[TRIGGER WARNING: MENTION OF ATTEMPTED SUICIDE, HARASSMENT]
There have been complaints here and there about "callout culture" in social justice communities, such as they are, that I've seen pop up at least since I joined Tumblr over five years ago. I read an article last night about the problem of calling out and, in particular, exiling trans women who mess up in their language or actions due to the fact that social circles are often life-saving for trans women who don't have the privilege to have as much access to the resources that teach the rest of us the appropriate language, which changes over time.
This was written by a trans woman of color and fuck me if I can find it again, I thought it was an Everyday Feminism post but it was either removed or I was completely wrong. Either way, it made some really good points and people in social justice, leftist, and progressive communities need to take notice. There's no doubt that some toxic shit has gone down in these communities, including harassing young people to the point of attempting suicide, the rapid spread of false information meant to ruin someone's reputation, and widespread intolerance of small mistakes.
Now, I'm not about to advocate letting people say whatever and not calling them out so that they continue to cause harm unchecked. The problem with a lot of complaints about so-called "callout culture" is that often times they're made by people who have been called out for fucking up and nothing really bad happened to them aside from hurt egos. These individuals just don't want to be held accountable. They hold up extreme examples of harassment and exile from social circles even though this hasn't happened to them.
I also think that some people do deserve to be rejected and exiled as some people are simply toxic and unwilling to change. The problem here is that there is no black-and-white set of rules for dealing with situations where people fuck up. It can be difficult to tell whether someone was simply ignorant or chose to use harmful language and got caught. And there's the fact that nearly all of us have some level of privilege, and in such a fucked up world, we all carry subconscious prejudices that can never be completely shaken. There's also internalized bigotry, such as internalized misogyny, that none of us are immune to.
There is no set number of times someone can fuck up or hurt people they have privilege over (or even those within their own marginalized community) that we can use to say "okay that's so many strikes, you're now officially Problematic." Different things are hurtful to different people. Some people may not have as much access to the latest information. There are so many things to become educated on that young people and people new to the movement are inevitably going to say something harmful. The only certain line is the point at which an individual person doesn't trust you anymore.
So what do we do? It doesn't have to be all-or-nothing and it definitely shouldn't be. It's a shaky gray area and we have to evaluate each case individually. There are some guidelines that I follow that I think can be helpful for many people when navigating social justice-related spaces.
First, I don't publicly call out or argue with people who are under age. Age 18 is kind of an arbitrary hard line, so I also take age into consideration if I am going to do one or both of these things. I combine this with the individual's privilege. An 18-year-old cishet white man? I expect he has the resources to know better and the social support to survive me telling him to fuck off. An 18-year-old queer white woman? I'm going to be much gentler, and depending on the severity of the offense, am likely to approach them privately.
If I have privilege over the person, as in they are trans, disabled, a person of color, etc., I am going to proceed with caution and understanding at any age if it's an issue of binary gender, queerness, or mental illness. If it's something about race, transness, disability, or anything else I don't have direct experience in, I keep shit to myself. There are times when the best action is no action. Stay out of it.
If it's about one of these issues and the person fucking up has the same privilege as I do on the topic, it's ally work time. I take the factors mentioned and others into consideration into my approach, but if it's on a public forum like Facebook or Tumblr and especially if the person is young or new to social justice, I think the best thing to do is contact them privately and attempt to coach them.
This is better than arguing with them publicly both for the person who fucked up and for those watching. Seeing those kinds of arguments can be traumatizing for marginalized persons affected by the subject, and the act of, for example, a white person arguing publicly with another white person about race can be performative - meaning you're doing it to make yourself look good to people. I doubt anyone has never been guilty of this.
These two negatives are not, in my opinion, made up for by the fact that other white people reading through the argument might be educated by what you're saying.
What it comes down to is that those of us with privilege need to put more effort into collecting our own and preventing situations that could get someone harassed or exiled. In my experience, quick and genuine apology explaining what you've learned is all that's needed to be forgiven by most. The problem is that everyone gets a defensive reaction to being "called out," and the vast majority of people do not know how to deal with this within themselves. That's when they start making excuses or arguing, digging themselves into deeper holes. If they can be collected and gently educated by their privilege peers, a lot of harm can be mitigated.
I can't promise results from attempts to gently educate. I've had many people refuse to listen to me and continue digging their own grave. Those people probably deserve exile until they can get their shit together.
Those of us with a lot of privilege also need to be very vigilant about being performative. Are you spreading a callout post without doing some digging to make sure it's legitimate? Are you piling on to a mass callout of someone you have privilege over? Are you trying to call out someone you have privilege over on the subject in which you have privilege? That last one especially, DO NOT. Even if you're sure that you're right. Just don't. If they are being harmful, someone within their community will call them out. If no one does, you were probably wrong.
Always be reflecting on yourself. Are you doing what you're doing for yourself or for others? Are you sliding into the trap of acting with the goal of gaining more followers or getting more fame? These are tough questions, and you're going to be uncertain a lot of the time. But the best thing you can do is keep questioning yourself.