[Activist Modus Operandi] The Anatomy of a Call Out (And Why It Needs To Change)


Clarifications: In no way am I saying that the onus is on us to educate. In fact, you can scream in frustration, rage at people or seek out and carve out safe spaces for yourself all you want. I certainly have. But activism itself is a movement trying to make the world better for us. Creating change. So, if you want take the torch, that onus, onto yourself because you and I all know that even though the privileged people SHOULD be fixing it, they NEVER actually will on their own, then that is also your prerogative. And if you have chosen to take that as your path, then this post’s discussion about educating people and how the call out is effective and ineffective applies.

And let’s be clear, if you’re just looking to kick privileged people in the face or vent and express frustration, you’re not doing activism. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it is what it is. And as an important note, since people don’t grasp this, /you don’t have to do activism/. At all. Ever. You are not required to.

And even if you aren’t doing activism, the call out can also be dangerous to other marginalized people. For instance, if you trigger an attack in someone with an anxiety disorder because you wanted to call them out, you’re being ableist and deserve the same harsh response. There is absolutely no excuse to be bigoted in a call out. None. At. All. And that is the main concentration of my post.

Let me know if there’s any other sources of confusion in the post ~KH


I’m sure we’re all familiar with the activist community privilege or bigotry “call out”.

For those that aren’t, it is a method for either revealing privileged, bigoted or problematic behaviors to others publicly or to attempt to reveal to an individual their own mistakes and hopefully trigger some accountability. It generally involves some sort of verbal response to the actions (or written for online) that not only outlines what was done wrong but also why it was wrong, along with the expectation of some sort of retraction and even possibly an apology (I personally never ask for apologies, just retractions, because apologies often become an excuse to beat oneself up and look good through self flagellation, or alternately fauxpologies like apologizing for your target being offended, not for your actions). Call outs, structurally at least, are not conversational. They’re not really dialogue starters either. They are a public burst of information regarding a mistake made or a purposeful nasty action done and while they can trigger dialogue, they certainly aren’t a component of dialogue in and of themselves.

Call outs are a way to keep mainstream groups, individuals and small organizations on their toes about bigotry. They break the silencing that marginalized people (and sometimes the privileged people who have the basic human decency to help us/them out) are often encased in all throughout these venues and mediums. And they are exceptionally functional for dealing with entrenched privileged entitlement and bigotry, where dialogue becomes a simple derailing set of excuses or attempts to downplay the mistakes or awfulness done. Calling out is especially useful when dealing with trolls and the gotcha game players, where dialogue is a quick way to be turned into the meat to feed someone’s sadistic kicks or attempts to make an activist movement look foolish.

Calling out can be used by any activist but because of its less conversational nature it’s tougher for Appeaser archetypes to use effectively (See AMO Communication here for information on the archetypes). While Emoters and Logic Bombers will both use it equally (just with different styles) the most prominent user of the call out is the Nuker Archetype.

Now, and let’s not forget this, calling out is a tool. Like any tool it can be abused. It can be overused. And it can become broken. And as the culture of activism becomes more and more dependent upon the call out the anatomy of one has begun to evolve.

Are you starting to see where issues could arise?

Nukers alone are subject to some seriously dangerous pitfalls and you will notice that many of these pitfalls detailed in the aforelinked post are almost verbatim the same issues coming up again and again in call outs. But it isn’t the functionality of Nuker Methodology alone that is responsible for this. It’s a question of balance, which in the end was the entire reason behind writing the AMO series, to help activist communities achieve balance in methods.

Now, the anatomy of a call out is strongly linked with triggers and triggering language as well (and there has been some discussion on tumblr regarding it). I won’t go into too much depth on that, but certainly the concept of avoiding triggers often directly conflicts with the concept of calling out (as calling out is almost always a little bit confrontational and confrontation is often a major trigger for abuse survivors). A whole other post could be written about triggers in activism and the ableism of expecting people to just take it so I’ll step away from that for now.

Let’s get back to that balance thing.

A lot of people take the approach that the call out is bad because it “chases away allies.” I’m not gonna lie, I find the entire concept of an ally to be vile and revolting. Mostly because I think creating an above and beyond the call of duty label for people to just be decent human beings (which is what fighting oppression makes you) gives them more entitlement and a greater capacity to hold their efforts hostage to influence us. So certainly, while people may find call outs to be harsh, harshness is not, in and of itself, ever a good reason to abandon social activism. So the loss of “allies” (I hate that word) is really not the operative issue here and should not be concentrated on at all. Anyone who leaves social activism because someone pissed them off or hurt them from that group is a stereotyping scumbag and should indeed die in a fire. I hold by that.

So if the call out becoming the primary focus of activist culture isn’t bad because we’re jabbing “allies” then why is it? Well, look back at the Nuker pitfalls. Call outs can and often do invoke Overzealous Strike, Hypocritical Privilege Invocation and are just as subject to the risks of Bad Intel as any Nuker method (and in fact are at greater risk since they tend to be a rapid fire method, that one can do immediately, sometimes without adequate research). Just like an activist group should not only have one extreme archetype (not even mixtures), neither should an entire movement center itself around one method. And the issues go past the Nuker pitfalls. Ranging from becoming a ritualization of the call out and apology that destroys sincerity, becoming a dialogue destroying influence, being used even in situations where a dialogue is a massive necessity (and a call out would be inappropriate) or being applied in swarm fashion, creating a mob that (ironically) behaves very similarly to the power mobs that abuse and attack marginalized people. And of course, the greatest issue of all, the loss of the actual purpose of activism, to rebuild the world into something viable, in favor of only destroying it. I’ve always said to anarchists I know, “Okay, you wanna break down society completely so it can be replaced. But are you actually building anything to replace it? That’s kind of important.”

Same applies here.

If you burn down a section of rot and disease in a forest, you do actually have to replant the trees in the spots you burned, or you’re really not doing anything useful. And calling out does not involve any rebuilding. It is reactionary, a tool designed to reveal and pressure, only useful in the context of the entire repertoire of activist methods. And I mean the entire repertoire. Like creating dialogue around the call out (using the situation the call out was used for as a subject), Appeasers coming in and playing good cop to the bad cop of the caller outer, offshoot posts extending off the topic of the call out into other zones and using it to foster further dialogue, and offshoot posts discussing the topic in an abstract fashion applicable to all zones of kyriarchy.

If it is just a call out, a simple call out by itself, then you have failed in the central aim of activism. Because the aim of activism isn’t revenge. The aim of activism isn’t getting an apology. The aim of activism isn’t upsetting those in privilege (that’s just a side effect). The aim of activism is to make change. And calling out is one single, very limited tool and it cannot and will not create change on its own. We don’t try to cut down trees by shooting them with a handgun. Why are we trying to use call outs alone to fix the world?

Some of the aforelinked posts have recommended abolishing the callout. I don’t agree with that. And this is as someone who has previously made mistakes with call outs of the very type described here and been struck by those same mistakes from others. What I do recommend is that the call out be returned to its proper place. As a small level tool, part of a wide range of methods that activists use, used in conjunction with other methodologies and only used in situations where it will have the maximum impact on creating social change. I won’t deny us the tools we need to fight oppression. But I will expect those tools be used appropriately, thoughtfully and not abusively.

That shouldn’t be an unfair expectation. Or an uncommon one.

Further reading:
A collection of links on calling out and triggers at Flip Flopping Joy
NPFP: When Activism Becomes Bloodlust on RaisingBoychick

16 Responses to “[Activist Modus Operandi] The Anatomy of a Call Out (And Why It Needs To Change)”

  1. I don’t really have anything to add. This is a great post and has given me a lot to think about with the methods of online intersectional dialogue. Thank you

  2. Very good post.

    I always find it very hard to find the right balance in a call-out. Mind, I’m a Nuker by nature, so I’m struggling with a double-whammy of not-so-useful methods x_x I’m working to turn more towards the Logic Bomber, which incidentally works well for call-outs, because the Logic Bombing way is to include the info/explanation on why shit is shitty.

    So, yeah, tell people they’re doing/saying some shitty stuff and tell them why it’s shitty. That’s cool. But sometimes there’s just not enough spoons to write out the explanation of it all, and whether or not there are spoons it’s still not the duty of the marginalised peeps to educate those of more privilege.

    To me it’s not a terrible thing to say, “hey, that was a racist thing to say” and then expect the sayer to start thinking and educating themselves. And if they can’t be bothered to do that, that really does say a lot about them.

    I dunno – it’s a tricky balance.

    One thing is certain, though, railing away in ragey-mode is not a useful call-out method.

  3. @Jemima I’m definitely further along the towards Appeaser end of the spectrum, and the lack of spoons really does leave me exhausted (sometimes before I’ve even posted.) I went through a phase of really envying those who had the energy to be so spiky all the time, with the strength of logic bombs behind them to back them up. It’s a certain type of confidence in your own ability to yell, and confidence in what you’re raging – something I definitely lack.

  4. @Pewter:

    Heh, I actually find it burns through more spoons to be nice to people when I’m enraged and hurt.

  5. Just for the record, my own posts aren’t about telling people to be nice.

    Anyway, my problem with call outs aren’t people who do them well and I mean, I almost hate to link an example but I think this is a pretty good example of what a good call out can look like [link removed by request] and I believe people can still do them. I also believe they are about an invitation to dialogue, although not necessarily with the person you’re calling out.

    Unfortunately, and this is why I think they’re flawed, I can’t call anyone out on QT anymore, or at least I couldn’t until a few months ago. When I did, several of my commenters would basically start with the scorched earth. It would go beyond this, and no explanatins or apologies would ever be enough. People who commented regularly simply left because they didn’t like the culture that had developed, and linking anything someone else had said would mean, if not a blog swarm, at least a swarm of commenters.

    So every call out I personally made could become something larger and less constructive and more abusive than I had set out to do. And I’ve seen call outs in comment threads (no blogswarm) turn into pile ons that should have been defused before they got so completely out of hand. And I’ve talked to too many people who have actually been harmed well out of proportion to what they did to prompt it, if they did anything at all.

    I don’t trust that any call out I personally make will not spiral out of control. It may be that this is because of the amount of traffic my blog gets, it may be due to the people amandaw mentions in the post bfp and I link – about people who show up during a blogswarm or pile on to participate and then are gone again. It may be that call outs can sometimes pull people outside of the context of their own words and place them on the defensive in unfamiliar territory. It could be all of these things.

    I’m glad that you’re continuing this conversation.

  6. Uh, you know what, Kinsey, could you edit that link out of my prior comment? You can see what I mean, and that’s primarily what I intended, but I’m not sure I want to link back to stuff like that these days, even if I think it was written well.

  7. @Lisa:

    No prob. I got what you were saying without the link anyways, so I can yank that right out.

    I still do call outs but I’m very selective about how and where now. Because abusing a call out causes far more problems then it helps.

  8. Kinsey, this is amazing. Of course pointing out problem is extremely impotant but:

    I’ve seen too many posts where the discussion has gone from people figuring new interesting stuff out – that there’s no way I would have thought of on my own. To flamewars that are painful to read.

    And the real life versions as well. Where nobody changes.

    @ Pewter: I’m with you on this one. Being super-assertive takes energy for me and I am grateful of all the people who do that day after day (& that includes Kinsey).

  9. 9 GallingGalla

    Can I say? The thing that I find missing from most callouts (including my own) is “I” language. I don’t say “I’m feeling hurt because …” but rather “You’re wrong!” I kind of feel like, that if I can talk about how a particular bit of language makes me feel, that this is how I’m reacting and feeling hurt by it, that anybody with a bone of decency will hear that and at least consider what they’ve said, and maybe we can then have an actual conversation about it. Those who still get defensive and engage in derailing tactics? Maybe they’re just not worth my time, and the thing to do is to disengage from them. Not to chase after them, not to lob ever more powerful nukes at them (oh boy, am I ever a nuker), not to encourage a pile-on, because that will only exhaust me and my fellow community members, and the other person won’t change until they are ready to – no amount of nuking will make it otherwise.

    I’m only just beginning to think about this, in response to your articles and those by Lisa, bfp, nix, and others, and I’m still falling into the nuke-em-to-death trap more often than not.

    I also want to say that I don’t want to put myself in the position where I swing too far the other way and start “watching my tone”, shutting myself down, or trying to play nice. I don’t know where the line is.

  10. @GallingGalla

    One of the things I actually hate about swarming is that it’s a huge fucking waste. Two, maybe three people at max can effectively do a call out (one can, but it’s often good to have two) for an entrenched bigot. Swarming means everyone is getting stressed and angry and putting their time into that fuckhead.

    I know that a lot of these bigots love the attention and swarming is a successful trolled group.

  11. Well remember, Cereus, I’m not suggesting we drop the call out. That thing is still wicked useful. And some people don’t want to change so not using a call out for them is foolish.

    We should be thinking about avoiding ableism and not using it all the damn time (if we want to cause change).

  12. 12 darkdaughta

    Excellent post. Would you mind a re-post to my blog with credit given?

  13. @darkdaughta: Sure, just make sure you link back to the post with the credit.

  14. 14 .

    Reblogged this on Many Politics and commented:
    Just found this… interesting critique of “calling out” — and NOT because it ‘alienates people’ or ‘chases away allies’
    “If it is just a call out, a simple call out by itself, then you have failed in the central aim of activism. Because the aim of activism isn’t revenge. The aim of activism isn’t getting an apology. The aim of activism isn’t upsetting those in privilege (that’s just a side effect). The aim of activism is to make change. And calling out is one single, very limited tool and it cannot and will not create change on its own. We don’t try to cut down trees by shooting them with a handgun. Why are we trying to use call outs alone to fix the world?”

  1. 1 [Activist Modus Operandi] The Anatomy of a Call Out (And Why It Needs To Change) (via Genderbitch: Musings of a Trans Chick) « Jane Doe #225
  2. 2 Inclusion, Call-outs & the Gaze « Random musings

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