Tanzina Vega: Have you ever been called out for something on social media, publicly shamed for a comment someone deemed inappropriate or wrong? Have you ever called someone out? In our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter world that happens a lot. What does it actually accomplish? Could there be a better way to get across a message to someone spreading hate or misinformation online? Professor Loretta J. Ross thinks there is.
She's a Visiting Associate Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, where she teaches an alternative to calling out known as Calling In. I spoke with Loretta about this and about how her own history as a radical Black feminist has informed her view of so-called "call-out culture" and "cancel culture." First off, she explained exactly how she defines the "call-out."
Professor Loretta J. Ross: Calling Out is publicly shaming people for what they said, what they wear, how they look, basically it's publicly shaming people for what they think and who they are. It usually is done over social media, but not exclusively. It certainly can be done in public or at the Thanksgiving dinner table or whatever, but it's about trying to hold someone accountable, but doing it in such a public way that they're going to experience shame and humiliation.
Tanzina: Now, you mentioned two things that I think are important to talk about here. One is the use of social media to do this, and the other is the unforgivability element of this. I wonder if the social media element of this has made it easier to be less forgiving in some way. How did we get here?
Loretta: I think what's changed my social media is the anonymity, that you're basically doing it to strangers. It's about people being able to lob these bombs into people's lives, and then quickly turn their attention to something else. The person is left devastated, no way to come back. Then it takes on a viral quality. It's not just one person calling you out, but everybody they know who thinks they have to demonstrate how woke they are also calling you out.
Then it becomes a mob. Then it becomes something totally out of your control in such a way that even if you want to make amends, how do you make amends with a bunch of strangers who don't know you and you don't know?
Tanzina: Talking about this reminded me. I had an experience, and I had been on Twitter for 10 years, regularly tweeting. I'm a public figure. I talk about the news mostly, and every now and then just muse on other fun topics. There was one topic that got a lot of attention over the summer. It was defunding the police. When you talk to people, when you actually do reporting around the topic, some people want a full abolition of all police, and other people want funds to be redistributed to community central programs. There still remains a question, I think, on the top of minds of many Americans, which is, what happens to the public safety mechanism, if you defund the police?
I asked that question, and I had experienced some pretty serious Twitter calling out in the past, but this was at a level that was, to me, a disgrace. I was ridiculed. I was insulted. I was cursed at. Ultimately, I just decided to shut it all down. The only thing that it accomplished, Loretta, was that I just became silent because the ridicule was to a point where it became abusive. Is that considered calling out and is that what your targeting, that type of behavior in your class?
Loretta: That's a textbook example that you just described, because we live in a pluralistic society where we're supposed to debate different issues with our different opinions, and calling-out culture assumes that there's only one right way to think about something, one right way to talk about something, and only a small number of words to use to talk about it.
I call it the "road rage of the internet" because people have a quick twitch where they just respond probably over the top in a difference of opinion that they don't agree with. Then the next thing they say is, "Your words are making me feel unsafe." They can't distinguish between actually being unsafe and feeling unsafe.
Tanzina: Some of this is coming, and a lot of this is coming from, I would say, multiple sides of the political spectrum. We're seeing this from Uber conservative folks. We're also seeing it from very, very progressive folks who really will call people out if, to your point, if they're not using the correct language. A lot of people will say, "Look, we are responding to violence with violence. We are responding, maybe not with violence, but with that level of strength, with that level of calling out that these are institutions and ideas and things like racism or getting certain things wrong that really need to be called out and have language that's appropriate to use."
What do you say to people who say that, who say, "No, this has to happen. This is the results of decades or generations of systemic inequality that are now being examined in a public forum like social media."?
Loretta: First of all, I think that calling out is not a partisan behavior. Everybody does it. Remember, Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel because he got called out. It's not something that's terribly new. It is how human beings make judgments on each other, and then try to hold them publicly accountable for them. What's interesting about the right-wing reaction to call-out culture is, they try to blame it on the left. When I seem to recall something about Salem witch hunts, that happened a long time before the left was created, and we really have this as part of our human behavior.
Now, I am, as a human rights activist, more concerned about the left, because I feel that while the Republic is organized to take power, we organized to debate each other and call each other out. I think that there's a problem with that because the majority of our country believes in the same values we do of equality, fairness, justice, kindness, but we're not using those techniques within our movement on each other. That's why I'm writing the book on call-out culture.
It wasn't a problem when it was the powerful calling out the vulnerable. It only now has become this "Oh, we've got to stop this process, particularly on the right, because it's the previous victims calling out their violators. Having said that, I really do think that we have to not violate people's human rights in the effort of building a human rights movement, otherwise for contradicting our own work, and I am concerned about how we do it on the left.
Tanzina: Now, you have an alternative to calling out, which is calling in. Tell us about that.
Loretta: It's really simple. A calling in is a call-out done with love. You're still seeking to hold people accountable. Instead of coming at it with anger or rage or shame, you're saying, "When you use that word, it didn't land on me quite correctly. Do you think we can go have coffee and talk about it?" Or you can come back and say, "You are a racist and you shouldn't be using those words." Those are choices we get to make. It's not about evading accountability or not seeking justice, but it's about not dehumanizing the person who has done what you think is wrong and offer them the same expectation of being a complicated person, just like you are.
Instead, we flattened people out to what we think is their worst behavior and that's who they are and whatever their social or identity is, a bare white male, this is what all white men do of your Black women. This is what all Black women do. We just get into these angel-devil gladiatorial debates, which really aren't even realistic and doesn't represent how human beings actually work. Calling in is offering that grace, giving people the benefit of the doubt, helping them rethink what they just said or did, because I find very useful just to phrase "I beg your pardon?"
It makes them stop and say, "Oh, let me rewind this in my head and see if that came out the way I meant it," or you can say, "I used to use the word 'cripple' before somebody told me how ableist that was. Would you mind us talking about other words we can use?"
Tanzina: I want to talk about burdens here because there is some criticism to that approach. Some people would say, "You're asking people who are marginalized or persecuted to now call in someone with love, who might be acting terribly towards them. Why is there even a burden to call someone in?"
Loretta: No. Calling in it always has to be voluntary because you have to be in a space that you self-assessed, that you're healed enough from your trauma in order to offer that extension of grace, which requires you to do emotional investment in another person's growth. That should not be obligatory. That's just a choice you get to make, but that doesn't mean someone who's a bystander watching it happen can't become the person that calls in. I'm a rape survivor, but my rapes were four decades ago. I'm in a better place to call in someone who commits violence against women than someone whose rape is more recent or less healed. No, it is not an obligation to invest in another person's growth. It's a choice that you have, and it's a choice you make because you want to be the best person you can be, that you're not going to let your trauma informed lenses, determine how you see other people. My friend Sonya Renee Taylor who wrote the book The Body is not an Apology, she has a midway point. She calls it, "I don't do calling out, I don't do calling in. What I do is, I call on people to be better human beings." In that way, I don't have to make an emotional investment in them, but I am setting a standard that I hope they work to live up to.
Tanzina: Are there people who should just shoulder the burden of being called out, people like politicians, people like myself, who are public figures? Should we just expect to be called out and have to deal with that?
Loretta: I think so, because we are going to be visible objects of people's trauma. That's human beings. That's the way life is. The thing is, we can't internalize their trauma though. Only reason it has the power to wound us many times, unless it's actual threats or force, is because we're still questioning whether or not we've done the right thing. We should be always questioning that as a matter of fact. Sometimes calling out of a public figure is used to make them do the right thing, to make them rethink what they've said or done.
If Colin Kaepernick hadn't knelt, do you think the NFL would be putting Black Lives Matter signs on the stadiums? You have to do it sometimes to call attention to what is wrong, but there's no way to keep people from acting on their own opinions and trauma. I'm a writer. Every time I throw my writing out there in the universe, I feel like I'm walking naked through the street, then inviting people to critique my body. That's what it is when you lift your voice in the public's comments and as part of making that choice to be that public figure. You don't have to internalize it personally.
Tanzina: I want to ask you a question about your own personal experiences with calling in versus calling out, because you have called in, you mentioned earlier that you are a rape survivor and that you survived those experiences that happened more than four decades ago. As part of your work, you have worked with rapists and calling them in. That's not something that a lot of people will do, Loretta.
Loretta: It was something that I felt compelled to do when I was the director of the DC Rape Crisis Center back in the '70s, because we got this letter from one man who was incarcerated for raping and murdering a Black woman. He said, literally, "Outside I raped women, inside I'm raping men. I don't want to be a rapist anymore."
We didn't immediately respond, "Oh, for joy, let's go work with this rapist." We sat on this letter for months agonizing on whether our small agency had the capacity to deal with perpetrators when we were strained to the guts trying to deal with victims. Finally, I got in my car and drove to Lorton Reformatory which was the prison that DC used, and sat down and talk to William Fuller, the guy who wrote the letter. William talked about how when he was 18 years old, he had raped and murdered a girl who was 17 years old.
Now that he was 35, he was rethinking his whole life. He was honest, he was sincere. We made a deal that we weren't going to do anything that would benefit him in terms of parole or bringing in stuff, but we would give him consciousness around violence against women through a Black feminist lens. William went on to found prisoners against rape, the first male led organization movement by men to end violence against women.
I've also had to call in ex-clansmen, people who were in the area nations, because I worked with the late Reverend C.T. Vivian, who was an aid to DR. Martin Luther King. He told us that when you ask people to give a pate, then you need to be there for them when they do. I didn't like that message. I wanted to curse, but you can't curse in front of a minister, but he was right.
Once I started to meet people who were part of the hate movement but had left it, I saw them as human beings and not just people in ropes, people with swastikas on their arms. Once you know somebody's humanity, then you can't just stereotype them. You just can't dismiss an accident that frustrated me, because if a Black girl can't hate the clan, who's left? That's like that reset my entire worldview. Reverend Vivian taught me about calling it with love instead of hate, even though I didn't have the words for that back in 1990.
Tanzina: As a radical Black feminist, Loretta, was there call-out culture at your experience back in the '60s, '70s, '80s, when you were doing a lot of this work initially?
Loretta: We used to call it "trashing" back then, we didn't have the word "call-out," or we would say, particularly in the Black movement, "you are not relevant." That was the worst word you could give somebody back then. Of course we had it growing up, and I've also been a caller-out and really made mistakes because I used to think that I was the one that had to hold people accountable to this very high standard.
I regret every call-out I made, particularly the first, the largest one I did over social media, because I felt that a person I was working with stole some of my intellectual property and went around bragging to my funders that she had created the theory of reproductive justice when I knew she hadn't because I was there, we did it. Black women did it, not her, and she wasn't Black. I publicly put her on blast because I was hurt.
Then the reaction to me was that from my position of power and the authenticity, since I knew the truth, I could have chosen a different way rather than totally humiliating a woman 30 years younger than me. They were right. I've always regretted calling her out because I got defined as her bully instead of her victim because I wasn't looking at the power differentials. I wasn't looking at the effects of how words that over social media, I guess, become viral. Of course, everyone that experienced her reaction saw her in tears, and of course I had used my power to overwhelm her, even though I felt I was the injured party. I've always regretted that.
Tanzina: Loretta, you've also been called out in different ways. One of those ways was when you signed on to a letter and Harper's with other folks who had been roundly called out, including J.K. Rowling. That letter was very roundly criticized by a lot of folks, particularly in more progressive intellectual circles. You were called out as part of the the team of folks who signed it. What were your thoughts on that?
Loretta: At first I was amused because there's a delicious irony to being called out for writing a letter about the call-out culture. I was like, "You just proven my point." What I was also bothered by was that the assumption that call-outs should not be criticized by people on the right and on the left as poisoning and coarsening our political discourse. We should be able to disagree with all of our passion, but without resorting to personal attacks, death threats, cancellations costing people's jobs. That's just going too far. Because it had signatures on the left, on the right, including J.K. Rowling's, who, I understand, has made some very transphobic remarks that I probably don't agree with. I was just lumped together with everyone that they had a critique of who signed the letter. I think it's a lack of accurate nuance and threat assessment. I have 50 year human rights career that they just didn't take into account when they accused me of trying to pamper the sensibilities of rich white men on the Upper East Side. I'm not even really a New Yorker. I had to figure out, "What are they talking about?" The Upper East Side.
Tanzina: Loretta, you teach a class at Smith, which a lot of people won't have access to, but you're trying to expand that. Tell us about that.
Loretta: When COVID happened and we were sent home for Smith, I thought deeply about what I had to offer. Starting in the summer, I started making my classes on calling in calling-out culture, available online for $5 a lecture, because I wanted to keep it very affordable for people, because I want to create a culture shift of how we do this, because I really do believe that calling in is going to be to the 21st century and our social justice practices, like non-violence was in the 20th century and how it affected social justice practices.
I teach it online. My website is lorettaross.com, if you want to know more information. Usually 400 to 500 people from all over the country sign up for it because they're desperate and thirsty for a new way to achieve accountability without all the harm and the pain and the tears and the shaming.
Tanzina: Loretta J. Ross is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, and her forthcoming book is called Calling In the Calling Out Culture, Detoxing Our Movement. Loretta, thanks so much for being with us.
Loretta: Thanks for having me on your show.
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