Words by Daphne chouliaraki Milner
Photographs by Chieska Fortune Smith
What does it take to have a challenging conversation in the era of cancel culture? For MacArthur Fellow Loretta J. Ross, the answer lies in calling in: a communicative strategy rooted in compassion, accountability, and restorative justice that recognizes the many realities of a muddled world.
Professor Loretta J. Ross has spent decades advocating for one seemingly simple cause: the right to hold a conversation.
The past 10 years have seen a major shift in the ways we communicate, thanks in part to the internet and the rise of social media. How we connect with friends, family, and particularly strangers has changed, as has where and why we reach out to one another. Even the pace of conversation has advanced at an unprecedented speed. It’s only natural, then, that the significance we place on what happens in the digital sphere has intensified too—especially when it comes to perceived wrongs.
I’m referring to the rise of public callouts and cancel culture, a phenomenon whereby people deemed to be moral transgressors are publicly discredited on social media platforms, and in some instances, punished through cultural, social, and professional ostracism. It’s a long-standing yet intensifying practice that has in recent years become a polarizing topic of debate. For some, cancel culture is a necessary way of holding those in power accountable for the harms they’ve caused. For others, the fear of being shamed online is perceived as hindering honest—and productive—conversations on difficult topics. For others still, it signifies the end of free speech.
Professor Ross thinks this readiness to cancel a person on the basis of their beliefs is toxic. Instead, she espouses empathy and stresses the importance of context in challenging conversations. As a result, she has become an improbable figure at the heart of the culture wars, but her lifelong commitment to reform—both individual and societal—is testament to the revolutionary potential of what she terms “calling in”: a means of holding an individual accountable that, unlike a callout, is done in private with compassion and respect.
It’s a communicative strategy rooted in radical empathy that welcomes juxtaposing viewpoints and recognizes contradiction, one that reflects the kaleidoscopic realities of a muddled world instead of reducing it to monotones. It’s also a strategy that Professor Ross, whose modules at Smith College include topics on white supremacy and reproductive justice, has been practicing for longer than she has been teaching. A survivor of rape and incest, she helped coin the term “reproductive justice” and was made the third-ever executive director of the first Rape Crisis Center in the U.S. She spent much of the 1970s practicing restorative justice by listening to incarcerated men convicted of raping and murdering women to better understand their motivations in her search for redemption. In return, she introduced them to radical feminist thinkers. Professor Ross was also actively involved in organizing for the civil rights movement. As the program and research director for the Center for Democratic Renewal, she traveled to rural Tennessee to meet with the wives of Ku Klux Klan members.
Professor Ross is an optimist, driven by a brave belief in the transformative power of kindness. Below, she speaks about the loss of nuance, the rise of intolerance, and how the practice of calling in can serve the movement for climate justice.
Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Your proposal for calling in—instead of calling out—is rooted in the knowledge that the world is a complex and messy place, one that’s filled with hypocrisy and contradiction. What do we lose when we lose nuance, in a world where everything is seen as either black or white?
Loretta J. Ross
The biggest loss, I think, is depth. I think there’s a tendency to oversimplify because we are exhausted by the thought that things may not be as they appear. In our hairy life, where everything is trying to grab our attention, we tend to gravitate towards those things that simplify life for us.
The second is the loss of integrity and a sense of self. Calling in is not what you do for other people—it’s what you do for yourself. It gives you a chance to offer love, grace, and respect, and to showcase one’s own integrity and one’s own ability to hold nuance and depth. People mistakenly think that you’re doing it because you’re trying to change somebody else. That’s not possible. People have to make the decision to change themselves. But what you can do is provide them an opportunity to do so.
There are no magic words that can change somebody else; if there were, couples wouldn’t argue, parents wouldn’t fight with their kids, coworkers wouldn’t have disputes. We don’t have that kind of magical power. And since we don’t have the power to control and change others, the only power we’re left with is self-empowerment: the power to choose how we walk through the world. In this sense, calling in is a conscious decision to not make the world crueler than it needs to be.
I love that: calling in as an act of self-care. You have a long history within both the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. You’ve been on the frontlines of change, and I imagine you’ve had many challenging conversations in the process. Yet, the social landscape has changed so much since then, especially over the last decade. How has your experience within these movements informed your thinking about callout and cancel culture today?
The reason I even started thinking that I had something to contribute to the conversation is because of my 50 plus years’ experience of having difficult conversations with people that I don’t like—people who have great power to harm me.
When I was 25, I became the third executive director of the first Rape Crisis Center in the United States. The center was founded in 1972, and I became the director in 1979. I am a rape and incest survivor, and yet I chose to work with a group of men who were incarcerated for raping and murdering women. I didn’t do it because I felt safe or I felt they couldn’t harm me. It wasn’t because I felt they didn’t represent all the ugly things that had happened to me. I did it because, at the Rape Crisis Center, we only put bandages on victims. We didn’t stop women from being raped.
My passion for stopping rape meant that I had to take the risk to talk to rapists and find out what led them to do the crimes that they did. And what I discovered while working with Prisoners Against Rape, a group founded by incarcerated individuals, was that many of them were “victimized violators.” It’s a term I invented, and it refers to people whose human rights had been violated, which in turn preconditioned them to accept the violation of other people’s human rights. It’s like the truism: “hurt people hurt people.” Listening to their stories about their own violations humanized them for me. Going into the center, I had seen them as men deserving to be buried under prisons and forgotten by society. I thought their needs and humanity deserved to be ignored. But once I saw them as human beings, it changed me. I went into the Rape Crisis Center expecting to change them, and I ended up changing myself more.
Your work exhibits so much bravery and optimism. Because it’s not just rapists you spent time with but also Ku Klux Klan members and their wives. People that, as you’ve put it in past interviews, “you wouldn’t have over for tea.” How do you go about having productive conversations with people whose viewpoints are so different to yours, whose ways of seeing the world are so extreme and so violent?
We’re all capable of using a technique I call “the mental parking lot” where you temporarily put aside any visceral reactions you have to what others are saying. It’s a technique that requires you not to pay attention to your reaction but rather to devote your focus and respect to the person you’re talking to.
It’s hard at first because many of us want to get into a debate and persuade those with opposing viewpoints that they’re wrong. But quite often, if you can achieve that technique of parking your own reactions and giving them attention—this can be done by using simple phrases like, “tell me more” or “how did you arrive at that conclusion?”—then you get a glimpse into their life’s journey that has cultivated this perspective. Generally speaking, once you extend an invitation to a dialogue, then you condition them to better listen to your perspective. Instead of a fight, you have a conversation.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that what you have to offer in that conversation will have an impact. You have no control over that. But you certainly feel better about yourself. And that’s part of what you’re trying to achieve. You show just how much tolerance and depth you have, even if they don’t deserve it. Because, again, it’s not about what they deserve; it’s about what your integrity deserves.
So, calling in is a vehicle for growth and self-realization?
That really is the main reason for calling somebody in. It just also has the concomitant effect of increasing the likelihood that your opinion will be heard—regardless of how different it is to theirs. I want people to feel that I’ve heard them, that I respect what they say. Even if I disagree, I want them to trust that I’m going to respect their humanity and what they’ve been through. That’s what helps me have very challenging conversations with people.
I want people to feel that I’ve heard them, that I respect what they say. Even if I disagree, I want them to trust that I’m going to respect their humanity and what they’ve been through. That’s what helps me have very challenging conversations with people.
What do you understand to be the driving force behind cancel culture?
Honestly? I think the main driver is the need for power and attention. In this very atomized world we live in, people want to feel that they have the power to affect somebody else’s destiny. That’s especially true for the internet and social media.
I find that people who do a lot of calling out don’t feel very empowered in their own lives. They seek that power from strangers, sometimes from the approval of those strangers. I also think that the people who are most dedicated to callout culture, particularly on social media, are starved for attention in other ways. The fleeting approval of strangers gratifies them, but like a drug addict, they keep going back for more hits. It’s toxic because the attention of strangers is ephemeral at best. They’re going to rush off to the very next thing that titillates them. They’re not going to stay with you. They don’t even know you.
It’s difficult because my generation has become so fluent in social media-first debates on urgent and timely topics. But equally, there is so much finger-pointing. You’ve spoken very highly of leaders within the civil rights movement who have informed your way of navigating the world with compassion and empathy. What have you learned from the elders of the civil rights movement or from the people that paved the way for reproductive justice, like yourself, about resolving conflict while maintaining respect for those with opposing viewpoints?
I benefited greatly from the elders who did not give up on young me—because I was insufferable. I was just as ignorant as anybody who thinks they know it all. I didn’t come into the movement humble; I weaponized every piece of knowledge I had. The minute I learned a word, I turned around and castigated people who didn’t know it. That’s what young people do. I benefited from the fact that the people around me—who didn’t even like me—didn’t give up on me. They saw my potential.
Speaking specifically of the civil rights movement, Reverend Joseph Lowery, who was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, used to say all the time, “We’ve got to learn to turn to each other instead of on each other.” That was a mantra that the civil rights leaders often used. They would fight bitterly behind closed doors, but when it came to confronting segregation, they presented a united front. Even if they disagreed with each other’s strategies, they didn’t call each other out for their differences. There was an acceptance that there are many pathways to the mountain top.
I learned forgiveness from them—forgiveness for my mistakes. The more visible I became, the more visible my mistakes became. That my mistakes weren’t private produced such intense feelings of shame and humiliation. They were the talk of the movement. But that also taught me that you can recover from anything as long as you own it and apologize for the harm you’ve done. No one can weaponize my mistakes against me if I own them and don’t spend my time trying to hide them or deny that they took place.
Your philosophy is rooted in forgiveness, which feels particularly radical in the context of cancel culture which is, at its core, punitive. Reading your work and listening to you speak about the value of compassion and context often makes me think of Sonya Renee Taylor, whom I previously interviewed about the revolutionary potential of loving oneself in a society built on domination and extraction. How does love figure in your call for calling in?
One of the things that I’ve had to do a lot of intentional work on is self-love because of the scarring I experienced through childhood sexual abuse. I spent my teenage years depressed, suicidal, and drug addicted through self-medication, all the while raising a child born of incest. I had a daily reminder of what happened to me that I had to figure out how to love, even as I hated the circumstances of how he got born and how I became a mother. This was a constant war within my soul.
It wasn’t until I blew up my life—literally, I embezzled some money, which made the news—that I went and got professional help. Therapy. It became a long, painful, and never-ending process of learning how not to let success go to my head and not let my failures go to my heart. Actively working on self-love is a process. I’m still not good at it, but I’m much better at it than I used to be. I find that I don’t have to avoid or give up on people with the power to hurt me. I don’t have to dispose of people because they disappoint me. I don’t have to dislike people because they think differently from me. These are all part of self-love. It sounds narcissistic, but I do it because I want to be a better person, not because of who they are. I do it because of who I’m striving to become. But then, self-love is a precondition for love of others. You can’t successfully love others if you don’t like yourself.
I’ve been told that by many wise people, yourself included now. For me, the routine practice of loving myself still feels very much like a work in progress.
I find that I don’t have to avoid or give up on people with the power to hurt me. I don’t have to dispose of people because they disappoint me. I don’t have to dislike people because they think differently from me. These are all part of self-love.
I know. It’s so counterintuitive because we are conditioned and socialized into thinking that we will find fulfillment through someone else—which is impossible if we haven’t made peace with ourselves first. It’s damn painful though. But then you’ll see it gets to a point where it just clicks. And you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t pain so much as it is gain.” It’s like when you first begin an exercise program: it hurts in the beginning, but then, one day, you’re like, “I can run a mile now when I couldn’t even walk 10 steps.” That’s where the joy comes in.
I love that metaphor—I’m going to hold that close for a long time. I wanted to revisit the notion of calling in, which we were discussing earlier. In the past you’ve spoken about the Five C’s Continuum—calling in, calling on, calling out, canceling, and calling it off. Can you differentiate between them and talk a bit about what role each one serves?
Both calling out and calling in are accountability mechanisms—it’s just how you pursue it that changes. Calling out seeks to hold someone publicly accountable for something you think they’ve done wrong by using the tactics of blaming, shaming, and humiliation. Canceling is the ultimate callout because that’s what you do when you want them to be severely punished: you want them to lose a job, their platform, or their reputation because of what you called them out for. Calling in is also a way of seeking accountability, but instead of punishment, blame, and shame, you use love, respect, and conversation as a way to achieve that accountability.
The concept of calling on was created by Sonya Renee Taylor, who you mentioned earlier. She felt that both calling in and calling out require an emotional investment in another person that you may or may not be inclined to make. In other words, they’re getting your time and attention regardless of whether you’re calling them out or calling them in. But what if you want someone to grow without making an investment in them? That’s when you call on them to do better, for example by saying, “I can’t believe you said that to me.” You’re giving them a chance to rethink their words.
Calling it off is a conscious decision that’s based on whether or not the conversation can be productive—either in real life or on social media. That’s when you need to decide if it’s worth spending any more time pursuing a conversation with that person or that group.
Are there instances when it’s productive to call out rather than call in?
Yes, calling out is what we do as a human rights movement. We call out corporations. We call out governments. We call out individuals who violate people’s human rights. But what young people fail to understand is that calling out is our tactic of last resort—not our tactic of first resort. They’re going about doing the right thing the wrong way. You don’t start out by putting people on blast. You start out by trying to establish some common ground. You try to find out more about their motives and their intent. That can help you recognize what you have in common that you can work together on. In the meantime, your disagreements can go in that mental parking lot we discussed earlier. There’s a whole set of steps leading up to a callout. Right now, it seems that everyone wants to rush to the climax.
In answer to your question: yes, there are appropriate uses of the callout. When people are inaccessible; when they keep repeating the mistakes that they’ve made, and they’ve been offered a chance to change; when you don’t want others to experience the harm that they’re committing; when you want to lift the voice of those who have historically been ignored or silenced; when you just want to release your own outrage. These are all very good and appropriate uses for a callout. But as a strategy, it should be your last resort, not your first.
Finally, how can these politics of compassion, of calling people in, serve the movement for climate justice?
We are looking at the prospect of 200 million climate refugees—200 million displaced people—by 2050. If we cannot figure out how to cohabitate this world together and take mutual responsibility for its survival and health, then we can’t deal with the fact that we’re going to receive so many refugees. And whether we go to war over them, whether we let people drown in boats trying to reach our shores, whether we put children in cages on borders—how we respond will be a testament to how we have evolved.
I really worry about the evolution of humanity because it does feel like we’re going backwards. I used to think that people who are opposed to human rights were trying to fight the human rights movement. But what I’ve found is that they’re fighting something even more substantive. They’re fighting time. They’re fighting evidence. They’re fighting history. They’re fighting the truth. But no matter how hard they fight, they cannot reverse the twenty-first century and turn it into the nineteenth century. Even if that’s what they desperately want to do. We can’t repeal the Enlightenment. I don’t care how you trumpet your faith and weaponize it. Science is going to triumph—just because you don’t believe in gravity doesn’t mean you’ll jump out of a window and fly.
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “Shades of Gray.” Since publication, Loretta J. Ross has been named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow.