When you call out bad behaviour in others, a number of things may happen. A person who has made an honest mistake, or just been careless, will likely be upset but also sorry and remorseful. Decent people called out on their cock-ups tend to own it and try to deal with it.
Whether you’re responding to something done to you, or calling someone out over what you’ve seen them do to others, the results can be the same, although the consequences of that, in turn, may be different. Here are some of the most obvious outcomes and their implications.
The abuser denies everything. Frustrating if you’re an observer, devastating if you’re a victim. If you’ve been shouted at or hit, and then told that these things did not happen, it’s confusing and distressing. If you endure a lot of it, you may feel you’re going mad. Denying what happened is a form of gaslighting.
The abuser blames the victim. The victim in some way made them do it. Again, this is devastating for the victim, and may over time persuade them that they are responsible. It’s hardest on child victims who have no reason to know it isn’t their fault. If you are not the victim and you get this response, do think carefully about whether the person on the receiving end could really have caused what happened to them. It’s not an argument anyone should be comfortable with. Making victims responsible for the abuse they experience is a form of emotional abuse and gaslighting.
The abuser derides the victim. The victim is crazy, a drama queen, over reacting, a liar, making it up, fantasising, needs help. This is another form of gaslighting that will, over time, cause the victim to doubt their own sanity and judgement. They will complain less, and do less to protect themselves if they are persuaded that their responses are irrational and unreasonable. If the person challenging over abuse is persuaded that the victim is ridiculous, the victim gets less help and support. If everyone is persuaded that the victim is silly and makes a fuss, abuse can go on and nothing is done about it. Do not be complicit in this.
The abuser minimises what was done. A blow becomes ‘just a tap’ a violent shove becomes ‘a little accident’. The abuser says it wasn’t as bad as the victim was making out – again this undermines the victim’s confidence in their own judgement and plays into the idea that the victim is making a fuss about nothing. Watch out for the use of the word ‘just’ in this context. Where the abuse is non-physical, this is even easier to persuade onlookers about. The victim is a snowflake, a drama queen, wants to be the centre of attention, has no sense of perspective, makes mountains out of molehills…
If you have heard about abuse from someone else, rather than seeing it first hand, there is a further thing to take into account when calling someone out: Bullies often play victim. If two people tell you that they are each is being bullied by the other, the odds are that one of them is telling you the truth, and the other is saying it to do more harm to their victim. On the whole, victims tend to be fearful and seeking safety while bullies claiming victimhood are likely to be angry and wanting retribution. Victims may be confused (for all of the above reasons) and not sure if it’s their fault in some way. Bullies are confident when they self identify as victims. The victim is the person most likely to be apologising and wondering how to fix things. If the bully is playing victim and the victim is the person who is saying ‘I think it may be all my fault, I’m afraid I’m a horrible person, I can’t get anything right’ then it can be all too easy to misjudge what’s going on.
Also, if someone is more offended by being called out than they are worried about the harm they may have inadvertently caused, they’re out of order.