When Calling Out is Called Out
There are people out there who believe that people who often voice concerns are constantly raring for a fight and enjoy getting into spats over little things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because someone calls others out doesn’t mean that they enjoy the calling-out in itself — though the end results, if any and if positive, can make them happy. In fact, just how often their best attempts at diplomacy and tact are met with defensiveness and/or abuse means that the hope of a positive outcome isn’t really adequate motivation.
Why do it? It is imperative to call attention to the problematic and the privileged because, all too often, no one does. Many might silently take issue with what’s at hand and privately confess to their disdain, but rarely do they initiate the conversation.
Why not let it be? People without certain types of privilege who want to survive must learn fast and early in life that if they don’t pay attention to how they’re affecting the privileged, they’ll pay dearly for it. On the other hand, unless they have worked hard not to be, people with unchecked privilege are self-absorbed and oblivious by default. They never consider how they affect those who don’t share in their privilege so they have to be told. This is not to say that the latter group is somehow inferior to the former — it’s more a matter of survival.
Along those lines, the caller-out has to make sure to coddle the feelings of the privileged or face the consequences These include losing the attention of the privileged at the very least and becoming a target of harassment and hatred at the worst. Still, it is often an exercise in futility to try to be careful because people are generally more invested in their own self-image than in giving any modicum of respect to others. No matter how carefully-phrased something might be, if it challenges the words or actions of the privileged, it could lead to defensive lashing-out. The privileged believe that being told that their words or actions are “-ist” or “-phobic” or “-centrist” is the same as being called “-ist” or “-phobic” or “-centrist.” Furthermore, the impact of their words and actions isn’t as important to them as seeing themselves as perfect.
The defensiveness comes in many flavors: “I was raised that way, it’s not my fault!” “This is just how I am, accept me and be tolerant, hypocrite.” “You’re too sensitive, try living in the real world.”
If especially offended by being called out, a privileged person might go on to do things such as telling others an inaccurate account regarding what happened behind the caller-out’s back, things that will earn the caller-out the title of “that guy/girl.” While there usually is not an outright ban of the caller-out from social gatherings or circles, those who feel threatened and defensive will often try to mock or bait them. Worse, well-meaning types might attempt to persuade the caller-out to keep the peace in future, to stop being so “hostile,” to cease “picking fights,” to simply deal with people in their extant states no matter how abysmal those states might be.
If only those who are called out were expected to be as understanding and as compassionate as those who are calling out are told, or simply expected, to be.
And then there are the ironies. Although those who call out are often maligned as negative, those who insist on keeping the world as it is and accepting the worst from people are quite pessimistic and stubborn in their belief that people cannot be changed for the better. Although the callers-out are seen as condescending for attempting to educate, the belief that people are too stuck in their ways and unintelligent to see the light is much more condescending. Although those who call out are often told to stop doing it, if a privileged person ends up committing a faux pas with actual social consequences in future, they will complain that “no one ever told me that was bad.”
If you’re the one doing the calling-out, know that you don’t have to be perfect in approach or in ideology; that though the results of what you do might not always be readily apparent, you’re doing the messy personal-is-political work essential to make anything happen within society; that you should take care of yourself; that you can and should call on your friends and allies to be of better help to you in the specific ways you need it (and that they may hesitate to do so not because they don’t want to help but because they don’t want to imply that you’re incompetent); and that you are not alone, as lonely as it can feel.
If, on the other hand, you, for whatever reason(s), choose to stay out of such matters, you can still build a better world for those who do engage by having their backs. Never forget that silence and “neutrality” support the status quo, that a simple affirmation like a nod and a “what [s]he said” can make a world of difference, and that you have a power that those who call out don’t have: you can more easily be heard by those who are called out. Use that power to hold them to a higher standard of behavior.
It’s time that the conversation shifted from quibbling about the fine details of the way in which people call others out to holding the privileged accountable for their reactions. Those who call out have heard the admonishments to be kind, to assume the best of intentions, and to be forgiving more times than those who never do could ever know. Let’s expect better from those who are called out.