Despite what the Daily Fail and The S*n might have their readers believe, activists don’t slide out onto the delivery bed clutching a punny placard and angrily mewling The Internationale. Nor, as far as I know, are we grown via a goo-filled vat in some Deep State facility, pushed into the world fully formed and fully informed (right, mum?).
Okay, I’m being more than a little hyperbolic. The point I’m trying to make is that we all started somewhere, and that no one is born ‘woke’ – we’re always and forever continuing to learn.
I spent much of the first half of 2018 reflecting on a conversation I had with my good friend Nik Jovčić-Sas (a wonderful campaigner – check out his work) about how best to create an inclusive and accessible space where the voices of the most marginalised are amplified and those who are still learning about the issues at hand can increase their understanding. How do we allow for potentially harmful and oppressive mistakes to happen (as they always will whenever anyone is learning) whilst limiting their damage, and ensuring that there’s both accountability and the chance to grow from the experience? Where, in all of this, does call-out culture fit in?
Even if you haven’t heard of it before, you’ll know it. Call-out culture refers to the tendency within progressive and activist spaces to publicly highlight instances or patterns of oppressive policy, behaviour and language use by others. You’ll see people being called out for all sorts of reasons, including being (intentionally or unintentionally) racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist.
Don’t get me wrong – there are countless examples where being held publicly accountable for your oppressive behaviour is entirely appropriate and ultimately necessary. I am not advocating that people shouldn’t get angry at their own experiences of oppression. Anyone who obstinately proclaims all instances of calling out as ‘toxic’ is being intentionally reductionist and should be summarily dismissed as such (I say, reductively).
The nuance, for me, lies in the interpretation of calling someone out as an end in and of itself. A performance for the sake of image, where the act (and its implied virtue) is more important than the content and change it might bring about. Instead, should we consider more carefully the context, and whether or not the party being called out might be more receptive to different strategies for learning and growing, resulting in a better eventual overall impact for all involved?
I’m not talking about glossing over hate, nor kowtowing to the sensitivities of wilful ignorance. Simply that there’s a difference between calling out someone who is intentionally and repeatedly being divisive, and publicly shaming a less well-informed community member who is willing to learn, but who might be pushed away by the current tendency to alienate and stringently define the rules of ‘who’s in and who’s out’ based on an unintentional misstep. Similarly, I fear that those who master the use of non-oppressive language may use it as a shield to avoid self-reflection and as a cover of their own damaging behaviours.
Look, it’s not simple, okay? I’m immensely grateful if you’ve stuck with me this far through the article as I work on my own feelings about the matter.
It’s my belief that there are empathetic ways of addressing certain oppressive behaviours which are both effective and non-reliant on public shaming. Calling in, which stems from the belief that it’s possible for to move through and beyond whatever mistake was committed, involves having a private conversation about oppressive behaviours and inviting someone to do better. This upends the role of public prosecutor vs prosecuted, and allows for space to call someone back to the fold rather than sanctimoniously casting them out.
Yes, there are times in which calling out is the way to go. Many times. But in an age of ‘twitterisation’ and echo chamber outrage (on all sides) it is important to remember that we are all are on a journey of learning that never reaches its final destination. Let’s cut each other some slack and promote compassion along the way. We’re all a woke in progress.
[This article was originally published in DIVA’s September 2018 issue. DIVA now on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]