With Room to Learn

There has been a lot of talk in the last few months about how “call-out culture” causes problems. Some of it is ridiculous, as when writers take to large magazines and newspapers to complain of being silenced. Some of it is not, as when those already marginalized note that dealing with fierce blowback for mistakes as they enter and acclimate to activist spaces is one more barrier than they have energy for.

I want to deal more with the latter as I get back into writing more regularly. There are things I want to say about languages of power once I’m comfortable that my views are fully fleshed out. In the meantime, however, there are a couple of posts contemporaneous with my earlier writing on the topic that I want to highlight, both from Angus Johnston on the Student Activism blog.

These are both responses to posts by a single blogger, but they contain strategies for dealing with call-outs that are widely applicable. Importantly, they don’t require deciding that either party is wrong to be upset. They also both include productive, informative comment sections.

The first post addresses the responsibilities of those who are in charge of a space where a call-out more destructive than constructive takes place.

I do think that it’s both possible and appropriate to intervene in situations like the ones he describes, though yes, figuring out how and when to do it can be complicated. Professors should stand up for students who are being hassled in their classrooms not just as a matter of defending the class as a space for open dialogue, but also as a matter of modeling the kind of generous behavior we’d like to see more generally. It’s absolutely true, as commenters have noted, that issues of social capital are embedded in these kinds of blowups, and that means that folks with social capital are often the ones who have the most ability to step up to put them on a better track.

Can any of us always intervene productively, directly, in every situation? No. Not always. There will be situations in which what someone has to say will be rejected by the person behind the call-out — and not always wrongly. Sometimes people need to be called out, and sometimes defusing people’s anger isn’t appropriate or helpful, and sometimes a particular messenger isn’t likely to get a proper hearing.

But even in those situations, if we feel that someone’s being piled on inappropriately — or even if we feel that the initial pile-on was appropriate, but we don’t want to see someone driven from the classroom or organization or movement — there’s almost always stuff we can do later on to mend the breach.

The second post emphasizes that activist conflict resolution is not new territory and collects strategies in the comments–while expressing a fair amount of exasperation with those who ignore the work already done on this topic.

I also spent a lot of time and energy proposing principles, guidelines, and examples — in the post itself, in a lengthy update, and in a huge, sprawling comments thread which I explicitly invited you to participate in. I’m not saying you needed to accept my invitation, but come on.

And again, I’m not the only one offering this stuff. A Google search on “activist conflict resolution” spews out an ocean of resources. If you don’t like what’s out there, say why. Engage with it. Critique it. Offer suggestions to improve it, even. But don’t act like it doesn’t exist.

Want more? As a bonus, have a comment from the second thread pulled out into a post of its own. You may want to pull this out for anyone telling you all the infighting is going to destroy the left.

With Room to Learn