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Posted by on Apr 22, 2013 in Culture, Debate | 13 comments

Melissa Thompson and Flavia Dzodan on call-out culture

Melissa Thompson has a very good post about the brutality and irrationality of call-out culture. See also this older post by Flavia Dzodan.

Call-out culture – in which people who’d expect to be treated as colleagues, allies, or even friends are held up for public shaming over trivial or imaginary wrongdoings – has become a cancer on the atheist/skeptic movement. Good people have been hurt and/or had their reputations harmed, friendships have been destroyed, time and energy that could been used in opposing the real enemies have been wasted, the movement has been divided, and (let’s be clear about this) the backlash against call-out culture and its leading practitioners has often been vulgar and unnecessarily destructive in its own right.

In this environment, many of us remain silent either because we feel intimidated or because we fear that anything we say will simply make matters worse. I’ve often kept my silence out of one or other feeling, or a combination, but I now wish I’d shown more courage and clarity from the beginning in opposing call-out culture. Wishing it would go away doesn’t help. In my own partial defence, and that of others, I don’t think we knew what hit us when the whole thing began – when some individuals associated with the atheist and skeptic movements began using their public platforms to “call out” colleagues and allies for public shaming and excoriation. This was something very alien to the rational spirit of organised atheism and secularism.

In the environment that has been created, some topics cannot be discussed reasonably. We all feel as if we’re constantly walking on eggshells, and the spirit of honest, open, mutually charitable inquiry is lost.

What I didn’t realise until recently was how far this call-out culture has become prevalent in other corners of the blogosphere and the general culture, especially in forums of people who perceive themselves as fighting for social justice. Nor did I know how much critique call-out culture was receiving around the internet. That’s something to be grateful for. Posts such as those by Dzodan and (most recently) Thompson are very valuable and deserve wide reading.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I see two major problems with call-out culture: 1) “Call-out” is a misnomer because the name implies that the call-out is justified for the greater good of humanity. 2) The call-out is polarizing, creating a ‘100% with us’, or ‘100% against us’ atmosphere. This makes constructive dialog and problem resolution impossible.

    As for you wishing that you’d “shown more courage and clarity from the beginning in opposing call-out culture”. Do you mean since you first exited the womb? Call-out culture seems to have a great appeal to basic human nature, it’s part of the reason religion has such appeal IMO. As for organized atheism and secularism isn’t been going on within this subset of people for a long time as well. Blogs and social media have just made it easier and more prolific.

  • Just quickly, I mean since about two years ago when the phenomenon first became apparent to me, although I didn’t know how to name or debate or understand it at the time. Before that, I’d seen angry disagreements, spiced with studied or spur-of-the moment insults, but not this kind of shaming people publicly for highly dubious wrongdoings committed in obscure places. At least I hadn’t seen it in the secular movement. Doubtless it had happened before, but it seems to have become a deliberate, premeditated, concerted tactic since about that time.

    I agree that “calling out” is a misnomer, but that’s the expression used by defenders of the practice. The expression sends shivers up my spine. It reminds me too much of this sort of thing: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/mr-edwards-and-the-spider/

  • I agree wholeheartedly, of course. Ideas should be challenged whenever and wherever possible, but the culture right now, especially on Twitter is that ideas aren’t challenged much; people are criticised for holding and expressing those ideas. The end result is, as you say, eggshells, hostility, distrust, drama and so forth.

  • The irony here is that in a later blogpost Dzodan coined the phrase “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”, and Dzodan was one of the “IF”s that was defending Sam during the situation that Thompson is telling us about.

  • Karmakin

    The problem isn’t intersectionalism per se. The problem is people who are terrible at it. It’s a extremely complicated thing, and the conventional simplistic models don’t work. But they’re going to be terrible anyway, to be honest.

  • I think there must be some truth in the basic idea of intersectionality. Of course there can be tendencies to subordinate or devalue various categories of people (and to privilege others) based on racial or ethnic background, biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, social class or origin, etc., and these can doubtless intersect in complex ways. All of this is worth exploring by sociologists and also by others, such as novelists and biographers.

    One of the difficulties is when we try to apply a body of theory that might fail to do justice to this situation even at the population level to the additional complexities at the level of individuals, where many other factors can into play. I think Thompson discusses this well.

    But my beef is not with the concept of intersectionality itself, even though I linked to Thompson. Even if a concept like that is used on some occasion in a simplistic and inaccurate manner by someone with an unsophisticated understanding, that’s not so terrible in itself. Analyses that use such concepts, even simplistic ones, can be open to civil discussion if the people concerned are prepared to be flexible about their views and to acknowledge that whatever body of theory and terminology they are using is probably contestable and is, in any event, a blunt instrument.

    It’s the call-out culture that we’ve seen that is so disturbing: the vilification of critics (sometimes for very mild comments, or sometimes for testy comments but in obscure conversations, or sometimes for imperfect choices of words that are unscripted and delivered in real time), the attempts to shame or humiliate people, the dogpiling, the disproportionate anger, the attempts to punish opponents and harm reputations, etc.

  • So very well said. This is the same problem with dominant privilege, and all the other sociological concepts that people yap about on twitter but haven’t taken any time to think about.

  • Something the overly simplistic twitter feminists don’t seem to understand is that oppressed identities don’t just neatly stack up like a sad tower, it’s so much more complicated than that. For example, simplistic radical feminists like to go on about “patriarchy” and how males dominate the world because that’s how they (and generally most ideologically driven people) see the world: in black and white. But there are ways in which, for example, black men are punished by society for both being black, and being men. It’s not like being black you lose a point, but being male you gain one. Society isn’t a video game.

  • Luke Vogel

    I have to shoot from the gut on this one. Seriously, coming from you there is little above that I trust is meant with intellectual honesty. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is pressured into place. With all do respect, I would guess that you don’t see the forest for the trees, but only a limited array of shrubbery you found personally prickly. Since one has to read into your rather indirect post – it appears incredibly limited in scope, I would assume that is done on purpose.

    I’ll dig a bit at this with an example of why I am arguing this way. Let’s says I’m reading you correctly and could point to what happened with Michael Shermer and the amazingly narrow appraisal by someone. Now, it was Shermer who was also “called-out” as an “accomodationist” for an essay where the accuser couldn’t have been more obviously reaching too far to make that charge. His charge was cheered loud enough that to argue otherwise was a little hellish. However, just a very short time after, Michael was then labeled a “new atheist” by the same person because Michael’s arguments were not only favorable, but he was with a favorable person. Haven’t we seen this tactic before? Isn’t that part of what you’re talking about? Goes something like this – let’s see how far we can push, let’s “name call” but deny we are doing such, we need to shift not only opinion, but the movement, not because we are right, but because we are.

    Sorry, but I’m very skeptical. Once the dust settles and you find yourself on the “right” side of some “social justice” issue, I’m betting you’ll be “calling-out” loud and clear.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Great poem, Russell!

    I didn’t know what this phenomenon was called either. The first time I wrote a blogpost about it, I described it as the gathering of a lynch mob.

    The expression “calling out” sends shivers up my spine as well. To use an expression which implies that there is justification for ugly behavior only serves to fan the flames of self-righteousness.

    Language policing seems to be a big part of “call out” culture. I vote that we start policing the term “call out culture” and insist that it be called something more apt like “mob mentality mania”. (That expression is nicely alliterative. 😉

  • Luke Vogel

    I need to apologize for my poorly worded post. Looks like another one for the junk heap. I’ll give us all a break and stop posting till I can get a grip and learn to self edit once again. It appears obvious that emotion has taken too much control of my writing – for a few years now. It’s easy to see when others do that, but seeing myself appear defeated and ill suited for consideration has taken it’s toll.

  • Thanny

    All I want to say is that there is something seriously wrong with any school of thought which creates the term “ableist”, apparently to describe a non-disabled person who is in any way critical of a disabled person.

    The linked post still suffers from this mindset a bit – where the term “privilege” has been morphed into a totem, instead of a word describing an actual concept – but comes across, in the context of the surrounding comments, like a real voice in the wilderness. I hope she doesn’t get the full flame treatment.

  • Thank you for the apology. It’s accepted of course. I do wonder where the original comment with its accusation of bad faith was coming from, but let’s leave it there. We’ve all had much to learn over the last few years, me included.