Recently, I have been reading a lot about call out culture. At the same time, our local SURJ group has been struggling with safety, and what that exactly means in spaces meant to be educational for persons with privilege. I have had a few conversations with folks occupying a variety of identities, about the issue of safety, calling out, calling in, and how privilege operates in these contexts. Through and inclusive of all this, I continue to see criticism of something called “identity politics,” along side the ever present uproar around Political Correctness.
These things are all related.
I have been very fortunate. I occupy (almost) all the privileged identities commonly referenced within matrices of oppression. Straight, white, cis male; middle class, able-bodied, colonial settler; neuro typical, Protestant, English speaking, citizen; and middle aged to boot. A grand slam winner.
Does this define me as a person? Of course not. I am also a father, uncle, brother, cousin, nephew, son, and friend. I am a survivor of sexual abuse. I am a construction professional. I am a facilitator and presenter. I am a writer. I struggle with depression and weight gain. I sometimes eat real healthy, and sometimes dive deep in the fast food. I have traveled large parts of the U.S. and small parts of Europe. I have swum in the Pacific off the coast of Mexico. I love science fiction and gardening. I am a recovering line cook. I pray.
My life, both internally and externally, is as complex and varied as anyone else. I make mistakes and am helpful. I procrastinate and get the job done. I succeed. I fail. I step on toes, and have my toes stepped upon. I have hurt people and been hurt by people. I have loved, lost, and loved again.
So here I am, a complete human with a multitude of facets and perspectives, navigating the world through a lens that requires constant polishing.
My experience in Social Justice spaces has been varied. There have been times when I have felt “unsafe,” while being called out. There have been times when I have been the one calling out or calling in. And through these experiences, I have noticed something that happens internally which I believe may be shared by others. Specifically, what happens inside me when I am called out, how I respond to that, and what the result is.
The first feeling that I have had when called out has been shame and/or anger. Thoughts of “you didn’t understand me,” “that’s not what I meant,” “who are you to tell me,” “but I’m trying to help,” and any other variation on the theme of “it’s not my fault,” jump into my mind and my body stiffens into a flight/fight state. I have a tendency to blush when uncomfortable, and I have felt my ears become steaming hot. I have noticed my head shaking back and forth to emphasize, “not me.” As the seconds listening have ticked by, I have constructed counter arguments and justifications, pulling upon every source and anecdote available to me. Thousand word replies have materialized in my brain in the space of a few breaths. I have felt my palms begin to sweat and my heart beating through my ribs.
Basically; it sucks.
It really, truly sucks being called out. Or even being called in. In my heart, I do not want to harm anyone, and being called out is essentially being told I have caused harm on some level.
Sometimes, folks I am close with have felt the calling out was not justified. And usually when that happens, it’s because they see me as a complete person struggling to do better in the world.
Regardless of that, being called out is not the problem. Politically Incorrect language is not the problem. Identity politics is not the problem. Safety is not the problem. None of this stuff is what has caused my discomfort being called out. Like; ever.
Even framing it as a “problem” is problematic. It’s a response inside me when someplace that needs further education is being stimulated. Those places are created and maintained by my privileges of identity. The “problem” is a society that privileges some at the expense of others. Calling out is simply that moment when those privileges are brought to light.
It isn’t the Politically Incorrect word which causes harm. It is what’s behind the word.
When I have used Politically Incorrect language, it has not been my lack of vocabulary which was problematic. It has been my lack of understanding of the harm behind the word. As my understanding grows, my vocabulary changes. Sometimes, a word has been the trigger for learning. As with the N word. Being told that using that word is not ok, lead to me learning WHY that word is not ok. Without the understanding, PC culture is nothing more than etiquette.
With the understanding that calling out as a practice is informing someone that their behavior and/or words are causing some form of harm, I am faced with a choice when I am called out. This is the crux. This is the moment of truth. This is the hardest part; even harder than all the sweaty palms and fight/flight responses. My choice at that moment is to defend myself, or recognize that I am being educated. This moment of choice is the only time that I have any real control over the outcome of being called out.
If I defend myself, inevitably and inexorably, the moment will devolve into a conflict. The longer I defend myself, the harder it will be to find resolution. The more I try to evade, the greater the likelihood that I will damage relationships. Regardless if my defense or evasion are done “respectfully” or not, this choice will bring conflict. The deeper I dig into the fight/flight response, the greater the harm will become.
This is not at all exclusive to calling out. This happens at work, at home, in sports, in school, with friends, with intimate partners, and in all manner of situations where someone experiencing a harmful behavior speaks up and says, “that’s not ok.” Being the recipient of such a message is difficult and uncomfortable. It is understandable that people respond defensively.
The other choice is to listen and learn. In the presence of shame, anger, hurt, fear, and the triggered fight/flight response, choosing to be present can be incredibly difficult. It takes practice. It takes intent. It takes a certain amount of humility. The humility to realize that I have more to learn, that other people are impacted by me in ways I can not always control, and that I might not fully understand everything that is happening in a given moment.
The outcome if I choose to listen and learn can take many forms. At the very least, I will have something to examine and understand that I didn’t have before. In that choice I am giving myself the opportunity to deepen my understanding of another human being who is also showing up complex and complete. What they have to say about my words or behavior could very well be something I really need to learn in order to live to my highest ideals.
One of the short comings in this conversation about calling out, is the emphasis on how the “caller” should behave and present. This smacks of respectability politics. Calling in as opposed to calling out seems to be simply learning to be nice about telling someone they are an asshole. Folks who are resisting the practice of calling out, seem to be overly focused on what the correct process should be. Or how folks doing the calling should reframe, behave differently, or simply stop doing it. There is a call for safety from people with privileged identities in the face of being confronted with problematic behavior and language. My perception is that the voices most strenuous in resisting calling out, have some aspect of privilege which just may be the source of their resistance.
Obviously, not every instance will be cut and dried, ultimately clear, or free of nuance and human failing. Despite that, all of us who have some form of privilege need to recognize how our privileges can help transform the act of calling out exactly at that moment when we are being called out. It is the ability to listen and learn at a moment when someone is illuminating a lack of understanding that can stimulate transformation. For ourselves and our communities.
Taken from the micro to the macro, I wonder how we expect people in power to respond to protest and resistance. In many ways, the work of Social Justice is a “calling out” of the systems of power. Personally, I expect the powerful of our land to listen and learn. I want to see growth towards equity. I want to hear people of influence stop telling and start listening. Everything I desire in terms of Social Justice requires the people privileged within our institutions to take seriously the issues being brought by the people threatened by those same institutions.
To that end, I need to model that in my personal life. When I am called out, I have the opportunity to respond in a way that moves toward understanding and accountability. It’s on me. There is no right way to go into these conversations. Certainly there are strategies to consider, and better or worse timing, but ultimately, the success or failure of calling someone into accountability lies with that person’s willingness to BE ACCOUNTABLE. I believe this is part of what Gandhi meant when he said, “if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
This is the challenge. When folks are calling out, the reasons are most often rooted in some form of violence or injustice that they have experienced or witnessed. Be that in the personal or the political sphere, it is the responsibility of the person being called out to stop and listen. If those of us who are engaged in this work can not do this for each other, how can we ever expect to see change?
The problem isn’t that calling out is toxic. The toxicity lies in the systems which perpetuate violence and injustice. Understanding identity is critical to understanding how this works. Political Correctness is a poor label for deepening understanding of how we each uphold or disrupt systems of oppression. It’s not the words; it’s the understanding behind the words.
So let’s stop this movement to protect people being called out. Instead, let’s cultivate deep listening and humility. The willingness to learn and correct is much more powerful than protecting oneself from learning and correcting. That willingness holds the potential for change.