Building powerful movements for a just and democratic society requires tearing down the walls separating people and welcoming new people into the movement. It takes recognizing that individuals, shaped by their lived experiences, are in different places along their journeys towards growth and change. Call-out culture, which includes public shaming to hold people accountable and oftentimes claiming one’s own moral high ground, can generate antagonism and challenge our ability to make progress together. But what other strategies do we have to hold people accountable for saying and doing harmful things?
Social justice and women’s rights activist Loretta Ross makes a case for the need to “call-in” instead of call-out. This approach prioritizes relationship-building over shaming. By “calling-in” someone who makes a harmful comment, a person may take them aside to share why the comment was harmful or inappropriate and offer alternative framing instead of calling them out in front of a large group. It creates a compassionate space for the person to reflect, hold themselves accountable and grow, instead of a space in which they may deny or deflect responsibility, retreat and/or not return out of shame or embarrassment.
However, not all situations lend themselves to calling someone in. Urgency, power dynamics, and individual safety are all important factors to consider when choosing how to respond to someone engaging in harmful behavior. In other words, calling out may sometimes be the more appropriate approach, especially if the individual in question has more power or is a repeat offender that has not been open to change. Yet, too often, we resort to calling out as the first and/or only option when this is not always the case, and we do so in ways that can cause additional harm and shame. By taking the time to pause and reflect on our intended outcome and how it will serve our larger goals for positive social change, we can create opportunities for people to reflect, grow and re-engage with accountability and new understanding.
Constructive methods of calling in and calling out both involve holding individuals and institutions accountable for harm while centering human dignity and embracing individuals’ capacity to change. However, calling in usually involves a private conversation with a small group or 1:1, while calling out means engaging in a more public space or forum. Based on the larger goal, an individual may choose either approach, or a mix of both—all while centering these approaches around care and a common humanity. At the Horizons Project, we work with networks of academics, social justice activists, bridge-builders, and democracy advocates to better understand how and when to use calling in and calling out methods in a way that will prevent harm, inspire collective learning, and hold people accountable with love.
*We would like to thank Tabitha Moore, a Vermont-based racial justice trainer and activist, for her thought leadership and contributions to this area of exploration as part of The Horizons Project research team.
Interested in learning more? Check out these resources on calling in and calling out that are inspiring us right now.
Calling In and Calling Out Guide, Harvard University’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging
“In fostering spaces of inclusion and belonging, it is important to recognize, name, and address when individuals or groups with marginalized identities are experiencing harm, such as bias or discrimination. The concepts of “calling out” or “calling in” have become popular ways of thinking about how to bring attention to this type of harm. Knowing the difference between these concepts can help us reflect, then act, in the ways we feel will best promote constructive change.This guide is a continuously evolving document that we plan to improve over time.”
Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In, The Vermont-NEA Racial Justice Task Force and Seed the Way
A quick tips guide for when you might choose to call someone in or out and how to do it.
#ListenFirst Conversations Complete Guide, #Listen First
“A #ListenFirst conversation is any conversation that helps us see each other across differences and discover human connection. It might be between two friends or among many strangers. It might be on a park bench, in a classroom, in the workplace, at home, or online. Regardless of where you are or who you’re with, here are our favorite principles and tips!”
Shame, Safety and Moving Beyond Cancel Culture, The Ezra Klein Show
“When is cancellation merited or useful? When is it insufficient or harmful? And what other tools are available in those cases?”
Loretta J. Ross: “Don’t call people out – call them in”, TED Talk
‘We live in a call-out culture, says activist and scholar Loretta J. Ross. You’re probably familiar with it: the public shaming and blaming, on social media and in real life, of people who may have done wrong and are being held accountable. In this bold, actionable talk, Ross gives us a toolkit for starting productive conversations instead of fights — what she calls a “call-in culture” — and shares strategies that help challenge wrongdoing while still creating space for growth, forgiveness and maybe even an unexpected friend. “Fighting hate should be fun,” Ross says. “It’s being a hater that sucks.”’
How to talk to insurrectionists and conspiracy theorists, Nafees Hamid, CNN
“I’m a cognitive scientist who has been studying the drivers of political violence for the better part of a decade. My work has involved interviews, social network analysis, psychology experiments, and surveys of jihadists, white nationalists, and conspiracists. My colleagues and I also conducted the first-ever brain scan studies on jihadist supporters. Our findings point to one thing that ordinary people can do if they feel that someone they know might be getting radicalized: Stay connected.”