In its 2017 blog article ‘How call-out culture traumatizes us’, somatic artist-practitioner Tada Hozumi claims that call-out culture is inherently traumatizing for three main reasons.
As you probably guessed now, I wrote the current article because I would like to add new bullet points to this list.
One thing we know about abuse (but is often forgotten in activist circles) is that it does not just traumatizes the victims. Witnesses, caretakers and perpetrators might get traumatized too. Another thing we know is: the way you react to a potentially traumatic situation is an important factor in deciding how it will affect you in the future. Put those two things together, and you understand that, sometimes, the trauma caused by something done to you might get intertwined with the traumatic feelings you have about the harmful or abusive ways in which you reacted to it. This makes all of it harder to unpack and heal. An extreme but telling example is given in ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, in which psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk talks about one of its patient, an U.S. veteran, suffering from severe PTSD since the Vietnam War. Tom, as he is named in the book, had led his platoon into an ambush. Because of his bad decision, his men were decimated before his very eyes, including his best and only friend. The horrendous pain he was still feeling, years after that day, was mixed with the guilt and horror he felt about the truly atrocious ways in which he acted upon its rage and grief, the day after, on unrelated, innocent civilians. As van der Kolk sums it up:
Trauma, whether it is the result of something done to you or something you yourself have done, almost always makes it difficult to engage in intimate relationships. After you have experienced something so unspeakable, how do you learn to trust yourself or anyone else again?.. One of the hardest thing for traumatized people is to confront the way they behaved during a traumatic episode, whether it is objectively warranted (as in the commission of atrocities) or not (as in the case of a child who tries to placate her abuser)… It’s hard enough to face the suffering that had been inflicted by others, but deep down traumatized people are even more haunted by the shame they feel about what they themselves did or did not do under these circumstances.
I think you begin to guess my point. Of course, call-out in leftists spaces are no U.S. warfronts, and the level of violence involved is nowhere near the same. And, of course, people being called-out are usually not “unrelated, innocent civilians” like the victims of Tom’s frenzy. Nevertheless, call-out is a reaction to harm or trigger that is intentionally harmful. It is sometimes abusive (when, for example, it contain false or distorted informations, leverage positions of privilege, or attack not the acts of a person but what’s projected of their character), and usually may lead to abuse being perpetrated as a consequence. Even when they are made in an ethical manner, call-outs made in a call-out culture, because they are uncontained, may start or join campaigns of collective abuse or trigger institutional violence. This may traumatize the person called-out, of course, but also the person calling-out.
Moreover, call-out culture is insisting in saying that victims of abuse should not be expected to act with integrity, nor those acting in their name or on their behalf, and puts on the person called-out the blame for the harm done to them ([as we previously saw])](./accepting-consequences-cliche.html). This impedes the recognition of the abusive component of the call-out dynamic by those who participated in it, which subsequently slows the healing of everyone involved.
As we said, witnesses of abuse and caretakers might get traumatized too. And, by definition, call-outs are public events. They have to be directed to an audience.
Members of the audience might be traumatized by the call-out in itself (meaning, by the sudden exposition to public allegations of abuse directed towards someone they trust or who belong to their community). The person calling-out is usually not the only one who might get thrown out of their window of tolerance, release massive amounts of emotional energy and get subsequently retraumatized. Actually, a massively traumatized audience whose unhealed pain will get reactivated by the call-out, and who will be willing to fuse their traumatic energy with those of the victim, is an essential component of a call-out culture.
After the shock of the call-out itself, witnessing the way the person called-out is treated might be traumatizing, since it is, most of the time, witnessing abuse. Moreover, call-out culture punishes those voicing dissent with what happens in the wake of a call-out, which is a recipe for a lot of emotion unbottling. At least, it causes dissonance between the body, which feels threatened by the fact that collective abuse is perpetrated by the community towards one of its members, and the mind claiming that it makes it safe.
Not only the audience of call-outs has to bear witness to it, but they are usually asked to participate actively in it, which creates stress and, sometimes, pain, whether they choose to do so or not.
This one is not so much a new point as it is an extension of one made by Tada. In his article, he explains how the person called-out has no way to escape or defend themselves, and that this kind powerlessness is at the core of how traumatization happens. This is true, but things are actually even worse than that.
The defensive reactions of someone called-out are not merely ineffective, they actually elicit more violence towards them. The way they try to defend themselves is, in call-out culture, framed as more proof that they are bad, abusive, unrepentent, “lacking empathy towards their victims” and therefore deserving ostracism and violence. The defensive reactions of the person called-out are effectively turned against them, and that is way more damaging and traumatizing than if they had no effect whatsoever (which would already be enough to traumatize deeply). To protect themselves, the person called-out has to learn to turn off its defense mechanisms, to not try to defend themselves at all. In the words of the philosopher Elsa Dorlin, in What a body can do:
From the iron cage to certain modern and contemporary torture techniques, it is entirely possible to identify a common framework, a repertoire of techniques of power that can be distilled into the following adage: ‘the more you defend yourself, the more you’ll suffer, the more certain you are to die’. In certain circumstances, for certain bodies, to defend oneself is equivalent to dying from self-exhaustion: to put up a fight is to struggle in vain, to become defeated. Such an unhappy mechanics of action has implications at the level of political mythology (what will our resistance accomplish?), as well as for our representations of the world and of ourselves (if every effort to save myself only leads to my ruin, what can I do?)… There is no greater danger of death than situations like this, wherein our power of action becomes twisted into an autoimmune reflex… It is a matter of conducting certain subjects to annihilate themselves as subjects, arousing their power of action so as to provoke them to exercise it at their own peril. It is a matter of producing beings who, the more they defend themselves, the more damaged they become.
Finally, indivuals are not the only things able to suffer from trauma. We can paint relationships, groups, networks, families, institutions, generations, peoples… as traumatized too. And that is another world entirely. I will let this observation rests for now, since I don’t feel able to cover extensively, for now, how call-out culture traumatizes us collectively, as it does individually. Let’s say it will be for another time, or another writer.
In the meantime, I hope my work will help you find healing for the call-outs in which you have been involved, no matter the role you had in it.