On call outs

An old post from my tumblr, recycled for relevancy.

Call outs. Jesus they are hard.

They’re the hardest when they come from within; from people who share your circles, your ideology, your missions. When people with lived experience or better knowledge of the oppressive realities you hope to fight but have failed, point out your failings, it can hurt as if the crashing realisation that you are part of the problem has a tangible, physical weight.

I have been called out. I have handled it poorly, I’ve handled it with defensive reactions and delayed apologies, I’ve handled it by ignoring that it happened at all. I am not an inspiration for call outs, but nor am I inexperienced in how they could be received better.

I have called people out. I have seen people handle it so badly they morph from respectable allies to giant shitheels in 30 seconds. I have seen people handle it gracefully. I have seen people’s mental health get impacted severely by both the idea their identity as a goodie isn’t so solid, and by the sheer volume of people contacting them in dismay.

I have seen people who have been marginalised become the oppressor, I have seen people apologise and move on with more caution and necessary disengagement.

People have told me what I am going to say to you in different ways, many times, and I have forgotten it, absorbed it, skimmed past it, or periodically been unable to utilise it because I can’t see past my own hurt feelings or bruised ego.

My hope is that the more people who suck at call outs talk about their learnings and reflection, the more common ‘absorption’ becomes.

It should not be the responsibility of people who have been wronged to do the instructional manuals for us. And although I have been offended, marginalised and harmed too in different ways, myself and many other activists can be both part of the problem and part of the solution depending on how far we get our heads out of our own asses. And potentially that gives an intersectional insight that we should start using a whole lot more.

While there are some people who may lament why everyone finds call outs so hard, I am not in that camp. Call outs are hard to receive because the idea that we’re ever part of what we want to fight against is a tough pill to swallow. People who put in hours and hours, often voluntarily and after a long day of family or work responsibilities, are going to feel aggrieved at the idea they could actually be working against the mission they hold so dear. It’s human.

Your normal tender reactions to being pointed out as part of the problem, however, should never take precedence over righting your wrongs. Having the harm you have caused conveyed to you, is a privilege that nobody owes you. It takes the reopening of wounds or the rehashing of exhausting crap for the people who are doing it. It’s a privilege I have failed to recognise in the heat of yelling and name-calling and hurt and disappointment, and it’s something I will always regret and always try to do better at in the future. I won’t always get it right.

Sometimes people who are doing the calling out because they are marginalised and hurt by something you’ve done, can do hurtful things back. How helpful name-calling is as a first-port-of-call reaction is debatable. But it’s not about measuring ‘helpfulness’, or policing the ways people call you out. Because usually the perpetuation of marginalisation, even accidentally, is more important than having that conveyed to you in a way you prescribe. You don’t get to prescribe it, because you fucked up.

You can be hurt by it. You can point out you’d rather not be called that name. You can decide when and how you interact and report harassment if contact crosses a line in a way that makes you feel unsafe. But in the same way your actions doesn’t excuse your safety being breeched, feeling that way does not cancel out any hurt you may have done to others. And if you have a true commitment to making people’s lives better through activism and advocacy, then you will have numerous ways to engage in good faith. And you should.

Personally, because of my many privileges, I feel my best and most fruitful call outs of others are those that, when speaking to people who purportedly share the kaupapa of my activism, start with the benefit of the doubt. If I have seen you say something great before, and you’ve said something shit now, I want to take your hand and say “hey, that isn’t cool because of reasons.” Not everyone has the ability, the patience, the time, or the desire to do that. I don’t always have all those things myself.

I struggle with those who come at genuine slip-ups and ignorance with guns blazing and the idea that this fuckup inherently makes you an awful person, as opposed to an ignorant one. But the hurt that is caused by ignorance is relative and so are those blazing guns. If you truly feel that you don’t deserve the amount of vitriol levelled at you after an incident, the best thing you can do is not throw around your Activism CV like it’s a license to say whatever you want and never get shit wrong.

What happens if you flat out disagree with someone calling you out? What happens if you didn’t mean what someone thought you did? What happens if you take issue with the amount of aggression being levelled at you in a way that makes you feel triggered? If you can, articulate that. It’s your right to explain your stance on something, disagree with an assumption, point out that you are personally not okay with the way someone is treating you.

But it is also the right of others to not be okay with what you did, or what they assumed you did, because the lived experience of people who are marginalised is often one of scripts and tropes that your action has, or seemed to, fit right into. Even if you fundamentally don’t accept their premise, you have to be a special kind of fuckwit to not take stock of someone else’s feelings of hurt or anger.

The “I am sorry if I offended you” line is a crap one, so don’t try it. Just say “I am sorry that x hurt you. And I obviously have more learning and listening to do as to why that is.” Is it the worst thing in the world to say you don’t understand something but you’ll endeavor to get there?

Even crossed wires can have learning in them. For instance, you can learn that people might assume you mean otherwise if you frame something the way you did. Same with trigger-level aggression; you have deeply hurt someone, even if their reaction is harmful for your mental health and you need to leave the conversation.

Your exiting for self-care can be done with mindfulness and acknowledgement of where you fucked up, and a request to be left out of things from this point onwards. Not a “you are triggering me and my trigger is more important than your marginalisation”. Because it’s not.

If someone keeps contacting you after you have expressly asked to be left alone, that is not a call out. That is harassment. And anyone who is calling people out for marginalisation should realise that unwanted contact is problematic.

When people call you out in good faith, in righteous anger, or in easily correctable misunderstanding, it is not your job to determine what that person should be upset about. “You’re alienating an ally here!” or “You’re not perfect either, look at the time you did x!” or “There are more important things to be angry about” or “This infighting is why activism never achieves anything!” is a bullshit response and perpetrates the idea that you’re above an issue unless it personally affects you.

Ironically, this sort of arrogant compartmentalisation and self-interested prioritization are exactly the issues many activists seek to remedy.

There are people who will read this and think “I wish you’d learnt this earlier”. And I will carry the hurt that I have caused forever. The best thing I can do is never forget it and try and say aroha mai in the best possible way and keep doing so through my actions.

Some of my apologies have been from the deepest of my places and some of them have tried to save face. Some of them are still coming because I have yet to realise all the ways my privilege hurts others. And in the way that I look back at my Facebook posts on that not-creepy-at-all timeline function and think “fucking shut the hell up 21 year old me”, I will look back on things I am doing now without realising and think the same about 26 year old me.

It is hard to be told you have hurt someone. But not as hard as it is to be hurt by someone who is supposed to be your ally. And if you forget that, then you are not an ally to me or anyone else. And if I forget that, I deserve to be called a shitheel.

When we fuck up, we’re not owed a magical restoration of respect. We’re not owed the deletion of that from any future mention. If we act in a way that deserves respect going forward, then our whakamā will hopefully form part of our wisdom and our humbleness.

If your activism disregards my activism, or if mine disregards yours, then that is when activism will never achieve anything. Don’t be a shitheel.