Calling In Call-Out Culture

As we all know, Amherst is one of the most diverse college campuses in the nation in terms of race, class and geographic makeup. With these demographic changes have come cultural changes as well — an understanding that identity profoundly shapes the way we navigate our lives, at Amherst and beyond, and the acknowledgment that we need to be sensitive when discussing these identities. This culture shift has accompanied by various movements, ranging from campus-based ones like Amherst Uprising, to national like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. In thinking critically about this discourse, we want to consider the benefits and downfalls of call-out culture. Calling out is the practice of publicly condemning an individual for saying something racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, classist, etc. At a historically-white, historically-male institution like Amherst, calling out these sentiments can be an empowering process for students of marginalized identities — a clear signal to peers that yes, I belong here as much as you do, and I have the right to be treated with respect. This type of vigilance can be a crucial coping-mechanism for students who continue to feel uncomfortable at Amherst. But when does call-out culture cease to be productive and turn toxic instead?

All too often, we enjoy the act of calling each other out — seeing that our peers are wrong and that we are right. Perhaps this attitude is a continuation of the competitive interactions that we participate in in the classroom and at sports games. Unfortunately, the habit of calling out often only inflames situations and creates divisions, rather than provoking critical and thorough discussion. Issues of identity are highly personal for people, contingent on the ways in which they have been socialized from a young age. Call-out culture often triggers a feeling of being attacked based on these backgrounds, rather than creating productive conversations. Furthermore, call-out culture is often temporary and immediate; we love to tell our peers off in Val or Frost, but how many times do we follow up and try to discuss the conflict?

Another difficulty with call-out culture is that it creates false and limiting binaries. The called-out student is condemned as sexist, for example, while the one who calls out is positioned as morally superior, the expert on forms of oppression and free from any criticism themselves. It’s enticing; calling someone else out simultaneously draws the critical focus to someone else and makes you the “woke” one. You are the hero of the story, able to call out other people’s missteps, while never turning that critical gaze back on yourself. But the truth is, we all hold multiple identities, and with them, multiple privileges and points of oppression. We have all, at some point, said something insensitive and ignorant. We have all been ill-informed. We have all hurt and offended people. We have all even harbored hurtful and offensive ideas about others. And to be a vigilante caller-outer without acknowledging that is just as problematic as what you’re calling out.

It is difficult to facilitate discourse around identity, especially with people we care about like friends, family, professors and college staff. The solution is not to stop calling out offensive things that are said. But we should stop placing ourselves in a morally superior position. We are not better people because, after several years of Amherst education, we are more well-versed in the social and political language to describe and discuss identities than a first year. We must be mindful about the identities that we ourselves hold, and the positions of power (or lack thereof) that come from who we are. It is in this mindfulness that we will find the precision, sensitivity and care for others that are necessary to hold meaningful and productive conversations with our peers on campus.