By Sonali Kolhatkar for Yes! Media.
Broadcast version by Lily Bohlke for Commonwealth News Service reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration
Longtime activist and academic Loretta J. Ross is on a mission to “build a culture that invites people in, instead of pushing them out.” As she explains in a TED talk she gave earlier this year, she does this by teaching a course she’s named, “Calling In the Calling Out Culture in the Age of Trump.”
Ross has a long history of social-justice activism that includes fighting against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1990s, co-founding the reproductive justice group SisterSong, writing three books on reproductive rights, and most recently, teaching at Smith College as a visiting associate professor.
In a 2019 op-ed titled, “I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic,” Ross began by admitting, “Today’s call-out culture is so seductive, I often have to resist the overwhelming temptation to clap back at people on social media who get on my nerves.”
Ross’s op-ed was published in the midst of a raging debate over the manner in which public figures are held accountable-usually via social media-for offensive comments or positions. Conservatives in particular complained that “cancel culture” is antithetical to free speech.
The notion that cancel culture is dangerous has gained so much traction in mainstream discourse that the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan denounced it as “a Leftist Offensive.” British actor John Cleese recently announced a documentary series called “Cancel Me,” based on interviews with people who have been “canceled.” And a new Netflix series starring Sandra Oh called “The Chair” examines the pitfalls of a student-led cancellation of a white professor who casually used a Nazi salute in a classroom to illustrate fascism.
The current conservative fixation on cancel culture is part of an ongoing decades-long right-wing push back against “political correctness.” During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said in 2015 that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” Trump’s followers have gone on to rail against political correctness and cancel culture as an assertion of their right to free speech.
Pew Research Center’s latest poll on the issue of cancel culture highlighted a partisan split on the issue with conservatives tending to see it as punishment and liberals generally viewing it as a means of accountability. “Calling out,” or cancel culture, has been around for millennia. “The original cancellation was Alexander Hamilton getting killed in a duel,” Ross said in an interview about her course.
She asserted, “The right cynically uses the concept of being canceled in a very hypocritical way, because they’re the originators of the cancel culture.” But, according to Ross, “the problem that they have with it now is that the people who were formerly powerless can punch back.”
Ross sees power dynamics between the perpetrators and targets of cancel culture as a crucial part of the equation. Those power dynamics determine whether or not targeting people for offensive behavior or language amounts to a just take-down or dangerous mob mentality. Stand-up comedians like Dick Gregory, George Carlin and Chris Rock, who have been unafraid to engage in mockery, have known the difference between “punching up” toward power, versus “punching down” against the powerless.
Unlike the conservative argument against cancel culture that sees any infringement of the right to offend as an attack on free speech, Ross is more concerned about the tendency among some on the left to alienate one another rather than work together for justice. She worries that “cancel culture is toxic when the left overuses it and chooses it as the tool of first resort.”
She also worries about the related practice of using “trigger warnings” to alert people about material that might be traumatizing. “I can’t tell people what their traumas and triggers are, as I don’t have their lived experiences,” said Ross, who is a survivor of rape and incest. She addeds, “We can’t go around punishing people in the present for the trauma that was inflicted on us in the past.”
The practice of calling out people within social-justice movements predates contemporary social media-based public shaming. In white-dominated spaces in particular, people of color have often called out their ostensible allies for actions or words that feel dehumanizing. Sometimes this can lead to fractured movements and infighting between people who have a common goal. “In our pursuit of political purity, we’re alienating a lot of our allies, and we’re criticizing them for not being ‘woke’ enough,” said Ross.
To help teach her course, Ross recruited movement organizer Loan Tran, who became known for writing “Calling In: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” which went viral in 2013. Tran’s article ignited a critical conversation about handling internal conflict within social justice spaces.
Rather than calling out people for their offenses, Ross said, “I prefer ‘calling in’ which is achieving accountability with grace, love and respect as opposed to anger, shame and humiliation.” She maintained that, “the human rights movement is not a public therapy space. Its job is to end oppression.” Indeed, organizations and institutions are now offering guidance on internal accountability using calling in techniques.
Ross also teaches a six-week online course that mirrors the college-level course she teaches at Smith College but costs a fraction of the amount-part of an effort to make it as widely accessible as possible. Her goal, as per the class description, is “building solidarity to take on white supremacy across different experiences in race, class, and gender.”
Any friction within social-justice movements-whether for women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ communities, or immigrants-stands in the way of a unified response to the myriad injustices we face. Ross sees the creation of a calling in culture as critical to the work of building an effective human rights movement, “so that we don’t do work against racism in a homophobic way,” for example.
In addition to delving into ancient philosophies of conflict resolution such as Confucianism and Ubuntu, Ross’ course explores the idea of “democratic speech environments” on college campuses, which were first envisioned by two scholars at Hampshire College. Christopher M. Tinson, associate professor of Africana Studies and History, and Javiera Benavente, program director of the Ethics and the Common Good Project, wrote an article explaining DSEs as “sites of justice-seeking conversation and discourse,” which they hope “could be instrumental in shaping healthy, and vital, rather than toxic and indifferent, campus climates.”
The course gives students the chance to practice the skills they learn in what Ross calls “Calling In Learning Labs.” So far, the six-week course has been so successful that it’s in its sixth session within just one year.
Ross also offered specific techniques for calling in allies. As an illustration of how people who have a common goal of social justice can talk to one another when someone makes an offensive statement, Ross suggested asking questions like, “Can we practice when we’re together, you not saying those kinds of things?”
In using such an approach, she said, “you lead with love instead of anger.”