How to call someone out

2012-08-13 22:41

(Note: Currently still a draft, there may be edits later.)

People occasionally have discussions on the topic of “calling out”. This term originally referred to inviting people to a fight; it often seems to be used that way, even when the intent is nominally benign.

The idea is this: When people do inappropriate things, such as “using sexist language” or whatever, if they are “called out” on this, it will cause them to realize the error of their ways, and perhaps improve things. Here’s an article on how to deal with being called out.

However, a lot of people are… well, they surely mean well. But they don’t do a very good job. Some of the items in the “how to deal with” list point indirectly to these; for instance, “don’t tone police” points out that often people who are “called out” react by talking about how hostile or rude the call-out was, rather than focusing on the substance. And indeed, this does happen; it happens, in fact, even when most bystanders agree that the tone was entirely appropriate, or even fairly friendly.

That said, I think it’s important to give some thought to the matter. The most important thing is:

Start by forming a clear idea of what you intend to accomplish.

Who’s your audience? Are you intending to convince the person you’re calling out? Are you intending to convince onlookers? Are you trying to convince anyone at all, or do you have some other rhetorical purpose? If you can’t answer this question, perhaps now is not a good time to start talking — whatever your purpose is, if you don’t have it in mind, you are quite likely to end up undermining it. And that does no one any good.

Note that I am not picking any of the above as “the right answer”. There are times when each of them might be a good choice; it depends on who you’re dealing with, what your needs are, and more. Think! Especially if you’re in written media, you can afford a few minutes to go over this and try to decide what your goals are, and think about how to approach them.

Note also: Goals. Plural. You might have multiple goals, such as “preserve a valued friendship” and “put a stop to this racist garbage”. You may have a hard time balancing them, but if you pursue one at the expense of the other, you will likely regret it.

First, do no harm.

Unless, of course, you want to do harm. But you may not, and if you do indeed intend not to harm, this is a particularly rich minefield. It is really, really, easy for call-outs to result in hurting people. And some of the ways are obvious, and some maybe less obvious.

If you are dealing with someone you know, and you don’t want to harm them, the very first thing you should consider is whether the timing is right; there may be a better time. The time to explain that it is patriarchal and fundamentally sexist for wedding vows to contain the word “obey” is probably not during the wedding. If your friend is dealing with other personal problems (stressful relationship issues, homelessness, job loss, depression, or anything like that), you might want to just put the issue on hold for a while; you are almost certainly not going to help, and you may hurt a great deal. People with poor emotional reserves genuinely can’t take criticism well; if they could, they wouldn’t have poor emotional reserves.

Secondly, give thought to framing. The more you emphasize that the person is bad, or what they’re doing is bad, the more pain you’re causing, and the less likely it is to result in any kind of change of behavior or attitudes. Well, you might be able to scare someone away from a field of endeavor entirely; tumblr is richly populated by the spectral remains of blogs whose bloggers were just trying out writing for the first time and got called out.

Is there a relationship to preserve? Do you care?

There is a huge difference between tactics that are appropriate as part of a long-term and ongoing relationship, and things that are appropriate if you are never going to see someone again. If you do things that are more appropriate if you’re never going to see someone again, well. That is a common outcome.

A quick guide to persuasion

Let’s assume you’re trying to persuade; you want someone to believe that they (or someone else) are in some way Doin’ It Wrong. Here’s a little thought experiment:

  1. Marshal your arguments.
  2. Write them down.
  3. Now, take a step away from this issue, by thinking about something else.
  4. Specifically, try to come up with directions to your house.
  5. Now write those down.

If you’ve had much experience giving directions, the chances are that you found the second part of this hard; when you are trying to write directions, you usually start by asking where someone is coming from. Without that, you can’t describe a path from where they are to where you are.

Now look at your arguments, from the first part of the thought experiment. Did you, when writing them, start from where the person you want to persuade currently is? Do you even know where they currently are? Note that a broad caricature based on a particular thing they’ve said or done does not count.

In short: If you want to persuade people, the most important thing is to start by listening to them until you are sure that you could present their views well enough that they would agree that you have presented their views fairly, and are not misrepresenting them. (Note: If you haven’t done this a lot, you may want to wait until long after you are sure, because you will usually be wrong the first few times you think you understand a position you disagree with. It’s a very tricky skill to develop.)

Picking your tone.

The second issue is that, no matter how true it is that “tone policing” is a bad thing: If you want people to be persuaded, putting them on the defensive is pretty much the worst thing you can do. Focus on your goals. If you really do want to persuade someone, then it matters whether you succeed, right? And if it matters, then you should do it in a way that is likely to succeed, rather than a way which is likely to fail.

Framing criticism so it can be heard

But how to criticize someone without putting them on the defensive? Well, that can be pretty hard. One good starting point: Ask them questions, rather than telling them things. For instance, instead of “the stereotypes you used with the token gay character were trite and offensive,” try something like “so, came across to me as pretty flamey, was that some kind of act he was putting on or what?” The goal is to induce the person you’re talking about to think about what they were doing.

People often assert that intent doesn’t matter. This is not quite true. Intent may not matter to the listener; it often matters a great deal to the speaker. Letting someone talk about their intent, and accepting their intent, makes it a lot easier for them to then listen to comments about how something came across, and the implications of that. If you tell them their intent doesn’t matter, though, they’re starting off being told that they are not important to this; at that point, there’s not much there to engage them. Again: If your goal is to persuade, you have to get the person you want to persuade engaged, interested, and thinking about the issue. “Threatened” is not a kind of “engaged”.

Talk about related cases

One of the most effective techniques in bypassing mental defenses is not to hit them at all. If you talk to people about their problems, they are immediately placed on the defensive; the human brain does not like to feel bad, and will go to some lengths to avoid doing so. Sometimes, talking to people about someone else can allow them to examine and understand the problem as a thing that does not reflect badly on them, and then they can recognize similarities in their own experience.

If you can get someone talking to you about principles, you may then be able to mention one of their statements or writings as an example of something that “could come across as…”; this lets them talk about the problem as a flaw in the thing external to themselves. If they conclude that they must change to prevent such flaws from occurring, that’s not an attack on their self image, just a useful problem-solving step.

Talk and act as though you might be wrong.

There’s two reasons for this, as a matter of pragmatic persuasion. The first is that opening the issue to doubt makes it easier for the other party to listen to you and think about what you are saying. The second is that sometimes you will be wrong. Talking that way will help you keep this in mind, so if evidence comes out that you were mistaken about what someone said, or what something meant, you will be less emotionally resistant to accepting this and correcting yourself.

Pick your venue

Give thought to your choice of venue. Don’t just post everything publically without thinking about it. Think about the environment. For instance, on tumblr, any public callout is an invitation for other people to dogpile the recipient. The chances that this will advance any goal related to persuasion or understanding are basically nil. On the other hand, if character assassination is your goal, public callouts can be an amazing tool; they don’t even have to be remotely plausible or justifiable. Just don’t expect the recipient to ever talk to you again.

Private channels can be good. Face-to-face can be good or bad; good (at least for non-autistics) in that you can read tone a lot better, and some kinds of miscommunication are less likely. Bad in that there’s no time to stop and think about what you’re saying before jumping on an emotional response. And remember, if you are trying to persuade someone, it is their preference for channels that controls what will work well.

What to do if you’re brushed off.

No matter how hard you try to do everything right, sometimes you’re going to get brushed off. A few tips:

  • Don’t respond by escalating immediately. Give the issue some time to percolate. Think carefully about what you want to obtain, and whether it looks possible.
  • Don’t go around gossipping, that won’t help.
  • Give some extra thought to the possibility that you misunderstood something.
  • Consider your timing.
  • Consider whether you want to write someone off as Not Worth The Time. Sometimes this will be a pretty reasonable choice.
  • Move on. You can’t win ‘em all.

A few notes on selecting your goals.

In general, the intent of calling-out is to pursue some form of social justice; to protect people from oppression, for instance. And in all of this, there remains a danger, which is that if you focus too much on the means by which you hope to obtain that goal, you may lose sight of the goal entirely.

If you don’t care what the people you’re calling out think and feel, stop and ask why you’re bothering to call them out then. And think back to the roots of the issue. Oppression is what happens when people decide that some class of people aren’t quite people; that is to say, what they think and feel is less important than what other people think and feel. Once you embrace the notion that there are people who matter more than other people, you cannot ever overcome or defeat oppression; you might be able to change who’s on top, but you have embraced the essence of the oppressive structure, and no action taken within that frame of mind can ever escape that structure.

People often retort that there is no such thing as bigotry against privileged groups. This relies on redefinitions such that the relative state of groups is encoded in the words, so that certain kinds of wrong cannot be committed against certain people. But that, again, is the problem. Once you’ve got a list of people who don’t count, you have embraced the system, and are acting to strengthen it. Oppression works just fine when the oppressed group “fights back” in a way which affirms the notion that human dignity is a thing only some people ought to have.

In short: The purpose of justice is to make life better for people. Once you are willing to sacrifice people for “justice”, what you are talking about is no longer justice. Which means: Sometimes, the answer to “how to call someone out” is “don’t.” There are other ways to educate people. Some of them might even work.

Peter Seebach

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