Call-Out Culture and Learned Helplessness

A group of girls, standing outside, bullying a young adult woman by calling her out.
Call-out culture and passive acceptance of abuse are two sides of the same coin. Call-outs are often dogpiling exercises that eschew nuance, expecting everyone to have the same level of knowledge, experience, and “correct” word usage.
Passive acceptance of abuse is social pressure causing an admission that you are always in the wrong if you are called out.
This allows for abusive leverage of power to take place as call-out culture becomes a tool of abusers with a marginalized label. They target those who “make excuses” for their behavior, which conveniently denies the intersectional marginalization of those who have even less privilege in a given activist space.
To be clear, I am not referring to those who are “sealioning,” or making excuses for being genuinely hateful people. I am referring to the tendency to assume any pushback to a call-out automatically means a person is hateful or bigoted.

Marginalized Privilege

After spending the past twenty years in activist spaces, on the fringes of society in various ways, I have seen these patterns emerge again and again.
It is the more privileged people within any marginalized label who get the voice. It is those who seize power and control via their continued privileges who often become the spokespeople of a given minority group.
This is clear within the LGBTQIA+ community, where white gay males following all other cisnormative and heteronormative baselines are incessantly the most visible and accepted voice.
At the same time, many actively engage in racism, ageism, sexism, body shaming, ableism, and various other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and hatred. Autistic communities display similar truths, where white cisgender male speakers get the largest voice while also having some of the most toxic, unpacked assumptions.

Bumping Boundaries, Mending Mentalities

The truth is that a lot of marginalized communities are traumatized because of interpersonal trauma (from harm, abuse, or familial rejection) or social trauma (due to systemic injustices). This leads to difficulties in setting and enforcing boundaries in healthy ways. It also means that social justice communities can be just as toxic in overreaction and polarized all-or-nothing thinking.
The refusal to acknowledge nuance and exceptions leads to dogpiling and call-out culture abuses, causing folks to have trauma responses. They freeze and refuse to help themselves or others; they fear the social repercussions of disagreeing with the most aggressive and vocal members of a group. Due to scarcity mentalities (“these are the only people who will accept me”), people stay in the communities because they see no other alternative.
There are ways to mitigate this through the teaching of healthy boundaries and through education and trauma-informed approaches to community organizing. There are ways to help make our activist spaces safer, more intersectional, and more relevant to the people who most need that activism to help them survive.

Calling Out Calling-Out

Call-out culture needs to be called out because it has become a tool of the oppressor rather than a tool of the marginalized. Those of us who are multiply-marginalized need to work on our healing and our boundaries as well. We can be better together, but we first have to recognize the tools that are perpetuating our own marginalization and acknowledge how toxic some of the supposedly-progressive spaces really are.
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9 Responses

  1. Puzzled how you perceive men as dominant in the autistic scene, when a very prominent call-out oppression at present is radical feminists and MeToo treating men as always guilty by accusation.

    1. Yes, Maurice from SpectrumFairness,

      I too see the radical feminists [trans exlcusionary ones in particular] in fandom and indeed in activist culture like ItinerantMystic is talking about.

      That scarcity mindset really does connect callout culture and learnt helplessness, doesn’t it?

      And some of it does seem like #whataboutthemenz …

      [even people who I would consider “nature’s gentlemen” get into it/are caught up in it].

      And that whole guilty by association – though accusation is something rather stronger.

      Sealioning = people flopping about on the ideological beach?

      “Passive acceptance of abuse is social pressure causing an admission that you are always in the wrong if you are called out.”

      And the learnt helplessness involved can be a refusal/ability to accept/admit you are wrong [or at least not as right as you thought you were/your experience told you] in front of the people who called out or are going to call you out.

      Rupi Kaur’s poems in the Rooting and Blooming sections of her second book are helpful in that regard.

      “This is clear within the LGBTQIA+ community, where white gay males following all other cisnormative and heteronormative baselines are incessantly the most visible and accepted voice.”

      That normativity really is buzzing and fizzing isn’t it?

      And the “Bumping Boundaries; Mending Mentalities” section was helpful. Very helpful.

    2. Men are given dominant voice over women and nonbinary people. White women are given voice over Black/AA women and NBPOC women. Cisgender people are given voice over Transgender/Nonbinary folks. This does not in any way deny that there are problematic people of all variant labels. But “whataboutism” asking about men when I’m discussing intersectional marginalization is derailing and uses the exact same power dynamics I highlight in my article.

      You claim #metoo is being unfair to men, as always guilty. As a survivor of multiple assaults and rapes, I’m going to give you a metaphor. If you get attacked by a vicious dog and then become afraid of dogs, it is seen as completely understandable that you are cautious around dogs. The dog in question is often put down for being violent, and people are understanding that you’re traumatized. When you’re an assault survivor, you’re interrogated, degraded, told you asked for it. Society blames you, says you must be lying, and doesn’t do a single thing to actually hold the rapist accountable. If you’re afraid, you’re told how so many good guys are in the world and how you should give them a chance. Men claim that rape accusations ruin their careers yet it takes double digit accusations to get most of these men in power to even begin to have courts take the claims seriously. I’ve worked as a victim’s advocate for years: It isn’t the men who end up worse in these cases, it is the survivor who has to relive it and testify about it over and over and over, have their lives ripped apart and examined and still watch the police and then the courts do nothing to stop the one who assaulted them.

      To say that #metoo demonizes men unfairly denies the fact that men are not holding other men accountable. If the “good guys” in society are not actively working to hold other men accountable and call out the toxic crap they’re doing to other people, then they’re not as trustworthy as they like to think themselves. We see that complicity and spinning the wheel to hope we land on a guy who doesn’t assault us is a game that every woman who dates men ends up playing.

      To be clear, none of this denies the fact that people of all genders can be abusers. None of this denies that there are people who weaponize advocacy as a means of being abusive. However, to claim that the dominant powers are victim to the marginalized voices trying to hold them accountable is laughable. Accountability is not even beginning to happen and if men want to actually show how good they are, they’ll dismantle the abusive power structures that allow other men to get away with being abusers and rapists.

      1. Whataboutery is when you make a point for women without mentioning men and someone posts what about us. It is completely unjust to call whataboutery, a population group reacting to and having voice on things already said about themselves. Your article made a claim about men’s position in autistic society. That creates a democratic liberty to answer it.

        I knew an aspie man who had been anally raped at a party. I’m a survivor of molestation as teenage psychiatry treatment. I’m chair of an aspie local group that I brought back from near wiping out by a split, caused by a malicious accusation from a woman, and 3 men’s unscrupulous decision that ignoring its disproof and treating it as true was safest for themselves. In the process dumping + rejecting other vulnerable folks who had had relied-on support ties with them for years, and an old person who died soon after. You see how experiences like that teach men to be cautious of women ?

        Being cautious is good, and includes organising society cautiously against openings for crime. But being cautious does not include believing that any person should ever be assumed guilty by accusation or convicted on one word against another. Assault survivors should always be presumed true by the supports given to them away from the accused, at the same time as the accused gets the presumption of innocence.

        To call us dominant, now, fantasises out of the picture the oppression that toxic masculinity does to us too. How is it a dominant voice to stand not accepted by society including women, as having personal choice to do any of the following ridiculous long list of arbitrary things? With an assumption made about our sexual orientation, and seriously believed by many to follow logically? To wear skirts, tights, hair ribbons, high heels, tiaras, pink coats or trousers or watches, most forms of jewellery, very colourful outfits generally, make-up, eye shadow ? To paint nails, to style hair in artificial shapes, to carry one arbitrary type of small personal bag ? Not to follow one particular team sport ? No dominance in feel physically vulnerable and intimidated in social spaces dominated by your own gender, instead of having emotionally empathic supportive spaces with them. No  dominance in having a nigh suicide rate from disapproval of having or showing any sensitive and vulnerable emotions, getting asked to be ashamed of them, and having a high suicide rate as a result.

        1. I think I see where the miscommunication is happening: A dominant voice doesn’t mean that you aren’t marginalized in other ways. A cisgender heterosexual white man may be marginalized by being a survivor of abuse or rape. He may have mental illness or be impoverished. Dominant voice is simply the ability to have privilege of one kind over another group because general society values it more. In this case cisgender Autistic men do have a dominant voice over Autistic women but are marginalized for being Autistic and for whatever other traits they have that may cause them to diverge from the ideals of toxic masculinity or other social ideals.

          Autistic women are almost completely erased and Nonbinary and Trans Autistic individuals are often denied their identities entirely because of their neurotype and are marginalized by both cisgender Autistic folks as well as Neurotypical or Allistic Queer communities. Their voice is ignored when compared to that of cisgender Autistic men. The privilege granted by being male doesn’t deny all the other marginalization that the person experiences, That is where most people trip up on these discussions: It simply means that the suffering you endured was not endured because of the privileged status that gives one a dominant voice in societal stratification. For example: I’m white. I have endured huge amounts of marginalization on many different levels because of my given labels. However, not one time in my life have I suffered because I was white, even if individual people were suspicious of me because I was white. Men don’t suffer because they’re male, they suffer because toxic masculinity demands that they adhere to rigid rules of what “being a man” is. That can be reinforced by women who have internalized it, but it is demanded and reinforced most by other men. There are times when men truly are discriminated against because of that sexism: For example: Men are regularly discriminated against in family court hearings. Yet, this is based off the very sexist idea that women are caregivers and are not inclined to be abusers. That is a sexist idea: But it is one that actually hurts men at the same time as it reinforces strict gendered norms that are created and sustained primarily by men.

          Yes, men have a higher successful suicide rate because they often choose more violent methods that cannot be reversed. There is a huge toxic backlash there because men are not able to share their emotions. But it is not intersectional feminism that demands that men not share their emotions, it is the toxic masculinity that demands men “suck it up” and sexualizes all male/female interactions to the point that men cannot have female friends and cannot do anything emotional with his own friends without being ridiculed. Yes, men are vulnerable and men’s issues need to be addressed. I am firmly in support of accountability for all genders. But that takes recognizing that there are power differentials in place where certain people get more credibility, voice, and even dominant voice (when compared to others who have been marginalized for the same reason) in the world simply for having a specific label.

          1. Thani you for most of that seeing of both sides.
            If Men don’t suffer because they’re male, they suffer because toxic masculinity demands that they adhere to rigid rules of what “being a man” is. Then feminism has to define all wrongs to women that are social instead of bodily, as not being because they are female, and to separate being female from cultural ideas about femininity. It will still leave us one item of suffering because we are male, because ir’s bodily: the idea that folks who we have offended are entitled to assault us. Which puts fear into all unintellectual forms of social life.

          2. I would agree that it is the constructs of society that are being toxic. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a man or a woman. There is nothing inherently wrong with being feminine, masculine, a mix, or something else entirely. The issue comes when we start abusing one another because we don’t fit some social ideal. Men should not have to chop wood and be a muscled and burly guy who fixes cars to be considered valid. Women shouldn’t have to be petite, emotional, and care only about clothes and appearances. These ideas are patently absurd to assume all of humanity would fit into such a narrow view. Men should be as free to express their identities as women, to have as much fashion variance if they want it. Women should feel free to be as smart and scientific as they like. We should all honestly just stop being such jerks to one another and let people just do what they like as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights and freedoms of others.

  2. I wonder if it would be possible to assume the same about autistic people as we (I anyway) do about other minorities; that anyone in a group can say anything they like about what it means to them. (Personally I sometimes make mistakes about how literally something is supposed to be taken, so including phrases such as :’to me…’ might help).

    1. I agree, we get to define our own labels and existence as we experience it. I think it is important for people to have that freedom of expression and be able to label their own experiences accurately, regardless of what the dominant social ideal says “should be the case.” For example, I’m fine with people who prefer person-first language for themselves. I, however, am Autistic as I am not comfortable being a “person with Autism” like it is an accessory I can set down. The line, for me, is whether a person is telling another that they must use certain words for themselves.

      With my physical disabilities I occasionally will refer to myself as gimp or crip when I’m having a really rough day trying to be mobile. I would absolutely never use those words for anyone else, but I also wouldn’t want anyone telling me what I can and cannot say about my own experience and what words I can or cannot use for myself. But when social acceptability and callout culture is weaponized, we see exactly that: People use their privilege to tell minorities what they can and cannot say, particularly intersections of marginalization where two or more minority labels make a person have a unique experience of being multiply marginalized.

      I see it a lot in activist spaces where people “speak up for” a given group that they aren’t even a part of. A lot of activist “Mommy groups” of Autistic children do this where they force person-first language and yet constantly demean adults with autism as not being “enough like their child” to listen to them about harmful practices and therapies. They use their proximity to the marginalized group to viciously attack anyone they disagree with, but actively ignore the actual people in the marginalized group when they/we speak for ourselves.

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