How call-out culture traumatizes us

NOTE 1: This article was written in tandem with another article on how you can befriend call-outs. I recommend reading both pieces together.

NOTE 2: This article can possibly bring up strong emotions. I advise sitting down and do some grounding/meditating before you read it. As you read, I advise you take it in slow and track your body’s response. If you feel overwhelmed I recommend some soothing self-touch. It may even help to surround yourself with soft cushy things like a stuffed animal or a blanket.

Before I go into an analysis of the problems with call-out culture, I want to honor that calling-out as a practice comes from movements that felt called to speak up about the oppression that they experience. I do believe this has been, and continues to be a very important part of social change, no doubt.

What do I want to talk about how this practice of calling-out becomes problematic when it is normalized in our community as call-out culture.

So here we go.

Call-out culture describes attitudes in social justice community that creates an environment where there is: no limit or responsibility on the person calling-out, and no real accepted moral way for the person being called-out to do anything but accept what is happening because it may be considered gaslighting.

All over the internet, it seems like some people are finally fed up with the hyper-vigilant ways of social justice community.

Two viral articles in particular, Frances Lee’s “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists” and andi grace’s “power under abuse“, have seemed to capture the latent frustration that has been building.

Also, Molly Meehan, the Firebrand Witch, has written a piece that asks similar questions:

“It feels like we’ve taken aggressive social change strategies that have previously been used (often successfully) between someone(s) with less power against an institution or someone(s) with materially evident more power, and begun applying them to our person-to-person interactions within the social justice community.”

Responding to these concerns in the community, what I would like to do here is provide a simple ‘dissection’ of call-out culture from the standpoint of body-centered therapy and show the mechanisms by which it traumatizes us, both as the party calling-out and called-out.

Before I get into this exploration, I need to let you know that a critique of call-out culture is completely different from saying whether an individual incident of naming harm was right or wrong. Call-outs are not all created equal.

Some are deeply compassionate. Some are hard but transformative. Others are punitive, bullying and completely unethical. And there is a lot of grey area.

My point though is that the general climate of call-out culture encourages traumatization.

Also, I want to point out that a call-out being ‘deserved’, in the punitive sense, doesn’t mean it can’t be traumatizing for either party. We often talk about whether X person deserves a certain kind of treatment.

But the reality is that our nervous systems don’t care about whether a certain kind of treatment was appropriate or not.

This passage below is from my friend andi grace’s account of her experience in call-out culture:

“… even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent).”

This is a truth that might be incredibly difficult to sit with.

Even if such an understanding might seem dangerous though, we are called to sit in the discomfort and face our own demons as a community if we are to be responsible for our own actions.

How calling-out can re-traumatize us

One of the earliest mistakes psychotherapists made in working with trauma was to work outside of the Window of Tolerance and invite cathartic releases of emotion.

The Window of Tolerance (WOT) is an idea in somatic psychotherapy that shows the body has a comfort zone for arousal where it can integrate new learnings. Too activated (hyper-arousal) takes the body into fight or flight, and too deactivated (hypo-arousal) takes the body into freeze.

(You can read more about WOT here.)

This is why somatic psychotherapists of all kinds work with an approach called ‘titration‘, an idea formulated by Peter Levine, founder of Somatic Experiencing, that releases trauma gradually, kind of like slowly turning the lid of a shaken up soda bottle. This is done because, we set ourselves up for re-traumatization when we go outside of our WOT and have a strong emotional release of anger (fight) in an uncontained environment.

As you can see, the big problem with call-out culture is that it places no upper bounds on the emotions or actions of the person calling out, as it is seen as inappropriate to place such limitations on someone expressing a grievance from a place of privilege. This encourages a communal norm that sets up for people re-traumatizing themselves through cathartic emotional releases.

Furthermore, most call-outs are likely to be met with some aggravating resistance. This is natural because our call-out energy is going to unconsciously sensitize the other person’s survival reactions. If we are outside your WOT already, or close to being outside of it, this could send us into a re-traumatizing spiral.

We could argue that the person we are calling-out deserved the call-out and shouldn’t be allowed to resist, but really, this doesn’t matter.

Nervous systems can’t tell the difference between being called out for good reason or being attacked by someone and all of this happens unconsciously.

This is the reality.

When we start to take a look at how the nervous system actually works, punitive approaches to justice start to fall apart quickly.

On the difference between being triggering and harmed

Being triggered means some catalyst has triggered emotional energies stuck from trauma to activate. e.g. someone says something that feels unaware of gender dynamics and our body experiences it as a major threat.

Being harmed, for me in this case, means being hurt or even traumatized by what is actually happening. e.g. someone verbally assaults us and our body feels attacked.

Even though triggering and harming are related and sometimes experienced together, for example when we are assaulted and thereby triggered into re-living of past experiences, they are still different from each other.

While it can be subtle and complex at times, it is important to see this difference. The norms in call-out culture around triggering, and its conflation with harm, tends to justify massive amounts of cathartic emotion to be unleashed, often causing re-traumatization of the person calling-out.

And connect to this, there is also the bigger question of whether we can be responsible for the emotions of others even if we have harmed, in the sense that every person’s healing journey is their own – trying to control someone’s emotional state by being responsible for or accountable to them can become covert control and abuse.

This is the place of discomfort I think we are called to sit in and feel through as a community and re-think what justice and accountability mean when we approach it through a trauma-informed lens.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that it could be very difficult for us to separate being triggered and harmed in the moment. It is the very nature of trauma that makes this confusing. Our bodies experience triggers as if the threat is really present. This is a tender place where agency and responsibility are in a delicate dance and deserves compassion from all.

How being called-out traumatizes us

Call-out culture creates the ideal environment for mass traumatization.

The main factor in being traumatized is having a feeling of no escape.

When our autonomic nervous system experiences threat but decides that there is no way to escape, it goes into freeze, shutting down our system into paralysis to endure harm or numb the pain of death. This locks emotional energies into the body and creates trauma.

The norm in social justice communities that: if someone calls you out, you must simply accept everything they say and do, or else risk more social ostracization, creates the ideal conditions for freeze.

This is how call-outs can deeply traumatize us.

And like I said, this is different from arguing if someones deserves X treatment in a punitive sense. I am just telling you what is true for the nervous system based on what I know.

Like in andi’s example, just because you rationally perceive that a call-out against you is legitimate doesn’t mean you aren’t going to be traumatized.

The two are different.

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Call-out culture is fundamentally dysfunctional and unethical

If all of this has been upsetting to your ideas about justice, I might suggest that we actually need to look at how justice works in our communities and ask ourselves is it really what we want.

Let’s be honest. Aren’t we really just reproducing a police state? Or even the witch-hunts?

And really, call-out culture is not compatible with intersectionality.

Call-out culture turns conversations in conflict into single-axis issues when there is no such thing as a single-axis moment in life. It cannot embody the kind of reciprocity, complexity, and presence that intersectionality calls us to.

And this is how it invites obscene amounts of lateral violence that traumatizes both the parties calling-out and the parties called out.

As you can see, call-out culture is a deeply ableist way of being and not compatible with oppression cessation whatsoever.

So why are we even defending it?

Reading all of this might have you feeling deep resistance to this idea. You might have participated in the above-mentioned calling-out behaviors. Or feel terrified of the anger bubbling up knowing that you suffered indignantly without being able to voice your pain.

I have certainly been on both sides. So I hear you and hold you with tenderness in all of the emotions you are experiencing.

But no matter how dangerous you might think this idea is, the autonomic nervous system is what it is.

And a social norm that doesn’t honor the reality of our bodies is fundamentally oppressive.

To change things around, I think there are a few things we can commit to in our daily practice of relating.

Like anything I write, please feel free to take what works for you and leave behind or re-evaluate what doesn’t feel like a good fit.

As the person who was triggered or has been harmed: Slow down. Commit to staying in your WOT by taking time and space to care for yourself. Take time to discern what approach to the situation is the best interest of your healing and well being. This is not just about staying open or being intentionally caring, it is about deep self-care in preventing situations where you re-traumatize yourself.

As the person who is receiving the grievance: Slow down. Commit to staying in your WOT by taking time and space to care for yourself. Stay open to the other and adjust behaviors but also discern what feels right to take in. Know the difference between validating someone’s emotions and collapsing yourself to their demands.

For further ideas:

  • This is a protcol I am experimenting with called ‘calling-to’, a body-centered way of naming an experience in a non-judgemental way and an alternative to calling-out/in.
  • I wrote this article on how to befriend call-outs.

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Interacting with dissent in healthy ways is absolutely crucial to operating a radical business or organization. If you would like to receive consultation on this subject, I can be reached at info(at)selfishactivist.com