Not only is cancel culture ineffective, but it can actually deter change, deepening divisions instead of building relationships that have the potential to change minds (and eventually, the world).
A new and improved update to cancel culture and its emphasis on "calling out" might be "calling in." But what does it mean to "call someone in"—and how can we shift over from the cancel culture we're so deeply entrenched in, towards a calling-in mindset?
What Is Calling In?
The term "call-in" has been in use since as early as the 1480s, when the phrase "call in" meant "to summon someone for help" or "to enlist (someone) into service." The term changed meanings over the centuries—and now most of us know it in the context of calling into work or calling into a radio show.
In modern social justice contexts, calling in is about using problematic, offensive, or insensitive infractions as opportunities to invite people to learn, grow, and change.
Calling in is often best applied within social justice circles or communities where people already know each other. In communities, where everyone knows they're on the same page but some people might slip up from time to time, calling in can be a great alternative to cancel culture, which often derails potential connection and leads to an end of the conversation rather than a beginning.
In social justice or activist circles, it can be damaging to overemphasize infractions rather than using them as stepping stones for growth. "What happens when thousands of people who all 'get it' come together and everyone knows something about 'the work'? We lose all compassion for each other. All of it," writes Ngọc Loan Trần.
"Most of us know the drill. Someone says something that supports the oppression of another community, the red flags pop up and someone swoops in to call them out," Trần writes. But what happens when that someone is a person we know — and love? What happens when we ourselves are that someone? And what does it mean for our work to rely on how we have been programmed to punish people for their mistakes?"
Sometimes cancel culture can even feel punitive, reminiscent of the heavily surveilled and policed culture that most of us are trying to escape. On the other hand, calling in can promote restoration and dialogue.
When and Who to Call In
When deciding whether to call out or call in someone who has committed an infraction, it might be helpful to think about the purpose of a callout. "If someone is more interested in seeing the subject of a call-out punished or shamed for their mistake, versus seeking to hold someone accountable for their problematic behavior and looking for a productive solution, it's probably not the best idea (for you or your community) to call someone out," writes Kyli Rodriguez-Kilo.
Instead of publicly shaming, it might be a good idea to privately engage with the person who committed an infraction before antagonizing them.
Before calling someone out, one might ask: Who has the power in this situation, and what will happen to the person who is being called out? It's also important to ask whether one's callouts are coming from places of experience and care, or whether they're meant to signal one's own benevolence to other folks. Might our energies be better placed in, say, mutual aid or organizing rather than in canceling others for no reason?
Despite the fact that calling in can be useful anywhere and at anytime, many definitions of the term propose that the people we should be calling in are friends, peers, coworkers or other people we respect enough to devote time to educating and changing. Calling in is a great option for communities or groups already on the same page, or for people with privilege or who have the time, resources, and energy to educate others. Still, calling in won't be applicable to every situation.
Who (and What) NOT to Call In
Calling in doesn't mean that anyone has to tolerate threats to their identity, race, gender, or other personal and non-malicious characteristics. It also doesn't mean expecting that a pleasant conversation will address centuries of oppression.
It's very important not to mistake calling in as a pathway to tolerance of racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive behaviors. It also doesn't mean people shouldn't get angry about their own oppression, and it doesn't mean that white people's hurt feelings (for too often, this is what it all comes down to) should be prioritized in any way. Sometimes, callouts are necessary responses.
"Tolerance" has long been used as a way to shut down legitimate critiques of dangerous cruelty, and even violence—and remaining complicit and silent are obviously not the objectives here.
Some people truly deserve to be flat-out canceled and kicked out of groups because they present threats to other members of groups. Plus, no one should feel pressured to explain why they deserve human decency, and explaining complicated social justice concepts can take far more energy and time than many people have on a daily basis.
It's okay to be angry in a f*cked up world. It's admirable to fight for change and to refuse to tolerate ways of being that threaten others' livelihoods.
Call-out culture and public "cancellations" may be necessary and effective when the person needing to be canceled is a famous or otherwise inaccessible person, or someone who has failed to change their ways or who presents a direct danger to certain people or groups.
There's no precise binary between calling out and calling in; the two are part of the same spectrum. Maybe calling out and calling in can exist alongside each other in a constant give-and-take.
None of this process—of healing, of fighting oppression, and of holding each other accountable—will be linear or straightforward, but clearly, many of us have a lot of time and energy to spend calling each other out online. Maybe a bit of that energy can be siphoned towards shaping a better future.