‘Call out culture’: the case of ableist language

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?

46 thoughts on “‘Call out culture’: the case of ableist language

  1. It means, roughly, something that is or causes a problem. So in this case problematic words are those which are offensive, insensitive, indicative of prejudicial attitudes, etc. More or less.

  2. Thanks for this. I was especially struck by the last sentence of the linked post: “reminding ourselves of what a call-out is meant to accomplish will go a long way toward creating the kinds of substantial, material changes in people’s behaviour – and in community dynamics – that we envision and need.”

    If the point of calling out is to stir up rage and political conflict, then the current practice is quite successful. But if the point is to educate and foster understanding of and solidarity with people living under oppression, then calling in may be much more effective.

    The discussions of calling out remind me very much of Lisa Tessman’s discussion of outrage (I think that’s the term she uses) in Burdened Virtues. Outrage can be seen as virtuous because of the way it stimulates us to take action in response to injustice. But it can also be seen as a vice, because it tends to ruin our individual-level prospects for flourishing. (It’s hard to have good relationships with family and friends when one is constantly boiling with outrage.) This seems to apply to calling out as well.

    Calling in involves charity in interpreting the words of others and a certain kind of generosity and being willing to forgive. That seems virtuous both on an individual level and in terms of being conducive to education, education, and solidarity. But it might also tend to make us complacent or too forgiving. So, like outrage and calling out, calling in seems to have aspects of both vice and virtue.

    Since Tessman’s discussion is framed in terms of virtue ethics, maybe a version of the doctrine of the unity or consilience of virtue might help us here. (I’m thinking of Julia Annas’ version in particular.) Virtue requires both outrage and generosity, balancing each other and tempered (with other virtues) in such a way that (as much as possible) we get the virtuous aspects of both and the vicious aspects of neither. That suggests that the problem with calling out culture is not calling out *as such*, but instead the absence of the counterbalancing aspects of calling in. And calls for calling in shouldn’t be read as “we should completely and utterly stop calling out,” but instead as “calling out shouldn’t be the mass pile-on it currently is.”

  3. Can we extend this basic courtesy to people of good will regarding not just ableist language? Wasn’t Prof Wallace accused of being a rape apologist on this very blog?

  4. Yes, Eleanor, that’s why I said ‘as an example’. Implying that there are many more examples – including those discussed in the article I linked to. And anyone who read the thread you’re referring to will remember how many people, myself included, jumped to David Wallace’s defense.

  5. I don’t really want to get into it, but I have *so* many disagreements with this article.

    I’ll just leave this here: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/

    What most people are calling “call-out culture” are inappropriately lumping in calling-ins. Also, sometimes, a call-out is what’s needed, and sometimes it’s all the person has the emotional energy to do. It’s not so simple as the author makes it seem.

  6. Rachel, I’ll just note that the Black Girl Dangerous article you link to is in fact linked in the OP. There might just be substantive disagreements here about what counts as a ‘call out’ vs. a ‘call in’. I’m sure you have views on this, but others might disagree and it’s not as though there are hard and fast definitions here (as the linked article above illustrates). If you don’t want to get into why you disagree, I of course completely respect that. But to paint the view defended above as unaware of the appropriate distinctions is fairly uncharitable, I think.

    Also, to be clear, neither I nor Ahmad said that call-outs are never appropriate.

  7. I don’t think either of those implicatures are intended (or, I’d say, present) in my comment, for what it’s worth. I wasn’t suggesting that either you or the author are unaware of the call-in article. [Moderator’s note: edited out a sentence.] I think charity works both ways: to reading the article, and to reading the criticism.

    My exasperation with the general love of this article partly involves my utter dismay at people’s behavior over, e.g., the Patricia Arquette mess. There were many calling-ins treated like bare calling-outs. And there seems to be a serious desire by those with privilege to reject both calling-outs and calling-ins (because, let’s face it, both are uncomfortable, make us feel bad, and make us look bad publicly). But there’s also a general inability or unwillingness (probably the former, perhaps motivated implicitly by the later) to distinguish between the “call-out culture” that’s being criticized and more genuine calling-outs and calling-ins.

  8. Thanks for posting this, I found it and the accompanying comments very interesting.

    I was sitting in on a class a little while ago where the Professor (whom I won’t name in case I misquote them, but who has done important work on the ADA and is a disability activist) said something like ‘Many of you have no disabilities. And not one of you has every disability. So we should each of us recognize from the beginning that we’re going to make linguistic mistakes at some point and misunderstand some people’s situations. So a little bit of humility and a sense of humor about our failings is called for. And we can also try to set each other straight without immediate condemnation.’ And it seemed to me that this turned a potentially silent classroom (the students seemed both well-meaning and a bit nervous) into one where people talked and learned some stuff. (Maybe I should admit here that I know very little about disability myself, but I think I learned some things from listening to that discussion.)

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t miss the point, but the post reminded me of that experience…

  9. One problem with call-outs is that they frequently involve combinations of a number of different claims to which one might reasonably have quite different reactions. A call-out often takes the form “I feel psychologically injured by your doing Φ, which violates norm N that you ought to be following.” One might accept that an injury has occurred, feel agent-regret about being the cause of it, and want to make amends for it (in some cases, quite gladly forgoing doing Φ, an activity to which one may have no particular attachment at all, in the future) without being persuaded that doing Φ does violate norm N (or, perhaps, without being persuaded that N is a norm one has a duty to follow).

    It’s very difficult to find an appropriate form of words to express this response sensitively without giving the deceptive impression that one has been unreservedly persuaded by everything that has been said in the call-out. Conditional apologies and hedged apologies (“I’m sorry if I offended you …”) are often criticized as being insincere or self-serving; in many cases, they surely are, but I think that sometimes they represent genuine attempts to try to respond compassionately to an injury one has caused without acquiescing in dishonesty: the hedging serves to distance oneself from claims about the nature of that injury, or the norms associated with the action that caused it, that one ultimately fails to find compelling.

  10. Eleanor: one commentator made one arguably-silly comment. It doesn’t say anything about FP, beyond a commendable willingness to allow open discussion. And I don’t think it has anything to do with this issue.

    Callings-out vs callings-in: I think there has to be a terminological ambiguity. Callings-in as defined in the Ahmad quote are private, so we don’t generally know about them for third parties (e.g. Arquette), so they can’t be mistaken by third parties for callings-out. So I assume Rachel McKinnon means something different from what Ahmad does by callings-in. (I’d never heard the word before yesterday so I won’t try to disambiguate!)

  11. David: Correct, I’m using it differently than Ahmad is. That’s precisely part of my critique: Ahmad inappropriately lumps in public calling-ins as calling-outs. Calling-ins are not all private: they can be just as public as calling-outs.

    From the BGD article I linked:

    “So, what exactly is “calling in”? I’ve spent over a year of trying to figure this out for myself, and this practice is still coming to me daily. The first part of calling each other in is allowing mistakes to happen. Mistakes in communities seeking justice and freedom may not hurt any less but they also have possibility for transforming the ways we build with each other for a new, better world. We have got to believe that we can transform.

    I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.”

    Calling-in is about starting a conversation, attempting to ‘bring back’ the person who made the mistake, not to leave them out in the cold. The problem is that far too many people, including I think Ahmad, think that any public calling-in leaves people in the cold. I suspect that the intuition is that anything public immediately involves shaming. Well, maybe if it’s public it will produce shame, as a contingent psychological feature of being human in our world, but it’s not integral to the process: public calling-ins are about *accountability* not shame. That distinction is all too often lost on people.

  12. Look, we *all* fuck up. Every one of us. This includes me. But we need to be *publicly* accountable for our *public* mistakes. These are not private mistakes being made public. If that were the case, then we’d have a different argument on our hands. But that’s not what’s happening. We’re talking exclusively of public mistakes–things done in front of others, often many many others. And such mistakes are thus publicly accountable.

    One problem I see with “ally culture” is an utter lack of public accountability. People say, when called in or out, that the people calling them in/out demand perfection. *NO* We all recognize that everyone makes mistakes. It’s not about punishing imperfection. It’s about saying, “Hey, you made this mistake.” The hope is that the person will say, “Oh shit, you’re right! I’m so sorry! I’ll work so that it won’t happen again.” It’s really *that* simple. That’s how easy the exchange can be.

    The first impulse is almost always: “No I didn’t!” The second impulse is to experience the shame and then attack back: “How dare you humiliate me publicly?!” Wrong moves. There’s little coming back after this point, and this sort of (unbelievably common) response will fuel flames and what was a simple calling-in may turn into a conversation-ending calling-out. But that shift wasn’t on the initial calling-in/out: it was on how the person who fucked up responded. They actually set the tone here, not the person doing the initial calling-in/out. Even the harshest calling-out can be defused by saying, “Oh shit, you’re right! I’m so sorry! I’ll work so that it won’t happen again.” Seriously. Try that script next time (but *mean it* of course).

  13. Also, I strongly resist when Magical says: “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.”

    I particularly reject the characterization as “sneering sense of moral superiority.” OK, *yes* the super problematic features of “call out culture” have this feature. But I think “call out culture” has not been properly described or delimited from the perfectly fine calling-outs and calling-ins. Calling out is about saying: “Hey, you stepped on my (or someone else’s) toes.” That’s all. If someone steps on my toes, and I say, “Hey! You just stepped on my toes!”, there’s no “sneering sense of moral superiority” behind that. And there’s no implying that I *never* step on other people’s toes, ever.

    It’s this latter point that’s crucial: just because someone says, e.g., “Hey, that’s ableist language!” doesn’t mean that they are suggesting that they’re never guilty of using ableist language, too.

    So yes, some calling-outs do involve a preening social activism, showing off how moral one is (even though in our experience this person isn’t so awesome when it matters). But that’s actually a *minority* of the cases of calling-out/in. Seriously. It’s a very small minority of the cases. But people take that minority of cases and treat it like that’s what’s going on in all (or most) calling-outs/ins. I’ve seen that happen over and over. It really upsets me. And I think Ahmad did it…

  14. *sigh* Can you tell that this is both a topic of research and personal interest?

    The other reason that I strongly resist when Magical says, “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,” is that it includes “often lurks behind it.”

    Often? No, I don’t think it’s often at all. I think it’s rarely behind it. But the cases where it’s behind the calling-out get treated as the rule, not the exception. Rather, I think they’re the exception, not the rule.

  15. And yet I think that even calling-ins done with compassion and love very often produce the negative effects that you’re really concerned with Magical, which (seem to me) are that well-meaning people get silenced and shut out of debates. I think that it’s complicated, and it depends on a lot of features, but what I often see is that a gentle calling-in doesn’t get adequate uptake. In so many cases, we do not respond well to calling-ins, and we often utterly fail to distinguish between gentle calling-ins and brutal calling-outs. Being called-in sucks (being called out possibly more so). We don’t respond well.

    So I think that a lot of the negative effects that bother you (and bother me too) are due to a lack of adequate uptake on the person being called-in/out, not so much on the person doing the calling-in/out. That’s a discussion we’re *NOT* having. The discussions we’re having are focused too heavily on the people doing the calling-in/out. I’m reminded of Audre Lorde’s 1981 ‘The uses of anger: Women responding to racism.’ Let’s focus more on how we should *respond* to calling-ins/outs, and less on the people doing the calling-ins/outs.


  16. I am largely in agreement with this. In fact, I just wrote an article saying something sort of similar addressed to other caregivers. But something sticks out at me, a little. My son would once have been called an idiot by doctors and educators. It sticks out at me when people use the word. I’m not really offended, as I think it may be something like a dead metaphor. I remember an article saying that Rahm Emanuel was an idiot for using the R-word, which was pretty funny. But I think a lot of people – even very progressive folks – really have never thought twice about lame, idiot, moron, imbecile. Couldn’t it be helpful to let people know – including people who are listening in on the conversation? Without humiliating someone, or making them feel like a bad person.

  17. To me, an important part of this discussion is the nature of the community that one is being called-in to. This directly relates to the effects and uptake of calling-in, a matter that is surely a central concern as Rachel says. The OP was largely focused on online communities, where anonymity is common, membership changes often, and personal knowledge may be spare indeed. (And the original BGD post seemed to be spurred by experiences at a large conference, where these are also prominent features of the community.) If I am publicly called-in or called-out by someone I don’t know, who has never spoken to me before, and who doesn’t know me, my first reaction will tend to be much more defensive than if a good friend comes to me, whether publicly or privately, to gently correct me. My openness to responding well depends on my assumptions about the intentions (and the quality of judgment) of the person calling me out. Should we all be more focused on our responses? Surely. Perhaps, though, even public mistakes should be privately called-in (at least at first) in communities where those being called-in may know little about those doing the calling. That’s all I take the OP to be saying, and is something I surely agree with. The prevalence of public calling-out/in surely indicates that private, community-building calling-in is not the default.

    This is also perhaps what is driving some disagreement about how commonly moral preening is motivating calling-in/out; in online communities, the intentions behind the acts are often mysterious to those being called out, especially if they are just dipping their toe into the community waters. If you, as a new member, get called-out it is fair to assume that the purpose is to push you out of the community, not to help you improve as a member; if you get called-in publicly, it is a more open question. An attitude of charity with respect to someone’s intentions if they publicly call me in with gentleness and while expressing their acceptance of me as a person and member of the community seems totally warranted. Surely many of us, myself included, tend to be more defensive than necessary (especially when first entering a community) out of a sense of self-protection and resistance to seeing oneself as mistaken. But why call me in publicly rather than privately? Ease, even knowing the shaming effects? The expressive function for the community? Yes, certainly some cases call for immediate and public correction. But private calling-in at least most clearly communicates an intention not only to correct but also to open up a constructive dialog about the mistake, so it seems to me private calling-in should clearly be the default.

    Private, direct communication raises new concerns, of course, and those concerns can be exacerbated in precisely the kind of relatively anonymous communities mentioned above. But where calling-out has, and continues to have, detrimental, stifling effects on communities, I am glad to have an open conversation on options and their merits.

  18. I appreciate this post because I have often seen examples of this type of “call out” or even “call in” criticism that were a very poor idea. First, the public demand for accountability is not always proportionate to the public nature of the errors. Consider the example of Justine Sacco, whose tweet about AIDS, Africa, and being white has caused enormous damage to her life. Hers was a “public” comment but she had not anticipated that her readership might expand within hours from a few hundred friends to millions of people across the globe. She is not a public figure and her apologies were to no avail. It’s not clear to me why public accountability was demanded of her by countless strangers in the first place; I think it was more about the glee taken in mocking her and witnessing her public undoing. She was attacked by people who did not shoulder a similar burden of accountability for their criticisms. If she cannot hope to apologize effectively for what she said and is forever tarred by this incident regardless, what is the real purpose of the “call out” besides harm? What does it accomplish besides making people a bit paranoid about saying anything that possibly could be perceived as offensive by others? Perhaps her remarks were even poorly phrased sarcasm – don’t many of us say ironic or sarcastic things that could easily be taken the wrong way by those who don’t know us well or don’t have the context? Shouldn’t philosophers more than anyone be aware that ironic statements are easily misinterpreted?

    If the line between the truly offensive and the non-offensive were very clearly drawn, concerns about crossing it inadvertently would be lesser. Yet as the blog post above indicates, some areas of potential offense are vigorously contested. When most uses of the word “crazy” have no connection to actual mental illness, must we toss it from our vocabularies to avoid upsetting someone? We have an obligation to interpret others charitably. Why does the duty to maintain high levels of courtesy fall only on the person perceived to have made a mistake? Couldn’t those doing the calling out preface their complaints with an acknowledgement that the person who erred doubtless did not mean to do so, and any criticism is therefore a kindly suggestion rather than a condemnation? The impulse to respond with “no I didn’t” in the face of accusations that one has been offensive is not always ill-informed, yet it appears that no other answer is acceptable: we must always agree with those who call us out lest we compound the offense even further. That’s unfair. Worse yet, an immediate acknowledgement and apology is not always sufficient to pacify the call-outers even when the apology is sincere. I think this situation badly harms the cause of whoever is doing the calling out. Even good people are imperfect; at the very we least we should save our umbrage for those who are truly hostile, not those earnestly attempting to do right.

  19. There is something puzzling about the following quote from the BGD piece: “I picture ‘calling in’ as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us.” Who is “us”? Perhaps reasonable people committed to ending oppression in all its forms? But of course, as the original post noted, such people will disagree about whether (e.g.) it’s okay to use phrases like ‘lame excuse’ or ‘blind refereeing’. My problem with most of the call-outs that I’ve seen is that usually no space is made for discussion of whether the bit of language at issue really is call-out-worthy. To echo Susan: it seems that “we must always agree with those who call us out lest we compound the offense even further”. This presupposes that there is agreement among reasonable (etc.) people where there is none, which is frustrating, alienating, and ultimately counterproductive.

  20. I have called out when I had no other choices myself. Mostly I call in. Mostly with students, but also with fellow colleagues. The calling outs both resulted in retaliation and ostracism. The calling ins were successful in 4/5 cases. I’m not going to enter into the debate about calling out vs. calling in. But we ought to be well informed of the effect of public shaming. It is psychologically akin to punching someone in the face according to recent scientific studies. I think we would do well to bear that in mind, as well as proportionality. I sometimes feel as though the public shaming and the after effects go well beyond the initial “crime.” Oh and intellectual humility about knowing the moral truth would also likely do some good for at least some.

  21. This article made me ask —- how much of the criticism in this article directed at “call out culture” should be directed at the idea of calling out itself — as opposed to, maybe, *how* some people go about it?

    I remember I was once in a feminist space — and a cisgendered man started proclaiming how “transsexual” is a pejorative and inappropriate term — and that instead, one should use the term “transgender”, and not “transsexual”. That, of course, was new to me — me being a transsexual-identified woman.

    Granted, I agreed, it is inappropriately to mindlessly throw the term “transsexual” to everyone on the trans spectrum —– but that does not mean that there is anything wrong with the term when used appropriately — and in fact, there are cases when the specific term “transsexual” is needed. I, for example, identify *specifically* as transsexual to clarify that in my case, I have a medical need for medical treatment —- as opposed to “transgender”, a term that could also apply to someone who will do just fine without any medical intervention, and really needs nothing more than for people in society to treat them with respect as who they are.

    In short —- yes, the term is inappropriate when misused — but not every use is a misuse. It’s like the difference between using the term “Indian” on a Native American and using that very *same* term on someone from, well, India. (Granted, there may be flaws in this analogy —– as I feel I should defer to actual Native Americans whether the term “Indian” in reference to them is pejorative or not, rather than presume to arbitrate that myself.)

    So I agree —- this is one case of call-out culture gone wrong —- a cisgendered man, without consulting any trans-person in the group, boldly proclaiming that the term “transsexual” is inappropriate and offensive.

  22. Actually, some trans people (including myself) do think that ‘transsexual’ needs to go. Maybe this cis guy was relaying what a trans person had said to him, when the trans person had argued that ‘transsexual’ is offensive to lots of trans people (because its medicalization). Also, I think it’s important to remember that lots of trans people (who you’d want to call ‘transsexual’) *do not* use any medical transition procedures, so saying that ‘transsexual’ means needing medical transition care elides those who also identify as trans but either can’t or don’t want access to those same medical treatments.

  23. Rachel, I don’t think that Sophia was anywhere saying that she’d use the term ‘transsexual’ to refer to trans people in general. In fact, she says the opposite, and she grants that the term can misused because of it’s medicalization:

    ‘Granted, I agreed, it is inappropriately to mindlessly throw the term “transsexual” to everyone on the trans spectrum —– but that does not mean that there is anything wrong with the term when used appropriately — and in fact, there are cases when the specific term “transsexual” is needed. I, for example, identify *specifically* as transsexual to clarify that in my case, I have a medical need for medical treatment —- as opposed to “transgender”, a term that could also apply to someone who will do just fine without any medical intervention, and really needs nothing more than for people in society to treat them with respect as who they are.

    In short —- yes, the term is inappropriate when misused — but not every use is a misuse.’

    She’s also saying that the word is important to her precisely because of its medicalized connotations, because she wants to clarify that she is someone with medical need of medical treatment. She explicitly grants that not all trans people need such treatment or want to make this clarification.

  24. I don’t think that I misread her at all.

    I’m taking exception with exactly what you quote:

    “and in fact, there are cases when the specific term “transsexual” is needed. I, for example, identify *specifically* as transsexual to clarify that in my case, I have a medical need for medical treatment ”

    That. I’m resisting that. Many people identify as trans (not trans*) as a way to avoid the term transsexual, (who we would otherwise label as transsexual) who don’t use medical means of transition. I think you’re not understanding my point. I’m saying that there are ‘transsexual’ people who don’t use medical means to transition. So one response is for such people (including many trans people who DO use medical means of transition) to resist the term ‘transsexual’ in its entirety. We replace it, instead, with ‘trans.’

  25. Furthermore, the reason that there’s resistance to ‘transsexual’ *even for trans people for whom medical means of transition are critical* because it’s inappropriately medicalized: it paints trans (NOT trans*) as inherently connected to medical means of transition. This contributes to various problems like the ‘true transsexual’ club and narrative. I’m saying that there are political reasons for trans people for whom medical means of transition are critical resist the ‘transsexual’ label, and instead prefer ‘trans.’ Please don’t assume that I’m misunderstanding someone when there’s something deeper going on behind my criticism.

  26. Rachel:

    I was hoping that you could help me clarify something. You mention that call-outs are about saying “hey, you made this mistake,” and the hope is that the person will say, “oh shit, you’re right! I’m so sorry!” However, in your example, there is no possibility that the group calling someone out was itself wrong to do so. It seems as though what is needed from the offending individual is simply to submit to authority—whether they did or did not do something wrong is not part of the discussion at all. All they have to do is accept blame, and they and everyone else can learn the correct rules of behaviour from that point on.

    If that is the case, then it could be argued that the way “call-outs” actually work is not by undermining power structures, but by replicating them, albeit in an inverted way. In other words, they would function to single out one individual who is seen to display elements of traditional privilege (race, gender, ability, what have you) and strip them of their privilege by disciplining them through coercive means. Accordingly, call-outs would have nothing to do with encouraging dialogue about thorny issues. Indeed, it could even be argued that call-outs function as a form of “bullying” (though not necessarily in their intent), although, even if that were the case, I myself remain agnostic on the question of whether they should or should not be used—perhaps it can be claimed that bullying is a legitimate strategy to undermine traditional structures of privilege and replace them with other more favorable structures of privilege (using the master’s tools against the master kind of idea).

    However, that reading of the phenomenon is correct, call-outs could never be supplanted by “call-ins.” After all, no matter how patronizingly one approaches the offending individual, the one-on-one format of the exchange opens it up for dialogue, and dialogue requires at least the possibility that either person could be wrong. As a result, call-ins are risky for the intervening individual, because it may turn out that they were wrong to hold their belief in the first place (it may turn that the offending individual’s use of language was never offensive). And, of course, it’s much easier to exercise power through a group than to defend one’s beliefs to another person, especially if one already perceives themselves as underprivileged or silenced in other traditional contexts. Though, again, I remain agnostic on whether dialogue is actually conducive to social change, especially if we already have in view what kind of change is necessary and desirable.

  27. I plan to be writing a paper (or making a chapter in a book) on the norms of call-outs and call-ins. I think that, conceptually speaking, it’s possible for call-outs/call-ins to be inappropriately initiated (and that’s separate from the question of *how* they should be done: this is just the question of *whether* they should be done). However, very rarely are they actually inappropriate. On the flip side, I think the conversation ought to be more about the norms of *responding* to being called-out or called-in. I think people are failing on that front far more, by orders of magnitude, than people are failing in calling-out/in.

    Generally the arguments that call-outs constitute bullying, while possible and occurring in some rare circumstances, tend to come from those with tremendous social privilege uncomfortable being on the other side of the table. Call-outs are *not* about “stripping” people of privilege. Call-outs can’t possibly do that: privilege is systematic. Call-outs tend to aim at having someone become aware of, and acknowledge, their privilege. Thus the phrase, “Check your privilege.” That’s not about “stripping” someone of privilege, or of ‘bringing them down a peg.’

  28. To expand: I think that claims that “p” was offensive are defeasible, but the default is that if S says that “p” is offensive, then “p” is offensive. But it’s context- and subject-dependent. “p” may not be, in some sense, ‘objectively’ offensive such as slurs are. One thing I think may be behind your thought that someone inappropriately took offense is that in order for R to offend S by saying “p,” R has to somehow ‘intend’ to offend S by saying “p.” But I think that’s totally wrong: intent to offend is not a necessary condition for offending. So often what R will do in response to S saying that “p” was offensive, is say that R didn’t *intend* or *mean* the thing that S interpreted “p” as meaning. But speaker intention doesn’t fix meaning. Moreover, whether R intended “p” to mean something inoffensive, it can still cause offense in unanticipated ways. One discussion I’ve had with people in the slurs literature is about words like ‘niggardly.’ That word causes offense even though it doesn’t mean what many people thinks it means. But I think it’s fine to say that the offense is real, and even appropriate.

  29. @Rachel, I wish that you were right, but people being what they are (strategic, to put it politely), they have a tendency to avoid confronting those genuinely more powerful than themselves, and prefer to confront those with less power. So call-outs (and anything else) that are supposed to be targeted against the powerful actually are at very high risk of being used in practice against people who aren’t actually very privileged, but who have some characteristic that makes them seem like they can be targeted, while the truly privileged will, as usual, be mostly left unchallenged. I don’t recommend being resigned to this; I’m all for actually challenging the privileged. But I don’t think it’s at all a good idea to make the sanguine assumption that that’s what will happen automatically without a lot of attention and effort.

  30. ” but the default is that if S says that “p” is offensive, then “p” is offensive.”

    So I think this is obviously true when S has the subject position of the person offended. So, for example, if I use the term “Native Americans,” and First Nations person tells me that is offensive, obviously the correct default position is to assume “Native Americans” is offensive, to apologize, etc. But the OP of this thread brings up a different possibility (and one I have seen happen a lot). Namely, say a friend told a bad a joke, and I go, “Jeez, that’s a lame joke.” Now, S is nearby, and they go “Lame is ableist and offensive.” And S is not someone who has any disability with mobility. Is the default to still assume that p is offensive in this case?

  31. Protagoras: What cases are you thinking about? In nearly every instance of calling out that I’ve observed, it’s less powerful/privileged people calling out more powerful/privileged people.

    Scu: The default justification afforded to those with the relevant identity is stronger than that afforded to those without, but I think it’s wrong to say that one has to have the relevant identity to propositionally know what terms are considered offensive by those with the relevant identities. If I teach someone why ‘tranny’ is offensive, then that person can take that knowledge and use it to call out other people. I sure as heck HOPE that this is how things work, too, since otherwise, only those with less privileged identities can be the ones calling things out, and that would be a very bad situation.

  32. Rachel and Protagoras:

    Rachel, thanks for responding. First, you are right, call-outs can’t strip away “privilege.” But I wasn’t referring to a privileged individual being called out, but an “individual who is seen to display elements of privilege” (whether rightly or wrongly), in a context where people don’t perceive themselves as privileged (whether rightly or wrongly). I think the distinction is important since privilege is not always visible in the first place, and people are not always good at recognizing their own privilege. Also, while one can’t easily reverse structural power relations, you can certainly exercise coercive power in a limited context where you know everyone shares you point of view (a group of friends, workplace, academic conference, etc.).

    But I think we can clarify what’s at stake by framing the question a bit differently and considering two examples:

    1) After an academic conference, presenters go out for dinner and drinks. Everyone present happens to be able bodied. Steve, a tenured professor and a keynote at the conference, makes a joke that is clearly ableist. Everyone present laughs. Jenny, an adjunct, points out that the joke is inappropriate or offensive. Everyone passes over her comment in silence.

    2) A year later, Jenny is presenting at a colloquium where everyone happens to be able bodied. Jenny, still an adjunct, mentions that she is publishing her paper in a new open-access journal and encourages others to send their papers there as well. She assures them that this journal is reputable and follows strict “double blind peer-review.” Steve, a tenured professor, remembers their last exchange, and he doesn’t much like the idea of open access. For this reason, he gleefully takes this opportunity to “put her in her place” by calling her (or her expression) ableist. Jenny protests, because she had no such intention and, in fact, her best friend is blind, etc., etc… you get the picture. Other people then join in in denouncing her because they can be seen as sensitive and progressive by everyone else, plus Steve is kind of a big deal in the field.

    It we want to look at two cases in terms of ethics, it seems pretty uncontroversial that Jenny did the right things in case number #1 and that we all have a responsibility to do the same in such cases. At the same time, it seems pretty uncontroversial that in case #2 Steve acted reprehensibly: not only were his actions hurtful to Jenny, they are also clearly ablest themselves. It is also clearly the case that Steve is the “privileged” individual here, though it may not be as evident to the other people present or even to himself since he’s not a very self-critical individual to begin with.

    Now, it is of course true that most cases fall between these two extremes. But my question is, what is it about the practice of calling out that makes us think that, more often than not, it will be used in cases closer to #1 but not in cases closer to #2. It seems as though the assumption is that, look, we’re all progressive people in the first place, and no one could possibly behave as Steve did in the above examples. But if that’s the case, then why do we need calling out at all?

    Like Protagoras, I do think it’s crucially important to make sure people do speak out courageously as in case #1 above (though I would simply term that “speaking up”). However, I share Protagoras’ concern, because it really is much easier to shame others from the safety of a crowd, so there is every reason to believe that call-outs will be used in the second way. Moreover, assuming that the ultimate function of the call-out is not to have a dialogue (the possibility I brought up in my earlier post), but for the offending individual to immediately admit fault whether they did something wrong or not, I think we should be concerned that they can be misused, even in ways that re-enforce traditional structures of power and privilege.


  33. Rachel writes: “But the default is that if [the listener] says that ‘p’ is offensive, then ‘p’ is offensive.”

    I don’t see why this principle is any more plausible than “the default is that if the speaker says that ‘p’ isn’t offensive, then ‘p’ isn’t offensive”. Just as speakers’ intentions don’t play an overriding role in fixing meaning, nor do listeners’ responses. With respect to ‘niggardly’, for instance, it might be that this is something like a Tyler Burge ‘arthritis’ case, in which someone’s claim that the term is offensive may be wrong for reasons not transparent to them.

    (This is not to deny that one *can* use the expression in a cruel or racist fashion — by playing on its similiarity to a slur — but one can use all sorts of expressions that are not intrinsically racist in a cruel or racist fashion.)

    What would be good would be if we had an overarching theory of slurs and slur-like expressions, informed by a lot of empirical data and careful attention to work in semantics and pragmatics, rather than a collection of snap judgements made by people on individual cases. With luck, maybe someday we’ll have that. But until then, I think we should accept that in a lot of contested cases it may be really unclear what’s going on. (Of course, there are *some* clear cases.)

  34. Grad student: there is a very robust literature on slurs and slur-like statements. I encourage you to check it out. Why, though, did you assume that what was involved here was “a collection of snap judgments made by people on individual cases”?

  35. I am largely in agreement with #34, and really think that poster is on to something.

    I don’t believe the designator “call out culture” is helpful, here or elsewhere. Maybe it is not intrinsically unhelpful, but here it is being used to mean anything from politely asking someone to change their behavior, to politely or impolitely telling someone they were in the wrong (with good, important reasons to do so), to cases in which the alleged offender feels threatened, or feels they are not afforded space to do some things they enjoy in their life (this is along the lines of case #2, offered by poster #34.)

    So, like any argument in which goalposts can be moved so easily, people who dislike “call out culture” VAGUELY CONSTRUED tend to bring up the extreme cases, and people who like “call out culture” VAGUELY CONSTRUED tend to bring up the cases in which the activists are well-informed, and etc. My evidence for this is the latest exchange between Dr. McKinnon and Grad Student. Dr. McKinnon studies this issue professionally, and in great detail, so of course a criticism of hers should not be seen as a “snap judgment”. In other cases, though, such as the woman who was harassed and threatened and fired for her AIDS joke (link below), it seems just as clear to me there is zero chance her harassers were fully informed by a robust sociological literature on semantics and pragmatics. So I think Dr. McKinnon and Grad Student are both obviously right, depending on the context of the “calling out”.


    In conclusion, I think the lumping together of all these cases into “call out culture” is obscuring progress in this discussion.

  36. I was a member of a community where people commonly “call out” peers who seem to be expressing the wrong attitudes–even if the call-out agent has completely misread what the writer wrote. If the writer responds by saying “I can see that you’re upset, but that isn’t even what I said” then it devolves into accusations of “not-pologies” and the mantra “Intent isn’t magical.” OK, good intent doesn’t make it OK to force eye contact onto unwilling autistic children or to shoot unarmed black teenagers just because you think you’re “helping them learn to socialize” or “protecting your neighborhood.” But if someone just plain misread something you wrote, then yes, your intention that you did not say the bad thing should be THEIR cue to back the hell off their accusations.

  37. Your call in sounds a nice compromise, if one happens to believe (ii) to (iv) are not as bad as (i), but what if they are all as bad as each other? I know you said that many people with disability disagree on this issue. But so what? Many people with disability agree that they are all wrong. And there is a wider point about language too

    You say that “ableist language is at best only one (of many) symptoms.”

    What is this is not the case? The whole point of what people like Foucault argued was that the causation was exactly the other way round. That language drives the way we see the world, and would drive the rest of the ableism. So its not one of many symptoms, its one of the many causes. If that is the case, and one believes that one should call out (i)
    then one must also call out (ii) to (iv) to be consistent.

    In that context, “policing” language, ie calling people out on this issue is what must be done to change the public discourse (hardly policing btw). IMO it has to become unacceptable, much as how racist language has become unacceptable.

  38. […] Whether under Capitalism or Feudalism, every life that doesn’t fit into the dominant society is deemed ill and sick. On the orders of the KGB, for instance thousands of social and political reformers in the Soviet Union were incarcerated in mental hospitals after being labelled with diagnoses of “sluggish schizophrenia.” Society, itself a mental construct, has required the British “keep a stiff upper lip,” that Southern men fight over trivial issues to “preserve their honor,” and that honest discussions are shut down by online activists to demonstrate just how pure and forward thinki… […]

  39. […] Whether under Capitalism or Feudalism, every life that doesn’t fit into the dominant society is deemed ill and sick. On the orders of the KGB, for instance thousands of social and political reformers in the Soviet Union were incarcerated in mental hospitals after being labelled with diagnoses of “sluggish schizophrenia.” Society, itself a mental construct, has required the British “keep a stiff upper lip,” that Southern men fight over trivial issues to “preserve their honor,” and that honest discussions are shut down by online activists to demonstrate just how pure and forward thinki… […]

  40. This is very cool. Nice to see thoughts on this. [I’ve started using “crazy” as an adjective after avoiding it for a while in the interests of language purity, as I now consider myself neurodivergent enough to apply it to myself (I still try to be careful using it on other people though).]

    I love your wording here: “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.” I think that’s partly why it’s important to think about it, but the preceding sentence, about how it’s barely an obstacle in comparison to the big obstacles, is the reason why it shouldn’t dictate conversations, only be present as a useful point of theory and a good thing to aim to be aware of (if possible. For some people, words are hard.)

  41. Good post. I would even take a step further and say that call-out culture is not only unhelpful to disabled people, but actively harmful to the mentally disabled. Any demand for conformity and perfection is going to be burdensome for people who are different and troubled.

    I have spent my life working hard to get to the point where I can function in a kinda-sorta-almost-normal fashion – I deeply hate that my progressive supposed allies are going around proclaiming that everyone has to be completely normal and healthy and wholesome all the time, or else they are awful people who should not be suffered. I am never going to be able to live up to that standard. I’m never going to have the completely approved, neurotypical emotional reaction to everything, and I’m never going to be able to internalise every fiddly little social rule that you absolutely have to obey all the time or else you’re awful.

    And don’t get me started on things like depression and anxiety. What does it do to people who are already struggling to get by to constantly be told how awful they are? Or even just that they are constantly one wrong move away from being dogpiled?

    No, these things are far more harmful to me than being called a retard. I don’t like being called a retard, I think very poorly of the sort of person who goes around calling others retards, but at this point the language-policing is causing me far more pain than the hurtful language.

Comments are closed.