NOTE: If you came here via a link dropped in a discussion critiquing how someone called someone else (perhaps you) out, I’d like to clarify this is an attempt to join a conversation, and not an attempt to lay any ground rules about calling out itself. It is specifically about dealing with abuse, intimidation, and silencing under the guise of calling out, and not meant to be dropped out of the context of related posts into random disagreements on the internet. By all means read it because I love readers, but I don’t want people to walk away with the impression I have solutions beyond “please don’t abuse, silence, and intimidate people under the guise of anti-oppression work.”
Note 2: The comments on this post are not the place to air any grudges. I don’t care how justified you feel you are.
Okay, I want to talk about calling out. Or rather, what happens when calling out goes horribly wrong. I am not the first to say this, and I hope I am not the last.
To me, when I really looked at the process of calling out, I saw it as telling something that something they did or said was harmful. It was a way to deal with oppressive actions that would at least give the person who committed those oppressive actions a graceful way to back off and admit their mistake. Obviously, a lot of people don’t take well to this, get defensive, deny everything, try to make it your fault, accuse you of being oppressive for hearing oppression in their words or seeing it in their actions, but the setup was there specifically to give them room to be a decent human being and give us room to assert ourselves as fully human and worthy of respect.
Often, the call out may not even actually be about the person you’re calling out – after all, they may not show any sign of really caring that they caused harm and are almost certain to flail defensively rather than respond constructively. It may instead be for others’ benefit, to see that the oppressive action didn’t go unnoticed and that at least someone disapproved.
In both cases, it may open a dialogue with the person you called out or someone else, and productive conversation could grow from that point forward. What it was never meant to be was a means of reproducing oppressive tactics.
And by that I mean, silencing, intimidating, bullying, even outright abuse. It’s no longer a tool for opening dialogues, but for preventing them. It is about establishing a Manichean order where everyone on this side is good and awesome and amazing and everyone on that side is evil and mediocre and annoying. There’s no middle ground, no room for any nuance. No room for dealing with people you know mean well but make mistakes. And every one of us makes mistakes.
And there’s no room, none, for any of us to present ourselves as paragons who are always perfect and proper and never say or do anything busted because as I said the other day, there is no outside. We’re all socialized into white supremacy, male supremacy, cis supremacy, hetero supremacy, economic supremacy, thin supremacy, TAB supremacy. We are all taught that being a person of color, of being a woman, of being of non-binary gender, of being bisexual or gay or lesbian, of being working class, being poor, being fat, having a disability makes people less than. Makes people inferior. Makes people vulnerable. Makes people deserving of the terrible things that happen to them. And we all, every single one of us, have perpetrated these attitudes on someone else, or more likely a lot of other people all at once.
We can sit down all day and tabulate the oppressions that affect us: I am a fat queer white working class (unemployed for over a decade) trans woman with disabilities and I have no college degree. This does not mean I am immune to fatphobia, to homophobia, to classism, to transphobia, to ableism, or to any kind of academic elitism. I have engaged in all of these in some point of my life. They’re not a free pass out of being busted. And they especially do not grant me an ounce of moral authority to call down thundering condemnation from the heavens on someone else who is being busted.
And all of that sounds a bit clinical, a bit theoretical, so let’s also talk about how this behavior hurts us. How it silences us. How it intimidates us. How we start to feel like we can’t talk about certain things or can’t really engage outside of our own blogs and maybe a few friends because someone might have decided – on a Manichean level – that we are bad people and what we have to say is worthless, because we fucked up once, somewhere. Or because we were perceived as fucking up, or someone presented a distorted series of events that made it look like we had not only fucked up, but did so as maliciously as possible and refused to be held accountable for it. I’m not going to name names, but I’m sure many readers can think of examples that have actually happened.
And really, it only takes a small handful to really disrupt a community with this kind of behavior. To engage in a pattern of intimidation and abuse that drives wedges between us and labels some as acceptable and others as enemies. That breaks up potential or actual coalitions and teaches us to distrust one another because we’re not seeing the behavior for what it is, instead treating it as a valid calling out. Called blogswarms on each other. Not even conversations, but what can be – and often is – borderline, if not actual, trolling and again abuse.
And you know, I’m complicit in this. When I saw it happening, I didn’t stop and say anything then. I haven’t stopped and said anything until now. Even while women I love and respect were being raked over the coals for things they had not said and done, I sat it out because of my own anxieties and fears. And while I am not alone in this, I certainly acknowledge my own responsibility in not speaking out against this. I let people get attacked and chased off of my own blog, and it got so bad that at one point I was seriously considering putting an end to Questioning Transphobia. I actually hated checking my comments queue because I dreaded what I would see, but I still didn’t say anything then.
I’ve also participated in these toxic call outs. I’ve backed them up, boosted the signal on them with my blog, got them more attention. I probably originated a few. So I do not say I am blameless or that I am speaking from any position of moral authority. I am saying that I see something that has damaged not just our community (the trans community) but impacted other communities as well, and I think that we really need to rethink how we approach these things.
I am not arguing that people have to be nice, or that anyone needs to hold anyone’s hand, or provide to the injuring party as Delux_Vivens said about what people expect when called out,
Triage, citations, a refreshing beverage, books, articles, a warm blankie, a mixtape…
just so they can feel good about themselves after saying or doing something oppressive. I’m not saying any of these things. I am not talking about tone. But I no longer want to be party to or enable any further silencing, intimidation, or abuse.
Edit: I was ambivalent about linking the other posts on this subject – not because I wanted to take credit for everything I said here, but because I did not want to trigger a blogswarm or create bad blood. But I think that decision was pretty wrongheaded, for plenty of reasons, not the least of which is that I am sick to my stomach of shoving all talk about the problems described in these posts under the carpet. Plus, it’s just a huge fucking breach of etiquette to not give credit. So, here:
s. e. smith: Internet. It’s Time to Talk. I read this months ago, and it triggered a lot of the thoughts I had here. Ou’s post was timely but not disseminated openly, IIRC. I think a lot of us were gun shy at the time, and were trying to avoid triggering any more blogswarms and outright attacks.
Flipfloppingjoy: Untitled. This is much more recent, and talks a bit about the mess that exploded all over Mai’a's posts at Feministe as well as something that happened with an LJ feminism community (ontd_feminism) and BFP’s post about the new Eminem/Rihanna video.
This conversation needs to be had, we need to talk about this stuff.
And I apologize for not linking properly from the start. I’m still a bit gun shy.