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.

smug cat is smug
smug cat is smug

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.

Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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  1. Fact is: I don’t call out all the bullshit.
    I wouldn’t get anything done if I did, and it’s bad enough noticing all that shit all the time.

  2. What she said.
    It is really important not to appear neutral when someone else is willing to take the heat by calling out bad behaviour. I call it out when I feel I can, but when I’m not sure what to say, or how to say it, or when I feel too intimidated, it is important to remember that at least vocally backing up someone braver/quicker/better-informed-about-the-issues is second best.

  3. 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.

    I don’t disagree but… I dunno. I’ve seen some examples of call out culture either getting absurd or shutting down important discussions. The Ada Initiative shutting down VioletBlue’s discussion of sex while under the influence is a recent example of both. The whole point of making our complaints known is to make the over all environment better. When we put ourselves before everyone else and use our experiences to dismiss theirs we’re doing the opposite of that.

    1. That’s a context that is far less general than what I had in mind when I wrote this, but you’re right. Call-out culture can get very out of hand.

  4. Agreed. But would you not also agree that the call outer also needs to out himself/herself? That is, I am most sympathetic to those who call out who also send the message that they too are privileged and are not climbing some moral high horse. Their message then is bullet proof against those being called out. If your going to be a protester in the Amazon calling out the logging company with a paper sign that says “save the trees” then you better admit to yourself that a tree was felled to ultimately make that sign. You acknowledge that and proudly champion the fact that recycled paper was used for the sign. Your message is not a moral commandment from some all perfect high priest. You’re just an imperfect average Joe who wants to protect the environment or care about treating each other with respect and decency. You’re a rose with many flawed thorns but a rose nonetheless who simply cares about others. You win over many hearts that way and perhaps even the ones being called out.

    1. It’s not about winning hearts or minds. It’s about ‘Stop hurting me.’
      You can only be (metaphorically) slapped in the face for so long before you have to defend yourself.
      Mr. Eugenics on the other thread, for instance, perfect example – ‘The rest of us would be better off if you and your family didn’t exist. What? Why are you so angry and irrational? It’s not like I want to send you to a camp or force you to do anything. You’re just inferior and shouldn’t be alive. That’s logic!’
      No. I’m not having that conversation. That conversation needs to be shut the fuck down. It does. It’s just indefensible.
      You’re blowing your mental masturbation load all over my face, asshole. Why should I be calm about that?

      1. “Stop hurting me” is fine. “I’m going to hurt you like you hurt me” or “I’m going to dismiss you and prioritize my experiences anyone else’s” are not. And you can’t end with or build whole policies around one person’s “stop hurting me.” A conversation needs to go way beyond that if we expect decisions, policies and rules established (the end result of much of these arguments) to be fair and actually address the problem

        1. Here’s the deal – when you ‘debate’ the humanity and worth of people – disabled, trans, gay, women, PoC – those people are going to avoid your groups. That’s how that’s going to work. I was just talking about calling it out instead of leaving silently, I don’t have the power to make the kinds of decisions, policies, and rules you’re worried about. I only have the power to walk away or say something. And that something isn’t going to be detached or unemotional. And if the larger community doesn’t care, or worse, chastises me – I’m gone from that group of people.
          There are people who don’t think my right to dignity and humanity are up for debate. I’ll go hang with them.

          1. By all means, go with the people who make you feel most at ease. But painful and triggering conversations are going to have to happen. Discussions of rape, sexual assault, how it’s facilitated, the effect drugs have on our bodies, the root causes of racism, how slavery impacted different southern american countries, it’s going to trigger people but we can’t not have these conversations.

    2. Trees do not work that way!

      At least, not when it comes to paper harvesting, anyway.

    3. I do think that people can and should point things out to people who call things out, but my problem is that it’s usually more along the lines of tone-trolling.

  5. @julian francisco:
    Oh, I think we can not have a conversation about the pros and cons of eugenics. I think we can not have a conversation about how good slavery was for black Americans. I think we can not have a conversation about whether disabled people should be scrubbed from society. I think we can just accept that history happened, and some arguments are incredibly harmful to already marginalized people.
    And if we do have these conversations, we shouldn’t be surprised or appalled when the targets of these conversations get pissed. They’re right to get pissed. They’re right to leave a community that thinks questions about their humanity are appropriate.
    The question is only whether you want to embrace those people or disrespect and insult them with discussions conducted by people who will never be affected by their own arguments.

    1. The question is how to respond. Whether you say “That’s racist. XYZ show that to be racist and …” or whether you continue to haggle them for days on end with no information, no explanation and nothing but “racist filth. stop breathing.” Racism isn’t an excuse to dehumanize someone. It’s a society wide problem that extends beyond the idiocy of some English twit. When we dehumanize people over it and pass up every opportunity to discuss what makes it racist, what is racism and how racism continues to manifest itself, we keep ourselves ignorant and we keep those who could act to counter racism ignorant of important ways those they admire might be implicit in it.

      We need to better our understanding too. I think that’s important to remember.

  6. I do think it’s important to discuss when call-out culture can be abused, but I acknowledge it is EXTREMELY difficult to actually define what is setting appropriate boundaries versus what is brushing off valid criticism. I generally go with a policy of Seriously Entertain the Idea That Someone Might Have A Point Until Absolutely Proven Otherwise, but I have run into a few cases where it just seems like that’s not possible. I’d like to give clear examples because it is such a rare thing, so here is what I’m talking about so it doesn’t get confused with people just brushing off criticism:

    Callers-out are still people, and are susceptible to all the snap-judgments and power-grabs that people always are. Some simply assume that because people who are morally justified call people out, the more of a performance they make calling people out the more morally justified they will be: (And bonus points for the amazing flip from “I shouldn’t have to take time to educate you” to “I have no obligation whatsoever to even make an argument or indeed make any sense…)

    Again, I want to emphasize that this is VERY rare in what I’ve seen (and even then only buried in comment sections), that 99% of call-outs are valid, but it would be great when we have that 1% (or less) that really don’t work, that I had something better to say than “You’re just looking for something to be upset about” or “You’re not making any sense” to define these very rare call-out abusers, when that is what most people say to ignore totally valid call-outs. Has anyone else dealt with this, or found a good way to name what makes an invalid call out in a way that doesn’t try to invalidate the vast majority of good ones?

    1. I see what you’re saying.
      It makes things difficult for people whose grievances should be taken seriously.
      The only thing I’ve found is to acknowledge that you’re part of the group that is being ‘insulted’, and make the point that you didn’t read it as insulting.
      That’s all you can do, really. I can only speak for myself.

      To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. – Douglas Adams

      1. The only thing I’ve found is to acknowledge that you’re part of the group that is being ‘insulted’, and make the point that you didn’t read it as insulting.

        In my experience this is an express ticket to getting viciously attacked for invalidating others’ experiences or generally being a group-traitor. It is seriously unpleasant and even alienating if you haven’t come to expect it. Unfortunately this often means being forced to sit by silently as someone engaging in an ill-considered call-out self destructs rather than actually attempting to mediate or do damage control.

      2. But I don’t think being part of the group is actually relevant–for one thing, that would validate every single Chill Girl who tried to brush off a misogynist call-out, and on the other hand, I certainly don’t share many of Natalie Reed’s experiences, or the sex worker in the second link, but that should not in and of itself mean I can’t address transparently bad arguments. And I think in that case there’s a huge conceptual leap between “This person has lived experiences vastly different than yours and on a level of detail on this topic more than you have ever considered, so it is extremely likely that you’re overlooking something important if you brush off their critique” to “This person, by virtue of their lived experiences, is automatically right when they claim that X is oppressive” and sometimes I feel like call-out culture ends up looking like the latter.

        1. By “a misogynist call-out,” I mean “a calling out of something misogynistic.” Fucking adjectives, man, how do they work?!

        2. It’s complicated. I don’t think there’s a rule book. (if there is, let me know!)
          I just feel obligated, sometimes, to say ‘That’s not offensive to me, but I can’t speak for anyone else’ – that’s very different from ‘It’s not offensive and anyone hurt by it should grow some skin.’ You still get yelled at, but at least then you have some idea of who you’re dealing with and where they’re coming from and how seriously to consider their point.

  7. Oh I liked this. Although I do think in some places there is an actual “call out culture” where hierarchies are created based around attacking other people. The tumblr esque “social justice” community is notorious for this and I’ve heard stories where this kind of environment leads to outright abuse of people for various reasons.

    Back to the post though I think the dynamic Heina is talking about is really important and it’s one thing that has a big impact on my ability to integrate with groups and communities of people. I could probably say I’m part of at least 4 “major” minority groups and that means there aren’t very many places where I can feel comfortable. It’s the sort of “pick what kind of prejudice and entitlement you want” because nowhere is ever really entirely welcoming, so I either have to deal with lots of anger, learn to shut up, or to act as a shut in. And I’m pretty bad at the first two.

  8. I have been trying not to call people out. But I’ve done it. Bad Facebook posts that are only for the sole purpose of getting ‘likes’. Bad or misleading advice. And once out and out racism. But I will leave things along even if they kill me not to say anything.

    I did a call out in Twitter recently. If you live anywhere where traffic updates on Twitter are common you’ll be like me and check the hashtag before heading into that traffic. Someone complained about a courier truck and the last part was “Female drivers…” Seriously. I couldn’t help it. In part because the poster was obviously part of a minority that is often given the bad driver stereotype. My reply: @namewithheld:) “I wonder how you would react to someone complaining about a driver and finished it with “Asian drivers…”

    I actialt felt bad for a moment. I felt like I was going to get trolled. Instead someone welds backed me up and the Tweeter wrote “oh haha sorry. Took it off. It was a draft that ended up sending my error tweets since December all at once”

    Wha-?? Not the reply I expected.

    Anyway I am very glad I called him out. But even now I have a hard time. Is it worth the potemtial issues it can cause.

    I don’t know if I would write what I wrote again, but I did hate that I resorted to a stereotype to do it.

  9. As always, Heina, I deeply value your voice. Thank you for writing this.

    To be blunt, I feel that most of the criticisms I made against Harriet Hall recently were functionally ignored and instead I was accused to participating in call-out culture, in being mean, in mansplaining, and so on. Steven Novella made it all about healing wounds in the community. As happy as I am that Amy and Harriet got to reconcile their differences, I was extremely disheartened that my criticisms of the heteronormative and cissexist information Hall was sharing on SBM were ignored in the interests of larger political points about charitable reading and mending fences that Novella deemed more important. I’ve made no secret about my feelings about this–I posted about it in comment sections and e-mailed Steven Novella personally and never heard a peep from him when I expressed how I felt he was effectively silencing me.

    So, sure, “call-out culture” or whatever can be abused–but claiming that call-out culture is abusive can also be abused as a way of silencing very real criticisms. Silencing tactics are often insidious and subtle, and I’ve found that a lot of the calls for avoiding calling people out has been for exactly the reasons you mention in your post: to coddle the privileged and allow them to maintain their comfort.

    1. Heh

      Was anyone else around for her piece on circumcision? There was a good bit of flack sent her way over that. Hall’s an amazing woman but she’s very… old school? She seems to have a big blindspot for some issues.

      Which reminds me, many of the women who came to defend her seemed very contemptuous of “chick” women. Not sure what to make of that.

      But that’s another argument. One I’m in no mood to have again.

  10. I recently engaged a little with a Rebecca-hater on Twitter and, as Twitter has those annoying 140-character limits, I decided to rebut his specific position and blog post on Rebecca’s “Twitter Users Sad To Hear They May Be Rapists” article. His only response to date has been “Intriguing. Flawed.” (Which is okay, my whole point was that his reasoning was flawed.) It didn’t change the world or even that one person’s mind, but I made the effort – and I have Rebecca’s back! (Sort of. I guess. I tried?)

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