Came across a post on callout culture in my friends feed, and since I am in a writey state of mind, decided to do a longread on that: specifically - on being made nervous by callouts. So this is going to be a thread.

Full disclosure: I am one of those people who is skittish of the idea of "callout and public apology" - because folks with a former Soviet Background remember our own callout culture - or at least what the older generations tell us. Not adhering to the moral standards of the Party.

What we got to see first-hand is how this particular idea went wrong. Bringing up private morality for public judgement, bringing missteps into the light didn't make society more moral. It turned morality into a game, a rhetoric that had to be played, a kind of lip service where you needed to know the right words, and then it didn't matter how ethical you were. Morality became a vehicle for exercising power. The dragonslayers, with all of their good intentions, became the dragons.

So yes. I totally get all the people who are nervous around callout culture. The fear is simple: "this is supposed to be a system of justice. But what if it's not? What if it's just a cover for someone exercising power? What if they're going to target me - and I don't want to play that game all of my life just to be safe!"

The question is: how do I find out from the bottom of a system of justice that the top has become corrupt? Preferrably before I need to have contact with that system myself?

It's a legitimate question to ask of any system of justice, I think. Who watches the watchers? What steps can we, as participants in a community, take to ensure the people tasked with community safekeeping do not become tyrants themselves?

I do have a personal algorithm I use for that, and I think it might be useful for those who are afraid of being called out. But be aware: this is a long game, and it assumes you are participating in a community for months or years.

Overview of algorithm first, then reasoning. This algorithm assumes no one's life is on the line and there is no immediate threat to your livelyhood.

1. Stop whatever you're doing.
2. Shut up.
3. Apologize - especially if you think that you have done nothing wrong.
4. Withdraw from the situation.
5. Consult trusted advisors on your behavior.
6. Review past actions of person in power.

7. Meanwhile, make sure potentially leaving group won't hurt too much: find replacements for key reasons you are in that group at all.
8. Watch current actions of person in power.
9. Decide your course of action: whether you were right or wrong, whether the person in power made the correct call, whether they are abusing their position or not.

Reasoning: a situation when one is called out can be divided in the following logical branches. The first is whether your behavior is out of line with group standards, and the second is whether behavior is out of line with your own standards.

However, in all four possible branching paths stopping, shutting up and apologizing is beneficial. If you're out of line, then stopping and apologizing goes a long way to mend bridges. If they're out of line, they've just lost their main vector of attack.

So let's go through this case by case.

You're out of line by both your standards and the community's. Great! You don't do further damage and you've begun making amends.

You're not out of line by your standards, but you are by the community's. Great! You've defused the immediate situation and given yourself space to think on whether you want to stay in the community at all or whether it would be more beneficial to leave.

The next ones get tricky, because they're the ones where bad actors can begin to creep in. The community has nothing against you - a particular person does.

Here, the main reasoning is the same as in the second example. Declaw your opponent. Apologize - and take the time to figure out what's going on.

However, the actions afterwards are different. If the entire community thinks you've done wrong, then you're dealing with a choice of stay and compromise/make amends or leave, really.

Not quite so if you're suspecting one bad actor. If you've done nothing wrong by the community's standards, you've also probably been around long enough to have put significant effort into the community. You don't want to lose it because of a bad actor. Perhaps you're afraid that they're taking over or poisoning a community; perhaps you think they're trying to push out you personally. What then?

Then you SHUT UP AND STAY LOW WHILE YOU CONSIDER YOUR OPTIONS.

The worst thing you can do at this point is to go on a public crusade. Unless everyone else is absolutely done with this person already, all it does is give them legit reasons to displace you. Public crusades are for when you know what's going on, no earlier.

Back to behavior: there's several branches here again if you've done nothing wrong.

1. The cause is a one time thing, i.e., they've had a bad day and took it out on you. Issue is personal but not consistent.
2. Something you consistently do is not bad per se, but regularly pisses that person off and they have power. Issue is personal and consistent.
3. They think you *are* breaking the community's standards and are primarily acting because they must as custodians. You think they are wrong.

4. Finally, there is the option that the person in power is exercising power because they want to keep you under control. So basically - because they can and because you're a convenient target. Or because they want to cement thir position in the group at your expense. Basically, the perpetrator is a bad actor in the true sense of the word.

People. This is INCREDIBLY rare. The tl;dr reason is that usually people who are capable of this have bigger fish to fry.

Follow

It WILL be tempting to think they are trying to destroy your world and strip mine it for resources, if you'll permit me the turn of phrase. DON'T jump to it as your first conclusion unless there's other signs.

I repeat, most of the time this is NOT the case. People are MUCH more likely to be ticked off for unrelated reasons or genuinely believe they are in the right. But in the unlikely case it is, in fact, an emergency, you don't want to fight while out of position.

So, what to do?

1. If all signs point to them just having a bad day... Let it go. We can all use more kindness. When things have calmed down, give them feedback. Maybe in a week or two, not a day. Usually people will be grateful and you'll end up better than before.

This depends on how great their degree of responsibility is, of course. If their bad day nearly cost you a job, it's a whole other story. If they've had what feels like a bad decade - it's actually option number 2.

Option number 2 is tricky. The person may dislike you personally, or it may just be the way they are. In any case, you're not budging and neither are they.

Usually what happens is a "we don't invite those two people together" scenario. The group, if it can survive this way, holds separate events with separate people. But if the situation is such that you MUST continue to work together - behave impeccably. What this does is gain you the respect of everyone else, and loses respect for them.

The women reading this know this tactic. "Hold and hope that someone else brings them down for you and your hands are clean." It's not a pleasant tactic to resort to. It's not a sustainable tactic if you want to live a happy life. But it IS a solution if you need to temporarily work together and you want to come out of it holding your own.

The main thing to watch out for is the actor getting even angrier and doing something stupid. In some cases, this may get violent.

What is important to realise for option #2 is that IT DOESN'T MATTER if the person has it out for you personally or if they're just like that. That is NOT your problem. It's NOT your job to accomodate them. All you need to care about is your own life.

Keep your distance. Do whatever is in your power to minimize their impact on your activities in the community. Minimize interaction. Don't give them a foothold.

Eventually, the situation will tip one way or another. Prepare.

The burning question is: if they're being mean to you just because, can't you just kick them out? It's not fair to endure that!

Maybe, maybe not. Depends. But if we're talking about callouts, i.e. in this context someone watching and exaggerating your every word and doing it because they don't like you - then a quiet voice saying "I will have nothing to do with that person any more" is often more powerful than trying to out-shout them. But this, again, is a long game. It must be worthwhile.

Option number 3 is morally easy. You think they're wrong, they think they're right, they have nothing against you personally. Time to check in with the group and with outside trusted advisors and double-check both opinions. If you still think they're wrong after that, then make a judgment call on how much of a big deal the issue really is. If it's a small momentary lapse - disregard unless situation crops up again with you or others. Then bring out your arguments and be more prepared.

If you think that a) they're wrong; b) it may be a small thing, but may lead to/be a sign of bigger problems, then talk to others in the group who may be affected. Think of possible consequences and be as ready for them as possible.

If there are official complaint channels in the group, this is the time to use them. All the while, don't just toe the line of being civil to them - go out of your way to be. Don't try to get them back for doing their job. That just makes you the bad actor.

Option number 4 sucks even if you have power, because then the simplest and arguably best solution is not to play their games. Letting people draw out a conflict harms the community more than a short blow up. If someone is consistently behaving in a way that's harmful to the community by your judgment, first double check with the rest of the responsible parties if they really are. And if you, as the leaders, find there is a foul play - kick them out. No talking. No 'let me prove my point'. Out.

I say this as someone who has actually been on the receiving measure of this, once, if memory serves. And even though I think the community leader was wrong in his assessment, I concede that the solution to an unsustainable situation was correct. In the end, just like with point number two, it doesn't matter if the person you're dealing with thinks they're right. If you have given them the reasonable benefit of the doubt and you still cannot find and agreement, it is time to part ways.

If you're new in the community and don't have power - leave, unless you're some kind of thrill seeker or the cause is realy fucking important and there is no other way to get what you want. You haven't made connections, you're not in a good place to fight. You're probably going to put up with a lot of eating shit and might not have anything to show for it. I usually find it's best to find other people to work with if you see someone going on a power trip.

What not to do: do NOT try to rescue people. Trying to show people the error of their ways is a) presumptious, b) probably not going to work. You have no idea what situation they're in and why they're staying in the group.

If you must, provide a space for them to go when they get tired of bullshit. Provide other support - as long as they don't immediately feed it back into the group. Maybe talk to them about your observations ONCE. But don't go all white knight. You're not going to help.

If you're on about even footing power-wise, then the group either splits or there is a long, drawn-out fight. This is option number 2, again: behave impeccably while not letting them get one up on you. The second is more important than the first.

But I'm afraid that's where this algorithm ends. There just isn't one for a long fight. It depends entirely on your particular situation and what it looks like.

To repeat, this is my personal algorithm. It's gotten me acceptable results in my book.

@werekat a question i have about this kind of situation is when you *are* one of the "official channels" (a moderator or other authority) and you see repeated bad behavior, often in the form of problematic callouts, from members of the community, and receive complaints about them regularly

but the other moderators or such don't see this as a bad thing and even see the callouts as *desired* if perhaps sometimes too harsh

i have this situation in a community i moderate and i just... have no idea what to do

@werekat if i were a leader on the mod team, if it were my own community, these particular members would've been banned long ago

even by the *mod team's rules* they should've had dozens of strikes by now and been banned several times over

and yet, the majority of the other mods refuse to do anything or approve action against them, or even something like having anyone ask them to tone it down

@ky0ko That's basically "the community is wrong by your standards". It's a shitty situation to be in. In a case where there are multiple people complaining, most of the time it ends in a split of communities, because there are two sizable groups of people with very different takes on how a rule is to be interpreted.

In my experience, it comes down to whoever is mod lead. If you are not and want to fight a consensus, there is an option: "Moreover, Carthage must be destroyed."

@ky0ko If there is a regular meeting of mods, at the end of every meeting, bring up the issue in a calm and polite manner. "We have had three more complaints this week. I still believe we are dealing with this inappropriately."

But this is not a tactic without risk. If the other mods are in a majority, they may well ask you to leave and make your own community at some point. This is not always a bad idea.

@ky0ko It's also a fucking long and exhausting game. I'd only undertake if the community itself was incredibly valuable to me.

@werekat there's no regular meetings, just a series of mod chats that people send messages in as things need addressed

i think the community is valuable, and i want to see it be a place i'm comfortable being in like i was two years ago

and, not all the mods are the same on this

the lead is conflicted

a few of us want them gone

a few of us think they've grown to be important to the community for one reason or another (they are positive on *occasion* but i feel it doesn't make up for their trouble)

@werekat it probably doesn't help that two of the mod team are good friends with the problem actors

@ky0ko Document everything. Bring every single problem up in the chats. Note every single person gone because of the problem actors. Don't let their friends cover for them.

This is much easier said than done, and better done if there's a few other mods on your side: there will be days when you are exhausted or swamped.

You will likely still take some losses, though. Communities are rarely the same if a sizable group leaves; even if you succeed, you'll need to rebuild.

@werekat that's what i was thinking. there is at least one other mod who would be interested in helping with documentation of all the problems they've caused, and i think already has a list of people she knows left because of them

i've been considering doing that, and then showing the documentation with an ultimatum that "we need to do something about them, or i am leaving the community for good"

@ky0ko An ultimatum is a viable tactic, but it is your last resort. And I would probably do it in a different form. "I cannot in good conscience abide this behavior as a moderator, so I am stepping down." It keeps your actions strictly on you - which means that people don't see it as making them choose between you or their friends. It lifts the issue into professional behavior and keeps it out of "who are you friends with".

@werekat that's a pretty good idea, i think i know how i'm going to approach this now. thank you for talking this through with me.

@werekat this has been a very informative thread, thank you for writing it out

Sign in to participate in the conversation
Mastodon @ SUNET

mastodon.acc.sunet.se is run by the Academic Computer Club at Umeå University located in Umeå, Sweden. ACC is actively involved in several open source projects and we provide mirrors for Debian, Ubuntu, Gnome and GIMP. We also host servers for the Gimpnet, Freenode, and OFTC IRC networks. You can read more about our projects and our servers on the ACC website.

Registration is open to the public, but we ask you read over and comply with our terms of use.