Cancel Call-Out Culture

By Paulina Thurmann, senior at Gonzaga University

On October 13, 2020, my day-to-day approach to ‘doing’ social justice changed. I’m a student at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution in Washington, with a major in sociology and minors in leadership and social justice, so tackling injustice through a variety of approaches is no new topic to me. But occasionally, I come across something particularly revolutionary, a novel perspective or idea—and when I hear it, I know it. This was it.

Last Tuesday, I attended a guest lecture by author and human rights activist Loretta Ross. She discussed how individuals can transform the ‘calling out culture’ of fear of the Other into a ‘calling in’ culture of love in order to build a united movement for justice. She first noticed hate culture when she joined Facebook a number of years ago. As many of us know—myself included—nothing has changed since Ross joined; cyberbullies, trolls, and hell-raisers still pollute the online spaces we claim are ‘free and welcoming for all’ to participate in. We see a triggering comment, our blood boils (queue hot-headed steam piping out of our ears), we punch away on our keyboards and tally long word counts of snippy or irate responses, and we press ‘post’ without a second thought. Three minutes later: direct response. And the cycle repeats. The reality is: this confrontational back-and-forth just isn’t conducive to making social progress and seeing true change. Full stop.

Ross offered her own approach to addressing problematic comments (either in person or online), especially with hot button issues and fragile political dynamics. Rooting herself in love, Ross takes a full breath before responding mindfully, and resists the urge to react aggressively. Many times, her responses are thoughtful private messages loaded with questions, personal experiences, and website links providing more information. This targets the core intention of the comment while also giving an opportunity for individuals to further reevaluate their comments and educate themselves. In crafting a message, Ross especially emphasized the importance of training herself to hate a behavior pattern, ideology, or phrase, but to never hate the person behind it.

In a time of unprecedented polarization, hateful rhetoric, and close-minded disregard for those who oppose our opinions, Ross’ lecture was a refreshing, inspiring, and much-needed nudge to get back into the dirty, grimy work of social justice. As purposive agitators, I realized that we are called not just to evangelize those who already know and agree with us. Rather, we must swallow our pride, set aside personal prejudice, and embrace the sort of ‘good trouble’ John Lewis would endorse. This means embodying the paramount moral obligation and social responsibility we all carry: to be curious about viewpoints different to ours, to listen—not just hear—them out, to practice nonviolence in our response, to engage in civil dialogue, and to extend an invitation for others to come learn with us in a mutually beneficial and productive process.

During Q&A, Ross received an important question prompting an acknowledgement of the temptations we face when calling others in. Call-in culture is not a tool to puff our own egos, to pad our self-proclaimed titles as ‘allies’, or to exempt ourselves from thinking about our own privilege. Calling in, Ross attests, is meant to avoid the shame, guilt, and embarrassment which often follows public call-outs. Rather than exclude or push offenders into hiding, private call-ins are a chance to use our knowledge to educate, empower, and welcome newcomers into the movement. Ultimately, Ross attested that the knowledge, education, and conciseness we hold are our greatest human privileges; therefore we must use these powers for good.

Counting down to election day, it is especially easy to slip into behavior patterns (like call-out culture) which forge greater divides where we could instead build connective bridges. But I challenge aspiring activists to take on Ross’ model of transformative daily activism. Rather than growing aggravated while wading through the muck of hateful media comments, let us take a moment, take a breath, and consider a call-in. Let us see opportunities for justice everywhere, but also choose our battles wisely. We don’t have to call in the entire world at once, but one single call-in can make a world of difference to the friend or neighbor who received it. Every day is a gift and a chance to grow together in community. We must take a genuine interest in the dignity of brothers and sisters directly affected by negative hate speech. Only in this way can we, as Oscar Romero phrased it, be a ‘step along each other’s way’ to lifelong learning, communal solidarity, and boundless love.

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