I listened to this podcast, by Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel, recently and it made me think about the practice of calling people out. There’s also a transcription available here.

via GIPHY Rosin and Spiegel

If you just want a snapshot, it’s this:

A woman called Emily became heavily involved in the hardcore music scene. She loved the music, going to gigs, travelling with her best friend’s band and being part of the scene. But the hardcore scene was pretty male-dominated and she experienced firsthand things like sexual assault and the way the scene closed ranks around “good guys”. The expression was “good guy, backed hard”, so people making allegations against “good guys” weren’t believed. There was all kinds of sexism in the scene, including expressions like “no clit in the pit” meaning women weren’t welcome in the mosh. She eventually fronted her own band and used her platform to sing about feminist issues.

The Call-Out

Around this time, several years ago, the call-out became a practice in social justice/feminist/activist circles. Naming an abusive person and what they’d done to other members of their community, who would respond by admonishing the person or even banishing them completely. Her best friend was called out for sexually assaulting someone. Emily chose to stand with the victim and cut him out of her life, along with everyone else in the hardcore community where she lived.

And then Emily’s own callout came along. In high school, she’d bullied another girl. Someone shared a nude picture of her and Emily joined in, mocking the victim. She slut-shamed people. She earned a reputation for the way she berated other women in the hardcore scene online. And she was called out for it years later. This self-styled feminist advocate had been the ultimate mean girl as a teenager.

Emily’s community responded by banishing her, just as it had done to others. Her music career and friendships are gone. The impact was profound and distressing. It didn’t matter that her transgressions took place in adolescence, that she gave a genuine apology or that she had spent years using her profile to support and help other women. And this got me thinking.


How many of us did shitty things as teenagers?

I’m willing to bet that heaps of us did and said horrible things as teenagers. I am positive that I did! I have memories of attitudes I held that make me absolutely cringe now.

The teenage brain is still developing. It’s been proven that, while their brains are busily developing, teens will make decisions impulsively and based on emotions rather than on logical, rational thought processes. That doesn’t mean shitty behaviour from teenagers is okay, but I do think it should be taken into account when you’re looking at a woman in her 20s or 30s. That aspect of Emily’s story really struck me.

Did her crappy behaviour as a teen mean that everything she’d done as an adult was worthless? Hadn’t she demonstrated her growth by her staunch feminism, her support of women, her belief in victims of abuse? As a friend of mine framed it, are we not kind of throwing out the baby with the bathwater in situations like this?

Does the Call-Out really work?

Sometimes it’s warranted, whether it changes anyone’s behaviour or not. Naming abusers, for example, can help protect others. It can help others to come forward and seek support and even justice.

In Emily’s case, her teenage behaviour ended up having a profound impact on her. She has been isolated and essentially demonised. The man who set the call-out in motion recognises how harsh the process was, but says he thinks that was necessary for her to learn. That she earned her punishment by behaving terribly towards other young women as a teen and then having the temerity to grow into a vocal feminist. A “pseudo-feminist”, to use his expression.

Listening to the way she defends these actions against her, perhaps she has learned. She knows her behaviour as a teenager was wrong, for sure. But it feels like she’s also learned that everything that came after was meaningless. And this is one thing I don’t really understand about call-out culture. In these situations where someone has a profile of some sort, there seems to be no end date on the punishment and no way to atone and move on. You’re expected to hold better ideals, sure, but you’ve lost the right to ever discuss or defend those ideals. There seems to be little to no chance of redemption or recovery.

What started as a way to hold people accountable for their actions and words has certainly evolved. It’s a way to challenge bad ideas as well as bad behaviour. As a way to draw attention to those things and, perhaps, to educate.

Where the wheels can fall off

If you put a foot wrong, in some circles, people will fall over themselves to ensure that you know it. I have been both the wrong footed person and the person that everyone wants to “educate”. And that desire to educate or correct someone rarely works, due to the one thing none of us can change: human nature. This example is something that happened to me a year or two ago that I still think about.

I was in a small, private Facebook group filled with exceptionally bright, hilarious, feminist women. I learned so much from them and loved being a part of the conversations, even just as a silent observer. This is an example only- I’m not asking if you think I was right or wrong. I shared a post with the group that was going viral. A young woman had been sent an unsolicited dick pic and responded by sending back a bunch of similar pictures. A taste of his own medicine, so to speak. There was dialogue between them and two sentences that I had thought were innocuous:

“I’m a woman. I don’t have a penis.”

I thought absolutely nothing of these two sentences. In context, they made sense. She was telling this man that she was a woman and that she did not have a penis. But many people in this group interpreted it differently. They said it was a trans-phobic and trans-exclusive statement because, in fact, some women do have penises. At first, I was baffled. Of course it’s true that some women have penises, but that was not what this woman, whose post I had shared, was saying. Yes, she could have said “I am a cis-gendered woman” or something, but surely the meaning was clear?Comment after comment came flooding in and I quickly became overwhelmed, confused and defensive. But trying to defend something others are telling you is trans-phobic, when you don’t hold yourself to be a trans-phobic person, is an extremely uncomfortable position to maintain.

I was positive, initially, that I was in the right. As the comments piled up, I asked friends what they thought. I couldn’t figure out if all these women, who didn’t actually know me, were on to something. No one I asked believed I had done anything wrong. Some sent me examples of prominent feminist voices, even trans voices, sharing the very same post. But even now, I’m not sure of myself.  I left that group in a cloud of anxiety and self-doubt. Everyone wants to be right, right? But we humans aren’t great with conflicting ideas. If someone shows us proof that our idea is wrong, we struggle with that feeling and often somehow become even more convinced that we are right. The good old backfire effect. I still don’t know if I was in the right or if my mind had gone into rapid backfire mode.


I’m not in any way a victim here, I’m just saying that this minor-in-the-scheme-of-things call-out only left me confused and distressed rather than more educated or aware.

And that is the wheels falling off

When we call out someone for their behaviour or idea, en masse, that little bit of human nature kicks in. The backfire effect means our desire to educate them, to show them their mistake, actually cements the thing we are trying to excise. So while a call-out might be warranted, and might have the desired effect like it did with Emily, in other instances it can do the opposite. It can actually cement a person’s belief in a poor idea or course of action.

I’m not saying don’t call out damaging ideas or behaviour, just that a balance needs to be found. Calling out something can benefit the silent observer reading along and may even change the odd mind or heart along the way. But I do think we need to be aware that it’s not always the best possible course of action. I’ve read about alternatives like calling in (a gentler, less public approach) and I think there’s a place for that.

If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.


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