Developing a better call-out culture

“…fundamentally, in order to believe in social justice, I have to believe that things can change. I have to believe that people can change.”

The above quote comes from a conversation I had with a friend recently about abuse and accountability in the context of communities, usually alternative lifestyle and activism-focused communities. This has been a hot topic for a while. There’s been an increasing development in “call-out culture”, which if I understand correctly, aims to encourage people to inform their communities about abusive or otherwise inappropriate/bad behaviour committed by specifically-named people.

I’m no expert on relationships, consent, or anything else. However, I have been an abuse survivor from a very young age, so holding people who abuse others accountable for their behaviour (and how best to do so) is something I’ve had to contemplate for the vast majority of my life. What I have seen in the past few years indicates that we haven’t successfully developed call-out culture. Why is this? There are a couple of key elements missing at the moment. (NB: Before I make those points I just want to say this post isn’t necessarily about how to hold others more accountable. That’s not something I can claim to do here, certainly not with one blogpost! This has an entirely different aim.)

Firstly, I’d say that there’s a lot of conflict around what we, as a community, do with people who’ve abused others or otherwise violated boundaries both before and after they’ve apologised. Communities seem to mainly deal with it by shunning those people and pushing them out. Their friends and partners may also be shunned. The rifts this cause in communities are undeniable based upon whose “side” people are on.

 A few thoughts on this: the shunning approach won’t work, and it doesn’t work. This has been done many times before. People who don’t take accountability (and even those who do) and who are shunned go elsewhere, often to engage in the same behaviour with others – and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

 If we believe in social justice, as my friend says, then we have to believe that people can change. Too many people feel that someone who has committed abusive behaviour cannot reform or change their ways, so they must be shunned and pushed out as the only solution. I call bullshit on that. You know why? Because that won’t allow people to change their behaviour by first admitting and being accountable for their wrongdoing. It will encourage them to hide it, which means they can’t reflect on it, which means they won’t reform or change and the behaviour will continue.

Bad behaviour does not automatically make someone a bad person and compassion for all parties is a useful tool. We need to make it clear that calling someone out for bad behaviour and holding them accountable is just that. It doesn’t mean their lives will end, or that they’ll be forced out. It doesn’t mean that they will lose all of their friends (although naturally, perhaps some friendships will end).  However, obviously not everyone can or will reform, as cases of repeat abusive behaviour after repeated call-outs clearly highlights. Perhaps counterintuitively, the environment needs to be safe enough for people to admit they committed abuse. Unless that happens, we will never see true and active accountability.

 Secondly, people aren’t exclusively victims or exclusively abusers. I know this sounds obvious, but IT NEEDS SAYING AGAIN AND AGAIN. This shit is complicated, in pretty much every single case, and it is so tempting to see it otherwise. As mentioned, I was abused from a very young age by a family member – a few family members, in fact. I was a victim, I am a survivor, I am also a person who is happy.

 However, I have also been an abuser.

 The truth is, I think we probably all have behaved badly at one time or another for any variety of reasons. We’ve all been abused and we’ve all been the abusers. No one is perfect and we are all figuring this shit out as we go along, in the context of a culture that didn’t teach us what consent looks like. But can we all just stop and take a look at ourselves while we’re so busy looking at others? I see a lot of people in activism communities calling out people for committing rape and sexual abuse who have allegedly engaged in the same or similar bad behaviour and have not admitted wrongdoing or taken responsibility themselves. The truth is, people change. Our politics change. We improve so much over time. But we also fuck up massively and repeatedly and cannot truly improve without some extremely frank and often very painful self-reflection. We cannot call out others with any shred of integrity until we call ourselves out as well. My question is: are the people developing call-out culture reflecting enough on themselves?

 I think we should consider that a culture that accepts the fact that people can and do fuck up is safer for the victim or survivor because they don’t have to fear dire consequences for calling it out.  Communities who try to disown abusers who have been called out by saying they are some kind of impostor who invaded our community and “not one of us” creates an environment where ALL of us cannot talk about the mistakes we’ve made for fear of being ostracised. This further creates a culture of silence that perpetuates abusive behaviour and does not give people the opportunity to learn and grow out of such behaviours.

 Now I’d like to tell you a story about me, and it involves publicly admitting a huge mistake I once made in a relationship to all of you, dear readers. I suppose you, as the reader, can (and surely will!) decide what you think of what I did:

 I was in a relationship with someone for nearly a decade. We lived together, shared our lives together, we were as close as we could possibly get to another human being. One night I initiated sex while they were still asleep. I did this without waiting until they were conscious to ask if it would be ok or if they wanted it or if they consented. They eventually woke up and we had sex. I didn’t think about this again for years afterward. Many years later, around the time the Julian Assange rape allegations were coming out, I reflected on that experience. And with horror I realised I had made a huge fucking mistake that night. I eventually contacted my ex to apologise for what I had done. They practically started laughing when I did so, and told me that I had not done anything wrong and had no reason to apologise. They told me that they did not experience that event as coercive in any way. Whether they think this because we were in a relationship at the time (so this somehow gives me the right to not ask for consent?!) or because they woke up and then consented once they were awake is irrelevant.

We may have different politics and beliefs about relationships, consent and sex, but I still believe that I fucked up big time and it was important to me to take responsibility for that and to hold myself accountable. If I can’t do it myself, how on earth can I ask it or demand it of anyone else with any shred of integrity? The truth is, I couldn’t. This is one of the reasons I decided to write about it here.

Why? Because call-out culture should start from within. This is something I’d like to see more of: people calling themselves out, not just calling others out. If I want to see others doing this, then I can’t ask anyone else to do it without doing it myself. And thus, the idea for this blogpost was born…

 I imagine my politics will develop further over the next five to ten years and I’ll realise that I have even more bad behaviour to apologise to others for. I hope I continue to have the strength to do this, to self-reflect, to take responsibility for my actions. It’s hard and it’s terrifying, but it’s also gratifying and I hope the more that I do it the easier it will get. At the end of the day, I have to believe that if I can change, then others can and will, too.

 So now I call on all my friends and readers to engage in some frank and probably painful self-reflection. Doing so will require compassion for both ourselves and others, while we work through our mistakes and heal from the mistakes of others. Can we, as communities and as individuals, call ourselves out? Can we embrace and learn from our mistakes? Can we meet this challenge with compassion towards ourselves and towards others? I believe that if we all do this, the safer we will all be.


5 thoughts on “Developing a better call-out culture

  1. This is an absolutely amazing post. Brave and insightful and compassionate. It deserves to start a big and important conversation, so I hope to come back to it with more eloquent thoughts, but for now: this is wonderful. I am applauding from the other side of the computer.

  2. Huge fucking bravo here. I feel like there’s so many things I could say in response that they’re all kind of crowding to the forefront of my brain. But a big bravo certainly needs to be said. What you have done here is invaluable, and I couldn’t be prouder that you were the one to take the first step.

    I couldn’t agree more that this is a thing that needs to happen. I think sometimes the hurt and emotions are so big that we desperately NEED all the blame to be on the abuser, and therefore cannot possibly imagine that it was a mistake or remotely forgivable. Something inside us wants that person to be ostracized and kicked out out of some misplaced sense of justice. But as you pointed out so eloquently, that doesn’t work. We ALL make mistakes, and we all sometimes act out of emotion or stupidity or thoughtlessness, and at some point, we are all the abuser. Some of us are abusers again and again, and some of us aren’t. But none of us are going to learn from our mistakes and do better if we aren’t able to admit those mistakes and still feel accepted by the group.

    I try to appreciate being called out when it happens, because I know (beyond the initial hurt and disappointment) that I will be a better person because of us. Because as humans we are not black and white, good or evil. Whoever gave the initial quote is a wise person in my books, because believing that people can change and are not set in stone is the first step I think.

    You are an amazing, brave, wonderful person for writing this, and I hope that many people will follow your example and take a good hard look at their own actions and how they have laid judgement on others. As a community we can inflict REAL change if we can all try harder to adhere to this kind of thinking. THANK YOU. xxx

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  4. And what do you do when your abuser refuses accountability and/or calls you a liar, thus pushing *you* out of *your* spaces? Because that happens too, often due to one person having more privilege than another. There needs to be community intervention, though I agree, in most cases accountability circles feel a hell of a lot more useful than shunning. See: “The Revolution Starts at Home”.

    While I agree- call out culture begins with self-reflection and calling yourself out, taking ownership, I also think there are many reasons why public insistence on accountability is important. I’d like to draw attention to Hugo Schwyzer, his mental health issues, and his abusive behaviour. The issue with him is that he *doesn’t* really take accountability for his behaviour or its impact on others, and yet he has a platform to talk about his role in social justice politics. Do I think he should be kicked out of activism? As long as he’s refusing to take ownership, maybe. But I ultimately would hope he, and others in similar situations, would *seek help*. The issue is that often these people would rather move on to another community than take ownership. It’s certainly easier and less scary.

    Also, of course, it’s important to reflect that call-out culture is championed (at least in my awareness) by people who lack institutional power because of intersectional marginalization. Ignoring that, and how important call-out culture is so that people can have a voice who otherwise would be ignored/gaslighted/silenced, is incredibly privileged. That needs to be part of the discussion, too.

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