Longtime feminist activist Loretta Ross has a solution for the counterproductive public shaming that takes place in social justice movements—she calls on us to try “calling in.”
“There’s too much infighting in the feminist movement,” feminist activist Loretta Ross told Ms. “We’re too vulnerable. Our weaknesses become our opponents’ opportunities.”
Ross is raising an alarm about the corrosive practice of “calling out” in social justice movements and proposes an alternative—“calling in”—which she describes as a “feminist practice of intersectionality.” Calling in is a strategy for working together across differences.
Feminists have negotiated their differences of race, class, sexuality, politics and more for generations, often using these distinctions to strengthen feminist activism. But sometimes these differences have become destructive. Calling out is publicly criticizing others in a way that humiliates them. Calling out can be a useful tactic for holding human rights violators accountable, Ross says, particularly for less-powerful people trying to stop harm by more-powerful people or entities. But calling out is often counterproductive when it takes the form of public shaming within social movement spaces, Ross notes, particularly when it results in banishing others because they are not “woke” enough.
“Being so quick to take offense is not a statement of how woke you are. It’s a statement of how much you need to grow.”
Some people use social activism to boost their ego or standing in a community, or to impose political purity of opinions through ideological bullying. “Calling out is about power,” Ross says. “It’s a way of gaining power in social interactions. In a group, if you can call somebody else out, then you all of a sudden control the group and you can set the agenda. It cuts off conversation. You can no longer have a give-and-take. You no longer can compromise. You no longer can work together. All of a sudden somebody’s been banished. And they can’t talk anymore. And then others are afraid to speak up for fear of being targeted themselves.”
Ross says that calling out is toxic to the women’s movement because it creates a discouraging atmosphere that drives people away from feminist activism. She argues that it replicates the carceral system of punishment by isolating people rather than unifying them, increases harm rather than healing, makes accountability difficult and creates a culture of cynicism and hopelessness.
This article originally appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.
“First of all,” Ross says, “we need to stop having this trigger fuse that when somebody says something that you don’t perfectly agree with, that you just set a firecracker off in the middle of their lives and blow them up. Stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re all on the same team. Even if we’ve got different roles to play and different pathways, we’re all on the same team.’ … Being so quick to take offense is not a statement of how woke you are. It’s a statement of how much you need to grow.”
She gives the example of the calling out that happened around the women’s marches. “All that calling out around the pink pussy march of 2017 is totally emblematic,” she says. Callouts at the time focused on condemning the pink pussy hats as exclusionary of transgender women and women of color. Others berated white women who were new to the movement rather than focusing their energy on the real danger of the Trump administration.
Ross is also critical of people who insist on safe spaces and use significant time in movement meetings for somatic exercises and processing their feelings.
“We need to stop seeing feminism as our personal therapy spaces,” she says. “The purpose of feminism is to end the oppression of women. Full stop. Not to create safe spaces where your feelings won’t get hurt. … We’ve got to stop seeing the world through a victim-trauma lens. Because what that does is make you not only conflict-averse but presumes that everything that you see is harming you. … Calling in is a brave-space practice, not a safe-space practice.”
Ross defines calling in as initiating difficult dialogues with those you disagree with while respecting their human rights and differences. Ross began her work on calling in back in 2015, when she organized a daylong conference at Smith College. The overwhelmingly positive response from students led her to continue holding workshops on the topic. In February 2020, she held a second conference on calling in, again at Smith College, with Mia Mingus, Katherine Cross and Asam Ahmad—all thought leaders on the practice.
When COVID-19 hit, Ross began teaching an online course, “Calling In the Calling Out Culture.” The first time she ran the class, 400 people enrolled. The second time, 700 people signed up. In the course, Ross identifies how and why calling out happens and how to develop skills for calling in. Her course has received rave reviews; it was described as “full of life-changing wisdom and strategy” by one student. Ross is now speaking out to mainstream media about calling in, including The New York Times, National Public Radio and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and she has a forthcoming book on the topic.
“Calling in is a learnable art,” Ross says. “To walk around life with short fuses is not a way to be a human rights feminist. We need to create a culture of forgiveness. You’ve got to find out your own trip wires and be in charge of them so you’re not ruled by your emotions. Then you’ve got to practice self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others.”
Ross adds that there’s also “calling on”: “a middle step between calling in and calling out.” Author and activist Sonya Renee Taylor advocates for “calling on” people to be better human beings by shifting their perspectives. Whereas calling in requires the investment of labor in someone else’s growth, “calling on” places responsibility for the growth on the other person by centering the person’s behavior that needs to change.
“Calling out is an invitation to a fight. Calling in is an investment in another person’s growth. I believe in calling on—calling on people to be better,” Ross says. “Sometimes people will say a microaggression to you, and you don’t have the time to invest in their growth, and you don’t want to call in, so you can just respond, ‘You know, I’m calling on you to rethink what you just said,’ and walk away. ‘I’m calling on you to be a better human being.’”
Calling out is not new. In the 1970s, it was called “trashing,” Ross says. In April 1976, Ms. published “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,” an article by Jo Freeman. “Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination,” Freeman wrote. “It is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy.”
In the 1980s, then-National Organization for Women president Eleanor Smeal (now the publisher of Ms.) characterized this destructive behavior as “a circular firing squad,” Ross notes. “Ellie is the first one who used that phrase in my presence in the ’80s when we were fighting about the ERA. And I think we still do it. I think calling out is a new form of the circular firing squad that we’ve been doing for a long time.
“We all know there [are] as many ways to do feminism as there are feminists,” she notes. “We need to give each other space to be feminist in the way we need to be feminist without insisting that everybody’s feminism has to be the same. So Beyoncé’s way of expressing her feminism reaches a totally different audience than the way bell hooks expresses her feminism. They’re not oppositional. They’re along a continuum.
“Feminism,” Ross adds, “is whether you believe in ending women’s oppression, defeating the patriarchy and making sure that women are empowered to live the best lives they can live. That’s what brings us all together, even if we have different pathways to getting there. That’s why we need calling-in practices. “If we don’t create a culture of interdependence and caring as a feminist value,” she concludes, “then we can’t create the kind of world that we want.”