This Simple Technique Could End Toxic Call-Out Culture Forever

A group of people talking in front of a computer

There are so many varying opinions on the current state of call out culture in online activist spaces that the standard discourse on it can be hard to escape.

On one side, people think that call outs are always necessary. The folks that argue this position prioritize harm reduction and ending oppressive behaviors at any cost.

The other position decries call out culture as inherently toxic, where people are mostly performing activism for their followers instead of striving for any substantive change.

But what if activists incorporated a third approach?

What’s a call in?

In a 2013 piece for Black Girl Dangerous, writer Ngoc Loan Tran coined the term “calling in” for a technique that serves as an alternative to “call outs”. Call ins involve reaching out privately to someone engaging in oppressive behavior and explaining why it’s harmful and should stop.

This is a tactic I see used privately among more experienced activists who have seen the endless harm loops of call out culture, but it feels like most people view call outs as such a powerful tool that they often ignore any other potential approaches.

Activist and writer Asam Ahmad described “call ins” as follows: “Calling in means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.”

The idea of calling in is to create a private learning environment where, instead of getting publicly called out, individuals can be pulled aside and walked through why their behavior was problematic or oppressive.

This approach allows people to learn without feeling singled out or publicly embarrassed.

Instead of a call out — which may attract unintended harm like social media dog piles or wrecked reputations — call ins offer the path of quiet harm reduction for smaller or unintended oppressions or problematic language.

In an interview with Everyday Feminism, Ngoc Loan describes why call ins can be so effective, “[Call ins] address the harm caused without invalidating our own responses to being hurt and without erasing someone else’s humanity, which in turn keeps our humanity intact.”

When Should Call Ins Be Used?

It’s important to understand that call ins shouldn’t be thought of as a wholesale replacement for call outs or call out culture as a whole. It’s not a binary choice.

Some situations require call outs while others might be able to get solved with call ins. Deciding when to use each is key.

Knowing your target’s personality is a key factor in play. In a 2015 piece for Everyday Feminism, Sian Ferguson notes that call ins are especially effective for certain folks — “people who are shy, new to social justice activism, or easily hurt, receive messages better when they’re sent gently.”

Additionally, call ins require significant emotional labor, though it should be noted that getting caught in the middle of a call and resulting backlash require just as much, if not more effort.

Call outs are rarely clean and can have devastating effects, for marginalized people especially, so any opportunity to lessen the negative effects of call out culture should be embraced by activists everywhere.

Call ins aren’t automatically effective — the person on the receiving end must be open and willing to improve themselves in order for it to work. Without mutual agreement and cooperation, call ins will likely fail, just as call outs sometimes work well and sometimes spiral out of control.

Ngoc Loan, again, relates it back to finding the right balance: “The question is, how do we live our best selves and model the possibilities of a world where harm happens and can be corrected and change?”

With call outs remaining the preferred method for attacking oppression among most activists, it can lead to an erosion of trust and a sense of common purpose within social justice circles. Incorporating call ins would go just a little ways towards creating a more cohesive community.

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At the end of the day, a movement needs mutual trust — something that seems to be slipping away in modern activism.

Call ins are just a small tactic but could make a big difference in changing toxic call out culture by recognizing each other’s humanity.

Everyone has caused harm in the past, or will in the future, we’re all infallible humans. For Ngoc Loan, it’s this human spirit and the resulting interpersonal connections which must be the basis of our activism:

If causing harm [was] the basis for whether or not we maintain community with each other instead of our humanity, our dignity, our aptitude for change, and our belief in a radically different and better world, we’d have no community.

So, next time you type out that call out post or tweet, try pausing before hitting send. Again, some call outs are necessary — like when alerting people to a potentially harmful person in your spaces and holding someone accountable — but they shouldn’t be the only tool in the toolbox.

Next time, if a situation warrants, try sliding into their DMs and personally walking them through their harm. Try a call in.

Katelyn Burns is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. Katelyn is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She has previous bylines for The Washington Post, The Establishment, and VICE, among others. She lives in Maine with her two young children.