Calling out is something I really struggle with. I’ll admit up front that it might be my own privilege and my own need to reserve what spoons I have for work that, at least in my mind, would do more good than calling somebody out.
I think, at the basic level, calling out isn’t a bad thing. It can make someone really think about what they are doing and saying. A couple months ago, I had to call my Dad out about a transphobic meme he retweeted on Facebook. It was really hard for both of us but I’m extremely proud of him because he came to understand, on his own, why what he posted was harmful and apologized for it. He came to understand the personal cost that oppression has on those he cares about.
For him, and a lot of others, what they do isn’t necessarily out of malice, but more out of ignorance. What’s difficult, I think, is that the people being called out may think that they aren’t doing something racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc., they are just parroting what society has indoctrinated them to believe what is right (or funny, or whatever). This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are spreading memes and saying things out of malice. There are many who make an art out of being shitty to people.
But I think it should make a difference in how someone is called out.
There are a lot of progressives out there who subscribe to the “Sit down and shut up!” school of calling out, regardless of the nature of the offense and offender. One of the worst I’ve seen is where the person doing the calling out tells the offender, who is ignorant of the issues and not consciously trying to be an asshole, that what they said was bad, and then are told to just “Read a fucking book!” There is no explanation of what thing they said was bad, nor was there any suggestions on what to do about it. This also puts the person being called out on the defensive: you have just told them they were in a class of people they don’t want to be associated with. In fact, in their mind they may not be racist, homophobic, sexist, or whatever. This way of calling out, at least to me, defeats the purpose. I think it just creates people who go away angry or demoralized, and they still don’t have any idea why what they did was ignorant in the first place.
I’m sure at this point, there are some folks who say “Why should I be nice and consider the feelings of people who don’t care?” or “Why should I pander to white people’s tears (or white women’s tears, or het people’s tears, etc)?” I actually don’t think calling out necessarily needs to be nice. In fact, I think it has to be very real. People need to see the anger, hurt, frustration, and fear because I think there are those who do care. However, I think that just basically saying “Sit down and shut up!” only does half the job. With my Dad, I didn’t just tell him that what he did was wrong, I also explained to him why. And that explanation came with a price: I was extremely upset and I yelled at him. He was also upset and loud about it, too. Even though he figured a lot of it out on his own, it took me explaining it to him initially for him to really take some time to think about it. But it also took my very obvious anger and hurt to really drive it home.
I get that people get frustrated with the huge amount of ignorance that people have in this country. Believe me, I get really frustrated with it, too. There are also a lot of people who are being jerks out of malice where saying “Sit down and shut up” is probably the best way to deal with it. But if someone is truly just ignorant about what their behavior is doing, without active malice, then calling them out requires more than just shutting them down. I believe that if I’m going to call someone out on their ignorance, then I’d better be prepared to follow through with some education. That way, instead of someone on the defensive thinking I’m just a jerk, I could have an ally who will, in turn, educate others.