Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Calling out and calling in


Published: 2/24/2021 4:34:58 PM

Smith College Gender Studies Professor Loretta Ross teaches an online course on “Calling In the Calling Out Culture.” In this course, she shows a YouTube video of two gazelles fighting in the middle of a savanna. In the distance, you can see something running toward the gazelles. Other nearby gazelles run away, but the two gazelles locking horns remain in battle, oblivious to their surroundings. For 30 seconds the lion sprints across the grasslands toward the two gazelles, who are too busy fighting each other to see the oncoming peril. Only when the lion pounces on the gazelles, do they realize what’s happening — too late for one of them. The video is titled, “As Long as We’re Fighting Our Own, We Won’t See the Real Enemy Coming.” Ross shows this video as a lesson about the dangers of the divisive practice of calling out in social movement spaces.

“There’s too much infighting in the feminist movement,” Ross recently told me. “We’re too vulnerable. Our weaknesses become our opponents’ opportunities.”

For over 40 years, Ross has been an organizer, feminist, and human rights activist. Several years ago, she became concerned about the growing trend of calling out within progressive movements (although, as we have seen so dramatically in recent political events, calling out occurs across the political spectrum). Calling out is publicly criticizing others in a way intended to humiliate them. Calling out can be a useful tactic for addressing social injustices, particularly for subordinated groups trying to stop harm by more powerful people or entities who oppress them.

But calling out is often counterproductive when it takes the form of public shaming within social movement spaces, says Ross, particularly when it results in banishing others because they are not “woke” enough. Some people use calling out to boost their ego or standing in a community, to impose political purity of opinions through ideological bullying, or to gain power or control within movement spaces.

“Calling out is about power,” says Ross. “It’s a way of gaining power in social interactions. In a group, if you can call somebody else out, then you all of a sudden control the group and you can set the agenda. It cuts off conversation. You can no longer have a give and take. You no longer can compromise. You no longer can work together. And then others are afraid to speak up for fear of being targeted themselves.”

Ross says that calling out is toxic to the women’s movement because it creates a discouraging atmosphere for activism that drives people away from the movement. Calling out isolates people rather than unifying them, increases harm rather than healing, and makes accountability difficult.

As an alternative, Ross proposes “calling in” as a strategy for working together across differences. Ross defines calling in as having the ability to have difficult dialogues with others while respecting their human rights and differences.

“Calling in is a learnable art and science,” says Ross. “To walk around life with short fuses is not a way to be a human rights feminist. We need to create a culture of forgiveness. You’ve got to find out your own trip wires and be in charge of them, so you’re not ruled by your emotions. Then you’ve got to practice self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others.”

Five years ago, Ross began holding workshops to teach calling in skills, and then she developed her online course. The first time she taught the course 400 people enrolled. The second time she offered it, 700 people enrolled. Many people share her concern about the destructive effects of calling out on activists and social movements.

Calling out is not new. In the 1970s, it was called “trashing,” from a 1976 Ms. magazine article, ”Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” by Jo Freeman. In the 1980s, NOW President Eleanor Smeal characterized this destructive behavior in the feminist movement as “a circular firing squad.” “I think we still do it,” says Ross. “I think calling out is a new form of the circular firing squad that we’ve been doing for a long time.”

We need to extend to each other the benefit of the doubt, attributing positive motives until proven otherwise, and working for an inclusive human rights movement rather than enacting exclusive and judgmental forms of activism.

“We all know there’s as many ways to feminism as there are feminists,” says Ross. “We need to give each other space to be feminist in the way we need to be feminist without insisting that everybody’s feminism has to be the same.”

For otherwise, like the gazelles on the savanna, we may not notice the lion on the horizon until it’s too late.

Carrie Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.

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