I’m thinking a lot lately about the ways in which we can be accountable to one another. For me this means deep personal reflection and self-inventory, and owning up to my screw-ups and trying to avoid repeat performances.
I also think about the ways in which I interact with others who do and say things that go against my own views of how we ought to treat each other. I’m lucky enough to work in an environment where hate speech isn’t tolerated, and we can actively participate in addressing it when we hear it. With my clients, I try to offer alternatives. “Instead of calling someone the b-word or c-word, why not call them a jerk or a pain in the ass or something?” “Instead of using the r-word, why not say this situation is frustrating or asinine?” “Instead of crazy, why not say bananas?” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it goes over like a lead balloon. With my co-workers it’s a little different. We’re all “adults.” We can’t reprimand or re-direct each other per se, but it’s completely legit to say to someone, “eh, that’s a little racist.” Or, “hey I have a learning disability, can you cool it with that?” For me, humor does wonders. It softens the blow and makes people a little more receptive. Instead of “you’ve sinned you horrible bag of shit,” it’s “hey that’s kinda messed up.” Sometimes just talking about why a word or phrase is messed up helps.
It’s more about the action than the person. We all fuck up. We all fuck up huge. Sometimes life throws fucked up things at us…
Someone who is crying and visibly wounded because their parent has just cut them out of their life for being queer? That’s not the time to call that person out for using the wrong word.
And sometimes it’s murky… A person of color talking about a stereotype pertinent to the way their family interacts, but applying it to everyone of that cultural background? I don’t feel comfortable calling that out unless I know that person really well, and even then I’d feel very hesitant.
The world is chaotic and messy. The stuff isn’t always cut and dry. I’m of the unpopular opinion that context matters, and that people matter. I’ve been called out on a number of things, and sometimes I feel it’s been constructive and helpful, and sometimes I’ve felt like my words and motivations were intentionally misconstrued.
I think part of being accountable means taking personal inventory and reflecting on why we want to call someone out. Do we want to make a scene/space/situation feel more safe? Do we want to help someone understand that they might be unknowingly committing a faux pas, and we believe them to be a well-intended person? Is it someone in a position of power who might not realize how their words and actions impact others? Are we reacting to trauma and can’t be calm or “rational” in the situation and need to voice our concerns right then and there?
Or could it be something else? Do I want to earn cool kid points with my other social justice buddies? Am I taking out shitty feelings on another person in a kind of online know-it-all bullying? Does this person not have the kind of educational privileges that would bring them into contact with certain schools of thought — in that case, is it cool to put them down publicly?
When I feel the need to call someone out, I ask myself why I’m doing it, and how I can do it in a way that’s effective. Will blasting them publicly on facebook work? Not usually. Especially if it’s someone I’m close with. A private message or talking to them in person would do better.
I also consider how egregious the oppressive behavior is. Atheists like Richard Dawkins are often guilty of spreading xenophobic and Orientalist notions in their critiques of Islam. As an atheist, I think it’s important to recognize that this kind of behavior is part of a centuries’ long history of the West treating the East as inferior — it’s part of delusional thinking and those who fancy themselves rational thinkers ought to reject it. A post on a friend’s wall recently stirred up a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, and I was quick to publicly call it out. It wasn’t a simple misunderstanding; it was a group of white Western atheists talking shit about millions of people. My motivation wasn’t only to stem the vitriol spewed by the individuals involved in the conversation, but also for others who might be reading and following along. Based on my own interactions with the atheist blog-o-sphere, it can be an echo chamber, and I wanted to voice an alternate viewpoint.
When I do a speaking gig, or a friend who is genuinely curious asks me something about being a trans person, but might use an awkward word like “transgendered” or “hermaphorodite” when they mean intersex. In these cases, I would correct the language but understand the person is coming from a place of literal ignorance and not bigotry.
And sometimes [drumroll] I just let it slide. Sometimes I have to. Sometimes there are bigger fish to fry. Sometimes I like someone enough to squint past their fuck ups because we all make mistakes, and at the end of the day we all need each other. I might call it out again later if I notice the same thing happen again (like if someone repeatedly uses the same ableist slur) or maybe I’ll bring it up later. Sometimes I don’t have the mental bandwidth to do it, and as a counselor once told me, I don’t always have to go die on that hill.
Sometimes it’s okay to drop the flaming sword.
A lot has also been written on calling in v. calling out. I’ll post a couple of lovely links here if you’re puzzled about how to have those tough conversations and want a primer:
Photo credit: This person’s awesome pinterest