Bad-Faith Justice: Ethics of the Call Out

First published on on 23rd February

A couple of years back – a week after she coined the slogan that would inspire an internet feminist revolution – Flavia Dzodan wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown dedicated to skewering the “toxic” nature of “the collective dance commonly known in blogging as the ‘call outs.’”  The problem with call-out culture, she wrote, is that it “has developed as a tool to legitimize aggression and rhetoric [sic] violence.”

For while, “[o]n the surface,” call-outs are  “seemingly positive” and “done ‘for good,’” they are not, she suggested, mere instruments of justice. Rather, they need to be understood in the context of a culture in thrall to the cruel theatre of reality television, as a “performative” spectacle of ritual blood-letting fashioned “for an audience” and intended “more often that not … to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a ‘better person’.”

This points towards a distinction that demands fuller reflection, not least since Michelle Goldberg’s piece on Twitter toxicity further fueled the increasingly internecine debate over the ethics and politics of the call-out. For while the call-out, as Dzodan notes, ‘seemingly’ aims at justice, there are some serious questions to be asked about the justice of its methods.

Call-outs claim to ‘do good.’ They are intended to educate, to shine a spotlight on injustice, by drawing attention to the fact that someone has said or done something (or not said and done something) that serves to support systemic inequality. And they do so by mobilising an explicitly political or social notion of justice – an understanding of justice as a matter of the equitable distribution of power, privilege, and possibility.

These words might sound abstract, but they’re not. They are the conditions of a successful human life. And as a feminist, and an anti-capitalist, they matter to me. In its own way, my experience of the world has made it clear enough that structural inequality is a thing, and that people’s possibilities are circumscribed by, often, multiple oppressions. I recognize that we are force-fed a high-fructose diet of media designed to make systemic domination appear as inevitable as rocks, and which usually reflects the interests, aspirations and assumptions of the people who have most power.

I accept that privilege is often invisible, and that, as a well-educated and mostly able-bodied white woman, the world bends around me in ways it does not for everyone. And I am convinced, therefore, that there are things I cannot see, and that when people with less power than me say that I – or women like me – have mis-spoken or misrepresented something, then we have a political responsibility to listen to them.

But I am unconvinced by much of call-out culture. And I struggle with it – as do many left-wing feminists – because I believe in much of the politics and yet have an abiding problem with the practice. Expressing this problem is fraught, freighted both with guilt, and with the suspicion that it is futile, that I am addressing an audience that will not hear.

For, as the response to Goldberg showed, criticism of call-out culture will be politically re-packaged in an instant.[1] The narrative[2] is, by now, well-rehearsed, and impervious: White feminism rejects intersectionality because privilege.  And this narrative is reiterated, reflexively, regardless of whether the criticism of the call-out is made by a white woman, or a gay WoC , or a trans WoC (who will be situated within a political discourse about white women or otherwise erased[3]).

This move is disingenuous. And it is disingenuous in a way that is indicative rather than incidental. Because the conflict over call-out culture is not about politics, it is about ethics.[4]

Justice is complex. It is both structural and particular, political and ethical – a matter of how adequately we, as a society, distribute possibilities but also the way I, as an individual, approach any given other. At a personal level ‘doing justice to someone’ involves adequate representation, in much the same sense that we talk of a picture ‘doing justice’ to a landscape.

The last century of French philosophy, informed by the dehumanizing cataclysm of the Holocaust, focused much of its attention on the ethical encounter. Expressed, for instance, in the figure of unconditional hospitality, the ideal of ethical justice is to approach an-other in complete openness, suspending all preconceptions about who they are and allowing them to appear entirely in their own terms. And while this is an impossible ideal, I think it is an inspiring one. It reminds us that when our interpretations are over-determined by our projections, we are, in ethical terms, not being just.

Clearly then, there is some tension between the openness of the ethical encounter and the insights of a structural analysis which considers political knowledge to be socially situated. How are we to marry the privileged position of ‘seeing from the margins’ with the ethical imperative to not impose a particular perspective upon a differently-situated other?

On the one hand, the intuition that when speaking truth to power, we are not required to genuflect before another’s self-understanding, is undoubtedly correct. Without it, radical analysis would be impossible, and we could all pack up our feminist bags and go home. But nonetheless, there is a meaningful distinction between the facts of what someone has said or done, and the interpretation of those facts. And to wade into the age-old debate on means and ends, acting in the interests of justice does not relieve you of the responsibility to act justly. Which is to say, in this instance, you still need to represent those you are critiquing fairly.

In the many months I’ve spent watching the feminist blogosphere and Twitter-space convulse with successive call-outs, I’ve noted two specific types of unjust representation:

1.  Misrepresenting what someone has said or done

This is difficult, because the person being criticized may not recognize the way their words or deeds are being characterized for reasons of social position – what with the invisibility of privilege. However, if I want to criticize Richard Dawkins for saying something stupid about chewing gum in an elevator, it is possible to parse ‘what he said’ from ‘why it is stupid.’ In an economy run on 140 characters, this distinction often gets collapsed, and very fast, an interpretation-posing-as-fact will be disseminated and assimilated as the truth about what a certain person did, and more often than not, what a certain person is (see point 2).

Additionally, I have, on several occasions seen the facts of what someone has said, or a particular sequence of events or exchanges, be concretely misrepresented to create a certain impression. If you think this is acceptable because you possess omniscient certainty that you are fighting the good fight, OK. But understand that not everyone agrees with you, and their concerns are not motivated only by the desire to dominate or silence. The belief that just ends are not served by unjust means is genuine, and not straightforwardly structurally distributed (regardless of what you’ve heard from a Slovenian philosopher with a taste for revolutionary violence and really sketchy views on women).


2. Attacking the person rather than the action

This is spectacularly common, and, I suspect, exacerbated by the rigid sediment of a structural analysis which collapses social identity and political position. From there, it’s a short walk to, ‘They said a fillintheblank-ist thing because people like them are fillintheblank-ists.”

But things are not that simple. We all live under conditions of structural domination. Every one of us has internalized views and assumptions that serve to perpetuate that system. That someone said something which represents, say, a damaging exclusion, doesn’t tell you they are a vile bigot in the essence of their being, or that they are a dues-paying agent of the kyriarchy.  And it is, at best, uncharitable to suggest that it does. And that goes doubly for extrapolating directing from a particular event to a totalizing dismissal ending in –phobe.[5]

Both these types of misrepresentation fall squarely under the rubric of ‘engaging in bad faith.’ It is true that intention isn’t magic. At least, it is true that whether I intended to say a fillintheblank-ist thing doesn’t determine whether it is fillintheblank-ist  (although it’s not clear that intensity of pile-on is what determines it either). But it is one thing to argue that a specific intention does not define a particular act, and quite another to refuse to credit the person you are addressing with good intention in general.

What concerns me is that the hand-waving of unjust representation takes place against a background assumption that certain people – by virtue of their (often reductively ascribed) social privilege and/or platform – are incapable of a genuine concern with justice[6], and as such, don’t deserve to be treated justly. Not only is this a bleak, and indeed, thoroughly neo-liberal,[7] view of human nature, it presents us with something of a paradox.

On the one hand, the call-out justifies itself by posing as an educative intervention performed in good faith. (And, just to be abundantly clear, I have seen examples where it is just that.) On the other, the tendency to misrepresent people, and invoke totalizing slurs – often accompanied by violent invective – suggests that there is, actually, no assumption of good faith on the part of the call-outers.

And, to return to our starting point, this raises a question about the call-out’s purported function. Because why on earth would you bother telling someone they have done something harmful, if you are proceeding from the assumptions that people-like-them don’t care about doing harm?

More than one answer presents itself, but Flavia Dzodan’s observations about performativity are pertinent to several of them. Yes, there are examples of good-faith call-outs which are genuinely intended to challenge or inform, but they are relatively rare. More often than not, the call-out is performed for an audience, and is undertaken for the benefit of the person or persons performing it.

As such, it may serve several functions. It demonstrates your political credentials, and (for many white women) launders your privilege. It raises your profile, and nets you allies and followers. It bestows the sweet sense of having-right on your side, of bravely battling against the massed forces of domination and injustice. And, perhaps above all – it’s a great way of dumping all your aggression, and usefully comes with a political narrative that exculpates you from taking any responsibility for that.

What has become known as the ‘tone argument’ is important here. As Katherine Cross[8]  has noted, the injunction against tone-policing derives from an important insight. People who experience oppression are angry, and their anger is both legitimate and politically important. Moreover, they are often subject to cultural stereotypes which serve to restrict their ability to assume and express that anger, and in the interests of justice, this needs to be resisted.

At some point however, the tone argument assumed a law-like status which, Cross writes, can “be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility” and contributes to what she beautifully describes as “a rapidly oxidizing corrosion” of political discourse.  The ethics of expressing anger are, indeed, challenging. On the one hand it is – often literally – vital, to affirm that anger is legitimate, and recognize that people’s wellbeing and survival depends on channeling it away from themselves and towards the structures of their oppression. But it doesn’t follow from this that every expression of legitimate anger is itself legitimate.

I may be – in fact, strike that, I am – both deeply affected by, and furious about, the levels of sexual coercion in this society. It is rage I’ve carried with me all my adult life. In my twenties it used to spill out, in sudden, inchoate, waves, directed at random men who made me feel disempowered in some way – sometimes by doing something as innocuous as adding a five-quid supplement to my train ticket. When I look back at those moments, I am forgiving of my anger, but that doesn’t mean it was OK to use a hapless train-conductor as a punching bag.

And it’s not OK for several reasons. It’s not OK because the person you are raging at is not the source of your oppression. Your oppression is systemic, and individuals are, at worst, symptoms, and indeed, frequently being used as proxies for that system. When a woman is expected to gracefully absorb a long stream of invective, she is being asked to do so, not as a person but as a cipher.

Because of a tweet, or a misplaced phrase, because she asked the wrong person the wrong question, or tried to defend someone, or said something flippant, or challenged the political point of one white-woman calling another white-woman ‘scum,’ she is summarily elected as the representative of an entire structure of domination. She is no longer herself, but today’s chosen instantiation of white-cis-liberal-middle-class-capitalist-colonial-ableist-whorephobic-(and probably, indeed, patriarchal)-supremacy. [9]

Not only is this monolithic system not actually a monolith – another representational error because it is also, well, intersecting – but deciding you are divine violence, and taking it upon yourself to deliver rhetorical punishment to someone on the basis that they are this system, is dehumanization and exemplary bad-faith. And the recent prevalence of tweets mocking women’s ‘sadfeelz’ and ‘White Tears’™ makes it pretty apparent that dehumanizing white feminist women because they have been deemed emissaries of evil is now considered at the very least acceptable, and indeed, by some, a thoroughgoing act of justice.

But people are not structures. They might say things that support structures, and they may well, often by accident rather than design, benefit from how those structures work. And that should, indeed, must, be incessantly critiqued. But individual people – with all their mess, and nuance, and strength, and vulnerability – are not structures. And even if left-wing-white-feminist women really were the best possible proxy for patriarchal-colonial-capitalist-white-supremacist domination, taking to Twitter to lob rhetorical Molotov cocktails at them is not smashing the kyriarchy, it’s being verbally violent to another person.

Unlike structures, which are implacable, and must be slowly, painfully, chipped away with constant, precise critique and concerted political effort, people can be very easily, and seriously, harmed by rhetorical violence. In 2011, this was something expressed well by Flavia Dzodan:

Human beings are complex creatures, not these receptacles of ‘good’ OR ‘evil.’ At once good in some aspects and gross in others. Simultaneously oppressed and oppressors. However, in this performative culture of blogging all this subtlety is obscured. You are either ‘one of the good guys’ or ‘you are the worst person ever.’ …I must question this dichotomy because call outs, and the modus operandi behind them, the pile-on, can potentially kill people. The most virulent call outs can exacerbate existing PTSD. They can drive a person to severe episodes of anxiety and/or depression, they can lead someone to feel isolated and suicidal. It is a toxic and destructive phenomenon.

And it is a “toxic and destructive phenomenon” that seems impossible to resist. As Dzodan noted, call-out culture is “insidious” because “who would dare to say something…when it is supposedly done against oppression?” As was evident from responses to the Goldberg piece, if the call-out is a tool of social justice, then anyone who questions it can only be concerned with strengthening the status quo. And so, shielded by this impervious defense, the call-out adopts a pose of ethical invulnerability, and is free to carry out its righteous work.

The flaw in this defense is, however, that while the call-out claims to work for justice, it is often, in itself, unjust. And while it styles itself an intervention aimed at education, and claims to have engaged its interlocutor in good faith, in many ways, as I have shown, this is a lie. The disquiet many feminists express towards the call out, is animated, not by their desire to keep a grip on power, but by their frustration at repeatedly engaging in an environment pervaded by bad faith. And by the futility of trying to resist.

Because the call-out is a vicious circle. It selects its target as a proxy of ‘The Oppressor,’ and when its bad-faith overture is greeted as precisely what it is, it parades this lack of receptivity as evidence of the very pre-supposition with which it started. It is a snare. A game of ‘Gotcha!’ A way of whipping-up endless vortices of self-perpetuating outrage. It is poisonous, and corrosive, and damaging, both to individuals and to the very possibility of genuine political communication across our differences.

And what it isn’t – when it piles into an encounter, stoked by certainty and suppositions while dressed up, disingenuously, in the garb of good faith, careless, and indeed, often, reveling, in any harm that it might do – is an instrument of justice.

It isn’t doing any good.

[1] “When the powerful condemn the medium of a marginalised messenger, it is the messenger they are truly after…Few who see themselves as advocates for justice support the condemnation of those who use it to fight for their rights.”

[2] “Goldberg, on the other hand, through her work defending corporatized feminism, has a vested interest in gatekeeping. Now that the gatecrashers found a platform where they can be heard, her pushback was inevitable.”

[3] “whoops. mail, mirror, sun.. blah blah. papers that routinely pick on the most disadvantaged (read: minority). it’s your bread and butter, can’t have that challenged.” Comment on

[4] This erasure of ethics by politics is well illustrated in Kenzo Shibata’s response to Goldberg. She writes, “The real irony I read in her piece is that Goldberg, using her mainstream-ish platform, labels women without a major platform as “bullies.’ Bullying requires punching-down.” This argument relies on the conflation of oppression (structural/political) with bullying (interpersonal/ethical). It is not, by definition possible for a person with less structural power to oppress someone with more structural power – because the power determining their relation is systemic not personal, and cannot be changed within any given encounter, although it make be invoked or off-set. But structural power is not the only type of power. In an interpersonal encounter, power may also be distributed by the willingness or ability of one party to use some type of rhetorical, psychological or physical violence against another. This is what is involved in bullying and/or abuse. It may well be true that it is easier for people with more structural power to bully people with less structural power (as they then have both structural and interpersonal violence at their command), but it is not true that is impossible for someone with less structural power to bully someone with more. As Flavia Dzodan notes, “What is rarely pointed out is that a person can be at once oppressed and an abuser.” A far more honest way of having this conversation would be to ask the question, ‘is it politically justified for people with less structural power to invoke some form of interpersonal violence against people with more structural power?’ That is something we can talk – and may very well disagree – about. But to pretend there is no genuine ethical question here is a smokescreen.

[5] As a friend pointed out to me, the accusations of ‘whorephobia’ and ‘transphobia’ function as analogues of ‘homophobia’. That is, they are claims that someone’s position is entirely motivated by moral disgust, and that therefore, they, and their position, can be categorically dismissed. On the one hand, it is evident that moral disgust towards prostitutes and transgender people is a very real phenomenon, and is ethically and politically unacceptable. On the other, it is not true that ethical discussions about the possible harms of prostitution or gender-critical discussions within feminism are necessarily motivated by moral disgust. There are a number of major issues (sex work, porn, sex/gender to name the most significant) where feminists have good-faith disagreements. But to reduce such disagreements to an issue of ‘phobia’ relies on the conflation of moral disgust and ethical harm. (And to be utterly clear, I am in no way suggesting that a transgender identity is an ethical harm, or questioning people’s right to exist. What I am suggesting is that wanting to ask if the reification of gender represents a harm to some women can be distinguished from moral disgust. Which is to say that it is possible to ask that question in good faith.)

[6] The following caricatures effectively deny:

1) That women are oppressed as women 2) That women who are only (or predominantly) oppressed as women are capable of genuine compassion or concern for anyone other than themselves.

(Just think about that for a second. Not only is it pretty dubious feminism to think that an individual who is only oppressed as a woman, is not really very oppressed at all, and is necessarily self-serving, but it is massively self-defeating for feminists to adopt a model which decrees that, therefore, any woman who finds herself with the power to challenge injustice – and who is thus ‘privileged’ – should be immediately disqualified from exercising that power).

White feminists sit around daydreaming about their next campaign. They’re not fighting for basic recognition like the rest of us, they’re thinking of even sillier ways to assert their power and so they have the luxury of poking at the institutions to look as if they are doing something worthwhile. So we show them how bullshit their feminism is and how do they respond? Do they take on board our feelings about how we are being erased? Do they accept that there is a kyriarchal structure they personally maintain? Do they fuck. .

Sarah Ditum is on Twitter this morning, promoting herself, as she must, since what she sells is the wisdom of Sarah Ditum, to anyone who’ll pay for it… So, since Sarah’s opinons are the product she’s selling, and presumably tailoring to her market place, we can’t be sure they’re what she actually believes.

The B Classes of white feminism fighting tooth and nail for a place at the table. At our expense. With your writing commissions, the coins tossed in your direction by the men who own the media you so desperately want to be part of. And we pay the price of your success. You are not even good enough to be in charge…The fact that now you are low level media whores edited by people who would gladly throw you into the lions if it meant they can pocket the change is irrelevant for you. We are the bootstraps you pull in the hopes of raising to the top. And raise to the top you will. The top of a vat of turds floating in your own media shit. No ethics, no qualms, no compassion, no humanity.

The only explanation that makes any sense is that being a woman is the only oppression they face. Imagine growing up being told…that if you work hard… and follow Daddies* rules you will…achieve your dreams. Then you grow up and discover…you live in a society where women are paid less, where your work is appropriated by male collegues, where men treat you just like the sluts Daddy warned you about. “Its not fair” you scream…! / These are oppression of course… but if the only black spot in your life is that Daddy wouldn’t buy you a pony you come across more as Veruca Salt than fighter for social justice, which is precisely where white feminism is at right now…Like Veruca Salt these feminists can only see their personal oppressions and think that anything that has happened to them is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman. Daddy not buying that pony is a tragedy, because it is their tragedy.

[7] This is the end-point of a too-rigid application of identity politics. Yes, my social position and lived experience are likely to significantly inflect my political understanding, but it does not determine it. People are capable of acts of imagination and empathy, and only a social-Darwinist-come-neo-classical economist would seriously argue that all human beings act only out of brutal self-interest.

[8] I’m using Katherine Cross’s writing because it is by far the most developed analysis I have read of many of the problems with call-out culture. But I want to recognize that using it is not unproblematic – insofar as while my concern is with the mechanism of the call-out in general, I am also, given the position from which I experience it, particularly familiar with its role in the conflict between intersectional feminism – specifically as practiced by white women – and white feminism. Cross has rightly pointed out that responses to the Goldberg piece served to erase her contribution to the dialogue – which is particularly concerned with the corrosive effects of the call-out within her own community – and re-centre it again on issues of the conflict with white feminism. I am aware that I am doing something similar here, and my thoughts about that are mixed. Cross’s analysis expresses correctly the ethical problems with the call out, and I believe those ethical problems hold in almost all political situations (violence as a political instrument must be very carefully justified – for both state and non-state actors – and it is never justified to dehumanize in order to justify violence). My argument here is that there are serious questions about an unethical instrument of political justice which transcend one’s socio-political interests – because ethics is not reducible to a tool of domination. Elements of Cross’s published work support that argument, and so I have cited them. By so doing I do not want, however, to erase the fact that her political situation differs from mine, or suggest that she would support this analysis.

[9] The phrase ‘white feminism’ is generally used to signify, not simply feminism practiced by white women, but a feminism which is complicit with other existent structures of domination, as Reni Eddo-Lodge suggests here:

White feminism is usually conceived as concerned only with gains for middle-class white women, and has come to be typified by the type of corporate liberal feminism exemplified by Sheryl Sandberg. There is something to this. The problem with the term however, as suggested here , is that the framing allows for only two feminisms – intersectional’ and ‘white.’ Firstly, this is deeply ahistorical, and lumps together all previous (and existing) strands of feminist thought (Marxist, Radical, Psychoanalytic etc) with contemporary corporate feminism, and hence erases the work of the many feminist thinkers who were not rich white women, and/or were not concerned with promoting the interests of what is now called, with considerable imprecision, kyriarchy.

Secondly, anyone who criticizes the practices of IF and happens to be white, is deemed, by default, a ‘white feminist,’ without any knowledge of their social position or views. There is a totalitarian logic at work here: 1. People’s views are entirely determined by their social position. 2. IF represents ‘the oppressed’ and white feminism represents ‘the oppressor’. 3. Your social position can therefore be deduced from whether you espouse or criticize the beliefs and the practices of intersectional feminism 4. The best way to demonstrate you are not ‘the oppressor’ (perhaps the only way if you’re white) is to regularly denounce and attack people identified as being so. 5. If you think that’s kind of shitty, it’s because you are the oppressor.

Hence, by writing this piece, I become a de facto ‘white feminist’ – even though I am a Marxist-anarchist who thinks Sheryl Sandberg sucks. Indeed, as tends to be a problem with excessively rigid identity-politics, Twitter intersectionality functions with an incredibly reductive account of the relationship between social position and political principle (Marx, Engels, Lenin and Guevara were middle-class, people!), and also, a very reductive vision of its ‘other,’ having, as far as I can tell, no account of the mechanism of kyriarchy beyond amorphous ‘domination’. The fact of this imprecision, and the rapidity and vehemence with which the label ‘white feminist’ – and its homonyms – are dispensed, raises the suspicion that, as a political force, twitter feminism is above all animated by the impulse to expel negativity onto its other. For all its laudable political principles, in practice, intersectional feminism is as ‘you’re either with us or against us’ as neo-conservatism. It is, in many respects, simply its dialectical reversal – an anti-colonial totalization to neo-conservatism’s colonial one (and just because that’s not as bad doesn’t mean it’s good).


  1. Loved this. Though it took me all over the place it really made me think. I’ve always thought that unless someone says something , say, blatantly misogynist, *calling out* is not only unhelpful, it CAN be bullying,I citing as it does the other phenomenon ..the *pile-on*.
    And often says more about the person doing the *calling out* than the person they consider in error. Very often this is done by people wishing to raise their profile, and calling out a more prominent (journalist/politician/feminist…append as approprite) figure. For example..Suzanne Moore’s problematic(but in no way indicative of any prejudice) remark about *Brazilian Transsexuals*. Never mind the fact that the image she presented was entirely correct in the context of what she was trying to illustrate, this was seen as a de-facto act of transphobia. The fact that this storm was started by a much less established (also white, also *cis*) feminist journalist was , as I’ve opined, very telling.
    It also brings me to the question of *intersectionality*, this is a term used, very often against-Radical Feminsts-in an extremely reductive manner, which-to me- suggests that the person wielding the *intersectionality cosh*, has no understanding of the terms *Radical* or *intersectional*.
    I’ve been on the receiving end of snarks(by a very famous woman) regarding *Jesuit educated white feminists*… Which, this personality elided, meant I was – obviously- *sex positive*..*pomo* &*neo-liberal*and under 35.
    The only two accurate parts of that statement were, although she could not possibly have know at the time, are that I am white and I am Jesuit educated. However , the call out failed, as any understanding of Ignatian philosophy would quickly discount any notions of post modernism, neo liberalism , or indeed *sex positivity*.
    Now, this person clearly has no real understanding of the different *denominations*(for want of a better descriptor) of feminism, or indeed those of Catholocism, and very soon ceased that line of attack, when (I’m speculating) it became obvious(though I’m not sure how, she’s never no been known to abandon a line of attack before) her that she might be starting to look in error herself.
    I’m no angel. I know I’ve fallen into the *calling out* habit in the past.
    Nowadays? Not so much, why, I don’t want to look like an ignorant, reductive, lazy thinking bully.
    And thanks…this peice explained my misgivings perfectly.
    If however, I fall into *arsehat* mode-please free to issue a (gently-if that’s not oxymoronic) *call out*

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