Calling Out vs Calling In

Like many people on the internet, I’ve had the harrowing experience of being “called out” publicly, often viciously and brutally. I’m so often surprised by how awful it feels when it happens. It never seems like it’s as bad as people say it is, and then you experience it, and it is many times worse.

Sometimes, I’ve been called out for good reason: l’ve said hurtful or stupid things, not realizing their impact. The response to these mistakes, though, left me feeling devastated, humiliated, and broken. The people making these callouts didn’t seem to want me to be a better person; they talked as if they wanted me to stop existing altogether.

While “cancel culture” is a sloppy and unhelpful term, it points towards something real. I also think it exacts tangible harm on individuals and culture as a whole. Creating a cut-throat culture of public take-downs means only sociopaths and narcissists will survive and rise to the top, and I don’t think that’s a world any of us want. I also think downplaying, excusing, or denying the existence of “cancel culture” is a form of gaslighting that enrages people and makes them less amenable to change.

I recently read a refreshing article about Loretta J Ross, a black feminist icon and professor, who is teaching her students to “call in” instead of “call out.” The article reads,

The antidote to that outrage cycle, Professor Ross believes, is “calling in.” Calling in is like calling out, but done privately and with respect. “It’s a call out done with love,” she said. That may mean simply sending someone a private message, or even ringing them on the telephone (!) to discuss the matter, or simply taking a breath before commenting, screen-shotting or demanding one “do better” without explaining how.

Crucially, calling in does not mean down-playing the harm of someone’s words. Rather, it is about strategically responding in a way that encourages people to be kinder, more compassionate, and more mindful of others. It also, however, does not involve exaggerating claims of harm.

Calling out assumes the worst. Calling in involves conversation, compassion and context. It doesn’t mean a person should ignore harm, slight or damage, but nor should she, he or they exaggerate it. “Every time somebody disagrees with me it’s not ‘verbal violence.’” Professor Ross said. “I’m not getting ‘re-raped.’ Overstatement of harm is not helpful when you’re trying to create a culture of compassion.”

I believe that call-out culture has roots in deep, primordial human psychology where estrangement from our tribe means death, status is everything, and us-vs-them dehumanization is second nature. It triggers deep feelings of satisfaction when we engage in it, and overwhelming feelings of existential threat, resentment, and loss when we are victims of it.

While calling out those in unreachable power is a valuable tool, I don’t think calling out generally creates a better world. It’s a brutal weapon that must be used with care. To use a turn of phrase from Audre Lorde, “cancel culture” is using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. We can’t create a better world by perpetuating rage, shame, or resentment. Only radical compassion and kindness can do that.

Or, to quote Professor Ross,

“We have a saying in the movement: Some people you can work with and some people you can work around. But the thing that I want to emphasize is that the calling-in practice means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.”


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9 thoughts on “Calling Out vs Calling In

  1. I think we also need a great deal of discourse. To tell someone that their actions are harmful and that they hurt someone is not always the changing point as much as if they understand WHY their actions hurt someone. Ofcourse, it is a difficult conversation to have in many cases but cancel culture has also often destroyed grounds for discourse following principles of intellectual conformity.

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  2. Interesting post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about calling out and calling in. I’ve been bruised emotionally by being called out before (usually, rightfully so). I think the value of calling out though is making other people aware that what someone said or did is wrong.

    Calling in I think is a good way to reach someone individually and discuss the issue internally, but at the same time doesn’t make a wider audience aware that a certain action is wrong per se.

    I guess where I’m at is that I see pluses and minuses to both calling out and calling in.

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  3. I’ve been trying to practice this more and have tough conversations privately rather than exchanging easy jabs in public discussion threads. I have to continually remind myself that it was the unexpected kindness of the people that I once opposed that eventually helped me to reexamine my values and beliefs and ultimately change.

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  4. Thank you for citing Loretta Ross! I’ve heard “call in” a lot more but without proper acknowledgment. I think it’s so important for people to know where these ideas stem from, particularly because Black women are not credited enough for the way we shape popular culture and shifts in social engagement.

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