Why Didn’t They Talk To You Privately? On “Call Out Culture” and Power Differentials

Header Image: “The 95 Twee-ses” by Annalee.So you’ve been called out. You are baffled. Shocked. Why would someone shame you in public like that? It isn’t fair! If they’d talked to you privately, this wouldn’t have happened! How dare they?

Among people who’ve been criticized in public, this is a common refrain. Maybe they acknowledge that they caused harm or maybe they don’t, but the real issue they’re focused on is that they’ve been treated unfairly. The internet dropped on their head without any warning.

They want to know why no one took them aside to explain what they’ve done wrong and to give them a chance to fix it. Don’t they deserve the benefit of the doubt?

Many of the people I’ve seen doing this are being disingenuous and deserve every ounce of scorn they get for pretending they didn’t know better. But I’d like to address the folks who honestly do not understand why they’re getting called out in public instead of being quietly asked to address the issue.

Why didn’t they talk to you privately? Most likely, for one or more of the following reasons.

They did, and you didn’t listen.

When someone comes forward with allegations that a powerful person is abusive, it often comes out that they’ve abused other people before. Attempts have been made to handle the situation quietly. Reports have been filed. Nothing has changed.

We saw this in the science fiction community with Jim Frenkel, a former editor for a major publishing house. When Elise Matthesen and Mary Robinette Kowal went public about the fact that he’d harassed Matthesen, other people came forward with stories that stretched back years. Some of those people had reported him, only to see their reports swept under the rug.

The same thing happened with Bill Cosby. Women had been reporting his sexual assaults since the 1980s, and his behavior was a public secret in the industry. But he wasn’t charged for any of these crimes until 2015–just before the statute of limitations expired on an assault that had been reported ten years earlier. Once he was charged, dozens more women stepped forward. After decades of abusing his power and celebrity, he’s finally being held accountable–because he was publicly shamed.

Before the tickets went up in price for this year’s World Fantasy Con, several people emailed the con to inquire about an accessibility policy. Past World Fantasy Cons have had serious accessibility issues, and folks wanted to be sure they and their friends would be treated with respect and dignity. When the con didn’t respond to emails, folks took to the convention’s closed facebook group to urge the convention to post a policy before the rate hike kicked in. After private requests failed to produce results, Jason Sanford called them out.

Callout culture? It’s usually more like “ignore marginalized people and their allies until influencing public opinion is their only recourse” culture.

They don’t trust you.

If you’re accustomed to being given the benefit of the doubt, it can be baffling–even insulting–when someone doesn’t extend it to you. The benefit of the doubt may be so normal to you that you consider it basic manners.

Marginalized people don’t generally get to take the benefit of the doubt for granted. It is rarely extended to us, especially when we’re in conflict with someone who has more privilege than us. We are used to having our motives, our integrity, and our very perception of reality questioned. Constantly.

Asking someone to settle issues with you privately isn’t just asking them to help you save face. It’s asking them to trust that you’ll treat them with respect and dignity, and take their concerns seriously. That you won’t gaslight them, or promise to change only to hurt them again. You’re asking them to have this trust while at the same time refusing to put up your reputation as collateral.

When it comes to these conversations, their collateral is the harm you’re causing them. They can’t keep their skin out of the game–even though speaking up for themselves could have serious personal or professional consequences–because they don’t have the privilege of walking away from that harm. You do.

Under those circumstances, refusing to take on greater personal risk just to insulate you from the consequences of your actions is basic common sense.

They’re afraid of you.

Getting blackballed is one big risk of speaking up against people with power. If you’re in a position to help or hurt someone’s career (say, by inviting them to be on panels at your con, or by losing all their submissions to your magazine), they may be afraid to contact you privately. In addition to not working with them yourself, you have the power to pass the word to your colleagues that they’re bad news. Calling you out in public is a way for them to get out in front of that by giving people access to their side of the story.

You might think that sounds ridiculous. Maybe you would never try to blackball someone over a disagreement, or you couldn’t if you tried. But people who don’t trust you have no reason to believe that. They’re going to do what feels safest and most comfortable for them. That might be calling you out in public.

When you refuse to engage with their concerns and focus instead on your hurt feelings about being called out, you are affirming to them–and to the public–that you prioritize your convenience and comfort over other people’s safety.

They don’t want to talk to you.

When asking people to speak to you privately, you’re assuming their main goal is conflict resolution. They must be calling you out because they want something, like an apology or a change in policy.

But there’s a strong possibility that you don’t have anything they want. If you’ve done something particularly heinous, or you have a longstanding pattern of bad behavior and have refused to change even after people have spoken to you about it, then naming your behavior in public may be about warning others that you’re dangerous, or using you as an example of how not to behave.

You might think it’s unfair that people are damaging your reputation instead of treating you as ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ But the world is not a court of law. People get to decide who to like or trust on their own terms. One of the consequences of behaving badly is that people might not like or trust you.

You’re asking the wrong question.

Asking why people didn’t speak to you privately is centering yourself in the conversation–treating yourself and your wish to save face as the most important issue at hand. If you want to be the kind of person to whom people speak privately, you’ve got to cede the floor. Instead of asking why they approached their grievance the way they did, ask what you can do to make it right. Be prepared for the answer to be “nothing” or “leave me alone,” and if that’s the answer you get, respect it.

If you don’t understand why people are upset, try to figure it out for yourself before asking them to educate you. Google any unfamiliar terms they’re using. Read what people are saying about your behavior–and try your best to take your ego out of it. If necessary, ask a level-headed friend to read through what folks are saying and summarize it for you.

Once you understand, apologize and mean it. Don’t be sorry “if people were offended.” You know they were. They told you so. Instead, be sorry that you hurt them. Take responsibility. Say a few words about how you plan to avoid doing it again. If you do all your homework and still don’t understand, you can still acknowledge that people are hurt and angry. You can tell them you’re sorry you caused them harm, and that you’re going to keep listening and trying to understand.

You can do all this and still get called out in public. Working to be trustworthy isn’t a guarantee that everyone will trust you. But if it happens, the very best thing you can do for your reputation is to try to look at the situation from their perspective, acknowledge the harm you’ve caused, and apologize.

If you choose instead to double down and refuse to admit fault because they should have aired their grievance privately, then congratulations. You’ve made yourself look like a jackass in public.

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