupid.” Those are real, human emotions, and it is healthy to feel them.
Breathe. Even if you do not practice regular meditation, take time now to do a wellness scan: close your eyes, and bring your awareness completely to your body. Inhale and exhale on slow counts, pausing in between, and scan over each part of your body mentally, starting with your feet, and release tension. Guide each part of your body to feel warm, relaxed, and safe. You might prefer to do this with a recorded video or audio guide, or a trusted companion. Take as long as you need to remember that you are calm, safe, and cared for.
It may take minutes, it may take hours, or even days and several rounds of self-care, but do not proceed further until your emotional state is well managed and you feel safe and have the time to address the call out in a healthy, productive way. You deserve that kind of care, too.
4. Contextualize the call out, and the caller-outer.
Call outs come from a place of pain and anger, and, no matter how it sounds, or how specific the situation, the person making a call out is angry at a system of oppression, not you personally. Their feelings are also real and valid, and even if you can’t respond to that anger in ways that they want, you can still acknowledge that validity. Remind yourself that no one person or group speaks for all ___ people, either.
However, that does not mean that it is your responsibility to take on their feelings, or fix them. That is not humanly possible for anyone.
5. Once you feel safe and calm, interrogate the call out.
Was the call out about a specific incident? Is it something you’ve heard before, or from more than one source? That suggests that yes, maybe you should examine your behavior or words where this situation is concerned. Did it involve terminology or historical contexts that you can now research? Take some time to look up things, and reflect on what you might be able to do next time now that you are aware of this issue. This is an opportunity for growth, and that, too, is something every human experiences.
Was the call out about a specific group’s general pattern of behavior? If someone called you about because they are sick of “[majority group] people always ____,” that is not necessarily anything you can fix. Interrogate it and examine your behavior anyway. If you were called out because “cishet people never think about including their pronouns on meeting name tags,” that’s something you can change. Start putting your pronouns on meeting name tags. If you were called out because “people who haven’t transitioned will never understand how to really be an LGBTQAI+ ally,” that’s not something you can really do anything about.
You are allowed to ask yourself: “Is the critic here actually interested in seeing me learn and grow, or are they just tearing me down so they look bigger in comparison?”
Are multiple call outs being made by the same person or group? Again, it is still worth interrogating the call out and growing from it, but yes, there are people or groups who perform call outs constantly and indiscriminately, in classrooms, online groups, social media, or in organizations. That, too, may come from their feelings of pain and disempowerment, and that is valid. However, engaging with someone or a group in these situations is unlikely to be productive.
Some call outs are made in good faith. Some are not. It’s okay to recognize that oppressed minorities can be as toxic or abusive as anyone, and you are under no obligation to engage or respond. It’s okay to recognize that one individual might be problematic, and engaging with them is not healthy or productive. It’s okay to recognize that a specific call out act actually might not be reasonable, valid; it might actually be abusive or harassment.
We often forget that, even where call outs are concerned, we are allowed to articulate our own boundaries. You can refuse to participate, and owe no one an explanation why.
6. Have an honest, trustworthy support system/group/place you can talk with safely about these issues.
Fear of public shaming is one of the biggest terrors associated with being called out. It is a very real fear that we might lose friends, jobs, a community, opportunities, all as the result of a call out. One valuable exercise is to make a list of Who will be on your side no matter what? Parents, partners, friends… who do you have close to you who will support you and love you, even if your worst fear happens and a picture or tweet goes viral, or a group rejects you? What about professional resources, like therapists or instructors who are trained in helping you manage things like this?
Have a support system of people you can talk with about current issues, as well. Establish a group of trusted and insightful colleagues who are willing to discuss terminology or allyship, and who hold each other accountable without the anxiety of a call out situation. Have a group where you can process your feelings legitimately without putting it on overburdened minorities. Together, you can maintain a safe, healthy space for interrogating ideas together, and can work out some of the things that would be unfair labor to demand of people in other circumstances.
7. If it will be at all useful or fruitful, respond.
If you recognize the ways in which a call out was done in good faith and the person performing it is willing to engage with you productively about it, you might respond to them, once you feel safe and secure enough to do so. Some scripts include:
- What can I do?
- What response do you need?
- What are you hoping to achieve by calling this out?
- What I am hearing is ___? Is that correct?
- How are you defining ___?
- Do you have any recommendations or suggestions?*
*Be extremely careful with the last one, because it may look like you are asking someone to do labor for you. But in some cases, if the call out’s purpose was engagement, that person might have someone else in mind for you to talk to, or something helpful to read. It also may be as simple as understanding that you are working with different terms, or different cultural or national reference points, which can be a fruitful discussion.
8. Many of the same coping life-skills apply to responding to call outs.
I used to assume that call outs were exempt from psychologically healthy truisms like “don’t waste your energy on toxic people,” “don’t let others define you,” or “live your truth and show up in the world!” But yes, many of the desired responses demanded from a call out–staying calm and not getting upset or feeling hurt, prioritizing others’ feelings and needs while disregarding your own, silencing your voice completely–are in direct opposition of psychologically healthy behavior. If a person calling you out can’t be responsible for your feelings, neither can you be responsible for theirs. Healthy perspectives still apply here.
Recognize what is and isn’t in your control. You can’t control another’s responses any more than they get to control yours, and in some call out situations, no response will do. You can’t shield every minority from everything bad or painful that might happen. No matter how inclusive a group is, there will always be dissatisfied individuals.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Just because you think Shylar is a better activist, or the person who called you out doesn’t call out Jaiblen for the same reason, it is fruitless to try to bring in others and compare yourself.
Don’t “JADE,” that is, don’t Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain. At least not to the person calling you out. It won’t work, and it isn’t what they want or need to hear from you. If you have a support system to talk with later, that is where these kinds of things can happen.
It’s okay to not worry about what others (especially strangers on the internet) think of you. No matter how strong an ally you are or how carefully you interact and respond, there will always be people who don’t like you, or who disagree with your ideas. That is not your fault. That is not something you have to fix. That is the other person’s emotional labor to do, not yours.
Whatever someone else’s reason for performing a call out might be, you still get to control how you define yourself and your feelings. You owe no one explanations of why you devote time to one cause instead of the one they think you should, or why you are taking a mental health break from the news which someone calls out as “privilege.” Ultimately, these things are no one else’s business but your own.
You as a human in the world have every right to feel safe and happy, and just because someone else might not feel safe and happy does not mean you, personally, must take that on. You can’t. It won’t fix anything. You are not required to feel guilty and ashamed for who you are. Live your truth and show up in the world anyway.
Call outs are an important rhetorical tool, and can lead to positive change. But it is not a fail-safe form of activism, and all involved parties can have unfair expectations about responses or reasons. The idea that one needs to silence other voices completely to center specific voices is not only flawed, it can result in serious abuse. It is just as important to recognize that recipients of callouts might not be able to respond as demanded, and see that as an element of diversity, too.