Recently my attention was drawn to a piece, “Developing a Better Call-Out Culture“, that discusses call-out culture (which Consent Culture certainly champions), and critiques some directions it can take. While I agree with the fundamental principle that we need to consider multiple approaches and multiple experiences while developing our responses to abusive situations, I feel that many of the things discussed within the article point, to me, to a greater need for call-out culture rather than a lesser need. The scope of my critique is too broad for one article, however, so I’m going to break it down into a few, namely:
- “We’ve All Been Abused & We’ve All Been Abusers”
– Shunning- The Cons, and the Pros
– On Accountability and the “People Change” Approach
– Personal Ownership Within Consent Culture
– The Political Nature of Forgiveness Narratives
These will, of course, take a while to write, because they’re difficult subjects and pretty triggering, but I think that they all make up pieces of a whole that’re important to address (and really, I think it’s important to note that author of the original article, Queste Desmarais, is raising some great and important questions- she’s just summarized in one place so many arguments that end up used against *any* call-out culture that it’s a good launch point). I consider this a fluid piece, in that I am hoping to have a discussion and keep developing this as I go. I am not an expert, by any means, and I don’t have everything figured out! Critiques are welcome, and encouraged. Let’s keep developing this consent culture thing bigger, better, stronger.
We live in a truly fucked up culture. It’s filled to the brim with institutionalized violence and abusive behaviour, and it normalizes both of these things to an extent that we often don’t even recognize the myriad, intersectional ways it’s going on. Our media normalizes microaggressions, encourages trolling, waxes poetic about online bullying while simultaneously riling up flame wars in comments sections.
So I can understand why someone would say “we’ve all been abused and we’ve all been abusers”, and feel that it’s an accurate statement. If, when we say “abuse”, we mean everything from insulting people to physical assault, there’s a lot of ground that gets covered. And yes, I agree that we are all exposed to abusive behaviour, even recipients of it, and we are all likely to have engaged in those abusive behaviours ourselves at some point. In fact I think it’s incredibly necessary for us as activists working towards a culture of consent to reflect on how we personally have been impacted by being on both sides of abusive behaviour, perhaps within the same interaction. It’s not simple, or binary, a good amount of the time.
But I have to critique the way that the “we’re all abused and all abusers” seems to come up as a response, often towards marginalized people as a way to silence their very real pain. We are not all abused, or abusers, at the same rate. Privilege, access, agency- these things lend a hand in who ends up enabled and who ends up blamed, in who feels like they can call the police and thus often be considered “legitimate” in their experience of abuse. Who gets to call abuse out, and who doesn’t, who gets away with being abusive and who doesn’t, this is entwined with systems of power and the dynamics within those systems. Race and abuse is one such example:
Another major concern connected to racism and domestic violence is the status of the African-American man within the United States. Unfortunately, African- American victims of abuse receive the message that to report abuse by an African-American man is to feed the stereotype of African-American men as violent. Research, which the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence relies on from 1998, concluded that an African-American woman was more likely to feel protective of her abuser than a white woman. The reason for this reaction is a manifestation of the effects of discrimination and the “hard times” the African-American male has faced in the United States. Some African-American women feel that incidents of violence against African-American women by African-American men should not be reported because “they would be putting another ‘brother’ in prison.” Furthermore, the image of the “strong black woman” is forced on African-American women by each other in an attempt to defend ignoring the violence, because this violence has happened before and they should just go on with life as women have before.
The African-American female feels an obligation to support and assist her male counterpart emotionally in order to preserve the family. The reality is that “police brutality and blatant racism in the criminal justice system” exist, and when an African-American victim reports the abuse she is not only reporting abuse, but she is subjecting the abuser to the biased system. The choice for African-American women is not just whether to stay with the abuser, but whether to make a decision that may, on the surface, look to others in the community as selfish. If she reports the abuse, and the batterer is arrested, she does take the chance that the batterer will experience racism by the police or within the legal system. The victim is forced to make a choice between the violence she experiences and the racism that her batterer may experience. Racism, when considered a more serious problem, can keep African-American women from trying to end the violence.
-The Effect of Racism on Domestic Violence Resources, Lisa M. Martinson
I could point to examples where one partner is a sex worker, or is queer, or is trans*, or has mental health issues. If one partner has institutionalized support in ways the other does not have access to, this can of course create an imbalance of power. Call-out culture can sometimes be a vital possibility when the justice system will be stacked against you.
I think back to another movement with a patriarchy problem — the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society I joined as an undergraduate. While we mocked the old sexist slogan from the Vietnam War era — “Girls say yes to boys who say no” — implicitly congratulating ourselves on how far we had come, the group lacked a framework for examining gender dynamics. We were hindered by white male dominance; women felt their opinions were not valued. When we formed a women’s caucus, we discovered that one of the group’s most dominant and charismatic men had abused or sexually coerced several women in the group. Lacking another model to address his behavior — and prioritizing our own emotional safety — we asked him to leave.
One in three women in the United States in both queer and straight relationships reports domestic abuse in her lifetime (27). Activists are no different. Patriarchy and violence surface regularly among activists on the Left — even, and perhaps especially, among those who fancy themselves liberated from all oppressive tendencies. Abusive behavior among activists traumatizes individual survivors and, if left unchecked, can poison social movements. Those abused by fellow activists may find themselves with nowhere to turn if the community fails them by siding with their abuser…
…It was inspiring to see the commitment of the Chrysalis Collective and the other groups featured in the book to a process that, under the best of circumstances, supports the healing of a single survivor and changes the outlook of a single abuser. This is one vision for creating a world without abuse; if each survivor and each abuser is surrounded by friends and allies, with the support they need to heal and change, we may — slowly, steadily — build the framework for a better world. This and other stories in the book left me marveling at what a privilege it can be to have a community strong enough to support the profound processes of healing and accountability. The task of establishing these communities when so many survivors never even feel empowered to speak about their abuse is a daunting concept, but a beautiful one. I also wondered how this model could ever spread to survivors who are not members of activist communities, or to those who have been isolated by abuse, or by racial, class, immigrant or sexual identity, or other circumstances, and who do not have a community to support them. The issue of child abuse is also not addressed directly by this book, although at least one essay mentions abuse involving young people. Perhaps these are topics for future books.
One of this book’s many takeaway messages is about deconstructing the victim/abuser dichotomy, in part by acknowledging that those who are being abused may react abusively to their circumstances. While the mainstream domestic violence movement makes demons of abusers and heroes of survivors, embracing incarceration as the solution, contributor Shannon Perez-Darby in her essay “The Secret Joy of Accountability: Self-accountability as a Building Block for Change,” shows how this outlook renders abuse in activist communities invisible: “If survivors are perfect, then people who batter are evil monsters, barely human. This binary allows us to think of batterers as people who exist somewhere else, in fantasy and stories but not in our lives, communities, and homes” (101-102). Perez-Darby asks us to look inward and take responsibility for our decisions in order to begin the process of changing our communities (107). Examining our own abusive patterns may be one of the most difficult things we do as activists. It is also one of the most important.
-“Our Movements Suffer as We Do”: Ending Abuse in Activist Communities, “The Revolution Starts at Home“ reviewed by Amy Littlefield- emphasis mine
We can recognize, I think, that sometimes people who have histories of being abused then turn to abusing others, while still recognizing that abuse isn’t ok and deserves to be called out. We can recognize that sometimes people who have mental health issues abuse others and also recognize that people without mental health issues abuse others as well, and really while managing mental health may help stop abusive behaviour, it also might not be connected at all. We can recognize the way power dynamics empower some and disempower others while still believing in calling shit out. We can be imperfect, and humble, and still learning, and still not silent or complicit.
I’ve engaged in abusive behaviour, and I’ve been abused. I believe in call-out culture because without it I would have retreated entirely when my abusers didn’t acknowledge what they did as abuse. He would have succeeded in chasing me from my spaces simply through his denial, and other people’s support of that denial. And similarly, without a belief in call-out culture, I would not have any reason to discuss my own history of abusive behaviour, or any reason to confront it. I could just close my eyes and pretend it didn’t exist. That’s what society certainly seems to tell us to do, and I don’t see it helping- if we’re waiting for abusers to suddenly take accountability I suspect we’ll be waiting a long ass time. I refuse to wait years and have panic attacks in my own community in the meantime, continuing to make space for his self-discovery. We had a whole relationship of that.
I think that’s what my problem is, ultimately. When people have said to me “but we’re all abused and we’re all abusers”, it seems like it’s usually a silencing tactic (“so your experience is invalid, because you’ve probably been abusive before”), or it comes with a sense of hopelessness. Why do anything at all when we’re all caught in this struggle? Why call abuse out at all when we’ve all been abusive?
If anything, to me that speaks to *more* of a reason for call-out culture- if we are truly dedicated to accountability, to not silencing survivors, to taking a stand against violence, then we need to recognize it in ourselves, we need to name it in others, and we need to not be defensive when made aware of our own ownership that we’ve missed or ignored. I believe people can change, but I also believe that having other people know your history of red flags is one of the best ways to prevent you from repeating bad patterns. Yes, I think it’s worth asking if there are amends to be offered to those you’ve hurt, and understanding if the answer is that you can never be forgiven. Call-out culture doesn’t have to lack compassion, but it does have to embrace honesty in recognizing the problem and hard work to change it. I think the amusingly named “Ditch That Jerk” sums it up rather concisely- “(People) who don’t change are those who don’t assume any responsibility for who they are and what they do.”
One of the things I say a lot is that guilt is a wasted emotion. Either you’re changing the behaviour, in which case, why feel guilty, or you aren’t, in which case, why feel guilty? For me, this is about choices. We make uncomfortable choices all the time, ones that make us uncomfortable and ones that make other people uncomfortable. I wonder if we just try to pretend they aren’t choices we’re actively making, because god, that’s a lot nicer feeling. Ignorance certainly feels like bliss, even if it isn’t.