Asam Ahmad has written a wonderful article on the increasing prevalence of ‘call out culture’ in progressive circles (especially online ones):
Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on. Because call-outs tend to be public, they can enable a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism: one in which the act of calling out is seen as an end in itself.
What makes call-out culture so toxic is not necessarily its frequency so much as the nature and performance of the call-out itself. Especially in online venues like Twitter and Facebook, calling someone out isn’t just a private interaction between two individuals: it’s a public performance where people can demonstrate their wit or how pure their politics are. Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out. This is why “calling in” has been proposed as an alternative to calling out: calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.
In the context of call-out culture, it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being, and that different human beings in different social locations will be receptive to different strategies for learning and growing. For instance, most call-outs I have witnessed immediately render anyone who has committed a perceived wrong as an outsider to the community. One action becomes a reason to pass judgment on someone’s entire being, as if there is no difference between a community member or friend and a random stranger walking down the street (who is of course also someone’s friend). Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.
Ahmad’s article – which is well worth reading in full – really resonated with me. I hate call out culture – partly due to the sneering sense of moral superiority that often lurks behind it, but mostly due to the tendency it has to utterly shut down conversations. As an example of what I’m talking about, I want to focus on the case of supposedly ableist language. I want to emphasize that everything I’m about to say here is entirely my own – no doubt controversial – opinion, and I’m sure other bloggers here will disagree. But here goes.
I have witnessed, more times than I care to remember, a person who seems to be of general goodwill and good intentions enter into a conversation about disability on social media or a blog, only to get ‘called out’ – often quite harshly – for using ableist language. Sometimes it’s disabled people doing the calling out, but more often than not (for the conversations I’ve witnessed, I should emphasize) it’s non-disabled people. The called out person will sometimes attempt to explain why they said what they did, or why they don’t think what they said was problematic. This usually results in even harsher criticism. The almost invariable result is that the called out person then quickly exits the conversation – no doubt leaving with a less than stellar impression of what it’s like to talk about disability with progressives.
And the thing is, as a disabled person this frustrates me half to death. For starters, the actions of calling out often seem to presume that there is consensus within the disability community about what counts as ‘ableist language’ or what language disabled people find offensive. There isn’t. There tend to be (at least) four main categories of language that gets labeled ‘ableist’:
(i) Disability-related slurs: e.g., ‘retard’, ‘spaz’, ‘gimp’
(ii) Use of disability-related language to express criticism or negative traits: e.g., ‘lame excuse’, ‘crazy idea’, ‘insane thing to do’
(iii) Use of sensory or ability-related metaphors/imagery: e.g., ‘blind refereeing’, ‘deaf to her cries’, ‘walk a mile in his shoes’
(iv) Use of words that have problematically ableist origin or history: e.g., ‘fool’, ‘frail’
Most disabled people I know agree that instances of (i) are bad. But there is massive disagreement about whether, in what contexts, and to what extent instances of (ii)-(iv) are problematic. It’s not like disabled people are a hivemind with a uniform view of these issues.
More to the point, though, a lot of disabled people I know – myself included – just don’t care very much about this issue. (Apart from instances of (i), that is – slurs are awful and hurtful.) It’s not that there aren’t interesting questions here. It’s just that they pale in comparison, in terms of significance, to so many of the structural barriers that are part of the everyday lives of so many disabled people: access to work and education, access to healthcare, violence and hate crimes, widespread stigmas. I don’t doubt that some of the ways in which we use language are reflective of broader aspects of society’s prejudicial beliefs about disabled people. But I’m also firmly of the opinion that the way to address this isn’t by policing language (and especially not by policing the language of the people who are trying to have a productive conversation about disability). It’s by making salient and addressing the wider social norms of which ableist language is at best only one (of many) symptoms.
And so I hate it – I really, really hate it – when I see nice, well-meaning people pushed away from talking about disability because of call out culture. If you’re constantly worried about being ‘called out’, it’s pretty hard – and also pretty damn unappealing – to have a conversation. And it’s especially such a conversation about a topic you’re not that familiar with, but would like to know more about.
So consider this post a plea from a disabled person who wants people to talk about disability more. Can we please tone done the ‘calling out’ a little?