Thoughts on communication #4 (“calling out”)

Words I never use: “Calling out”

Well obviously I am using them in order to say that I don’t use them, but you know what I mean – I won’t say or write “calling out” without holding such a smelly and disgusting object at a distance with a nice clean pair of quotation marks.

It is equally obvious that I’m quite happy to call out to my friends across the street, or answer a shout which is calling out for help. No, I’m objecting to the relatively recent usage of the term – heard in contexts such as:

“I have to call you out for that statement” or “this behaviour should be called out at every opportunity”

As to “relatively recent”, my subjective observation is that it only started a few years ago – certainly the meaning I grew up with had no hint of morality about it. All of a sudden the air is thick with people being “called out”. Google has an entertaining tool which will generate a usage frequency graph from a large collection of books. Here’s one for american english:
and here’s one for british english:Looking at the british graph – get a load of that gradient starting around maybe 2002 or so. (Which would be compatible with the steep rise in internet usage in the Uk in the early noughties). Anyway, that was just idle curiosity, let’s get to the the real point:

What is wrong with “calling out”?

In one sense nothing at all. Language changes, new words and meanings come in all the time. People use neologisms because they find them useful. I ain’t no language pedant. I make up new words all the time – it demonstrates robustitude of thought.

Anyway, “calling out” rubs me up the wrong way and I want to explain why. I wince slightly when I hear or read the term (no-one has actually used it at me, so far), because it sounds off-puttingly self-righteous1. Note that I’m not accusing people of being self-righteous, I’m saying that (to me) it sounds so. I wonder why? Why these words – what images are they suggesting?

The metaphor I pick up is of literally calling someone out – asking them to step aside from whatever they are doing in order to be told off for an infringement of some sort (the images that come to my mind are of a child being called out of class, or someone in the military being called out to receive a disciplinary ‘chat’). What is squirmy for me about “I need to call you out on that!” is that some sort of superiority has been asserted – the caller is assuming that their right to “call out” is unquestioned. Furthermore the superiority that is being assumed is moral superiority. Now obviously, ethical discussion is not out-of-bounds, not by any means, and some stances really are morally superior, but “calling out” is so un-nuanced that it doesn’t look like discussion, it looks like a crude “I have the high ground here and you’re stuck in the mud, all decent people think the same, don’t even think of trying to defend yourself”.

“Calling out” is one of those rhetorical manoeuvres that internet discussion seems to breed. I have a dark suspicion that – and here I really must stress that this suspicion is based on myself, on attempting to introspect the dubious machinations of my own inner world, I am not accusing anyone else of anything (‘anyone else’ must examine their own conscience) – I have a dark suspicion that some people, sometimes, actually enjoy being angry. I’m probably quite enjoying being angry about this in fact. Ahem.


Some words and phrases that I find useful when refusing to “call you out”:

“I think you’re wrong (because)” “ I protest about that (because)” “I can’t let you get away with that (because)”, “you have omitted some important points (which are)”, “you are only looking at one side of the question”, “that has dangerous implications (which are)”, “you are ignoring (whatever)”, object to, complain about, demur, attempt to rebut, naive, unconsidered, over-simplified, “I’m not sure you understand all the implications of what you’ve just said”, “do you really mean that?”.


1. I’ve just discovered that there is now something called “tone policing” which is felt to be oppressive. Having read a few books on socio-linguistics I’d prefer to say that my opinions on this are not “tone policing” but rather “discourse analysis”. Actually, they’re neither, I’m just explaining why I wince slightly when someone says it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *