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Winter 2024 Issue

Redressing Injustice
By Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 1 P. 14

To Cancel, Call Out, Check Out, or Call In?

Promoting social justice is deeply ingrained in the core ethical principles of the social work profession.1 When individuals, groups, or organizations engage in hate speech, discrimination, oppression, violence, or other actions that promote injustice, we are called upon to address these injustices. Although the NASW Code of Ethics does not provide explicit guidelines on how to redress particular injustices, it includes several ethical principles that can inform our call to action. This article explores the ethics of four methods of redressing injustices: canceling, calling out, checking out, and calling in.

Contrasting the Four Approaches
Canceling, calling out, checking out, and calling in are distinct strategies for holding people accountable and fostering social change. Here, “canceling” refers to ostracizing an individual, group, or organization in response to a perceived unethical, illegal, or harmful manner.2 Ostracizing may take various forms: boycotting, refusing to meet, insisting that a person be fired, or withdrawing particular rights, privileges, or other forms of support. Proponents of canceling suggest that it’s a means of holding individuals accountable and a deterrent for similar conduct by others. Suppose that Gayle, a BSW student, refuses to use a classmate’s preferred pronouns, opting for “she/her” rather than the requested “they/them.” Should her peers come to their classmate’s defense by demanding that Gayle be expelled from the program they would be implementing a canceling strategy. Alternatively, they could employ canceling by refusing to work with Gayle on any class projects. Canceling is a competitive approach to resolving conflict, generally resulting in win-lose outcomes. The people seeking to cancel may achieve their desired outcome, but the people who are canceled incur severe damage, perhaps losing their livelihood.3 Detractors of canceling express concerns that this approach may lead to harassment, bullying, violence, and mob behavior. Others suggest that it runs contrary to the principles of free speech.4 According to the free speech argument, people should be free to share their ideas or opinions without interference or retaliation. Although some people may have valid objections to Gayle’s speech, do they have a right to cancel her? Shouldn’t they engage her in conversation, debating ideas rather than shutting down, ostracizing, or excommunicating her?5 Proponents of canceling counter this, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding individuals from harmful rhetoric, discrimination, and bigotry.

“Calling out” refers to holding people accountable for perceived misconduct by bringing the attention of others to their harmful words or behavior.6 At its best, calling out lets people know that certain behavior is unacceptable, causing them to pause, reflect, and correct their behavior. 7 Calling out may also be used to rally the support of others to hold individuals accountable for their behavior. Additionally, by garnering support from others, calling out can challenge and rebalance power dynamics. Assume that Dr. Clue, a social work professor, informs students that they should take a “colorblind” approach to practice with clients. A student immediately challenges Dr. Clue, saying, “That approach is racist. You’re ignoring people’s lived experiences, particularly among those who have experienced systemic racism.” Other students agree, expressing similar concerns about the professor’s statement. Calling out presents Dr. Clue with an opportunity to recognize the flaw in her perspective, admit that a colorblind approach is inappropriate, and learn from the students’ concerns. Given the nature of how she was called out, however, Dr. Clue may feel embarrassed, isolated, or defensive, making it more difficult for her to respond in a positive manner. Another form of calling out, sometimes used in group work, would be for a member of the class to simply say, “Ouch.” This interjection conveys the student’s discomfort or hurt without launching a direct confrontation. It provides Dr. Clue with an opportunity to ask about the student’s concerns and initiate a constructive dialogue.

“Checking out” refers to addressing concerns about unethical, illegal, or harmful behavior by speaking with the person, assessing their intentions and willingness to address concerns collaboratively. (There’s an alternative meaning for checking out, referring to withdrawal of support or engagement with a person one believes is engaging in misconduct. This meaning of checking out is a strategy that overlaps with canceling.) Consider a client who says, “I was so angry that I beat my child.” Rather than jumping to the conclusion that the client physically abused the child and needs to be reported to child protection services, checking out suggests that we should engage the client in further discussion. “Please tell me more about what happened. … When you say that you beat your child, what exactly did you do?” Often, concerns about another person’s conduct or comments may be misplaced, perhaps due to miscommunication or lack of information. Perhaps the person does not initially recognize the implications of their words or behavior; however, the person may be open to hearing the concerns and correcting their behavior. I remember using the term “artificial insemination” with a friend who recently had a baby. My friend asked what I meant by “artificial insemination.” I wasn’t sure why my friend was upset with my use of this term, so I asked her to help me understand what was wrong with it. She informed me that her baby and her method of conceiving were not artificial. She encouraged me to use the term “donor insemination.” I apologized and committed to using the term donor insemination. I also thanked her for enlightening me.

“Calling in” refers to responding to perceived bias, discrimination, or other forms of unethical, illegal, or harmful conduct by inviting the person to engage in a constructive conversation about these concerns.3 Rather than addressing the concerns through public confrontation, calling in suggests facilitating a safe time and space to discuss each person’s concerns. Assume that you have concerns that your field instructor, Esteban, is discriminating because he refuses to accommodate your request for time off for you to observe a religious holiday. Rather than calling him out or telling your field faculty liaison that Esteban is discriminating, you engage him using empathy, education, and collaborative dialogue. “I appreciate that I need to be here to serve clients and the agency. I also know that you and the agency believe in equality and respect for the dignity of all people. Could we please schedule a time to talk about how I can meet that agency’s needs and expectations in a way that also respects my religious observances?” It’s vital to recognize that calling in may not be appropriate for certain situations, for instance, when the person engaging in the alleged misconduct poses a threat to one’s emotional or physical safety or when that person refuses to engage in a collaborative manner. In addition, a person who has experienced abuse or discrimination may not feel safe to call in and work together with the person who initiated the abuse or discrimination. For survivors of abuse or discrimination, their wishes, safety, and needs should be paramount when determining an appropriate response.

Canceling, calling out, checking out, and calling in are not mutually exclusive courses of action. We may use them in combination, for instance, first trying to use more collaborative approaches such as checking out and calling in. If people do not respond positively to our collaborative approaches, then we may need to employ calling out or canceling strategies. In other circumstances, we may need to start with a more assertive approach to protect ourselves or others from harm.6 Once we have established safety, we may then consider whether more collaborative strategies should be pursued. The key is to assess each situation individually and choose the strategy or combination of strategies that is most appropriate.

Applying Social Work Principles
Social work principles such as honesty and integrity, respect for the dignity and worth of all people, and human relationships may be used to inform decisions about whether and how to use particular methods of redressing concerns about harmful behavior. In terms of “honesty,” for instance, regardless of which means of redress we use, we should tell the truth, avoid exaggerations, and act in a trustworthy manner. When students ask a social work program to terminate Gayle’s enrollment in the BSW program, for instance, they should not fabricate facts or exaggerate concerns to ensure she is dismissed. They should convey their concerns accurately and honestly. They should also consider whether “canceling” is an appropriate first step or whether integrity suggests that they should try to use corrective action before resorting to punishment and retribution.

“Demonstrating respect for the dignity and worth for all people” underscores the importance of treating others with unconditional positive regard, regardless of whether they have treated you or others with the same degree of respect. Calling out Dr. Clue by branding her as a racist, for instance, shows disrespect by attributing a negative label to her entire identity. Rather than labeling Dr. Clue as a racist, concerns could be expressed in terms of her words, behavior, or beliefs. “I’m concerned about the implications of using a colorblind approach with the people we serve. This perspective ignores what is unique or special about people given their race, culture, or other aspects of diversity. Because a colorblind approach ignores people’s experiences of discrimination and racism, it may be condoning or reinforcing racism. We need to address it, not ignore it.” True respect encourages us to use corrective or restorative approaches rather than tactics rooted in shame, blame, or punishment. Restorative practices prioritize mending harm and engaging in collaborative conflict management.3 To demonstrate respect for the dignity and worth of all people, we should offer second chances. All of us mess up. We are human. Out of respect for one another, we should provide people with opportunities to learn from their mistakes, accept accountability, and rectify their missteps. As Fulghum suggests in his list of lessons we learned in kindergarten, if you make a mess, then please clean it up.8 The message is not, “If you make a mess, you are forever banned from kindergarten and society.”

The principle of “human relationships” emphasizes the importance of human relationships and guides us to strengthen these bonds.1 It encourages us to maintain positive relationships, even in the face of inappropriate conduct by others. Thus, it’s appropriate to express concerns assertively but not in a mean, disrespectful, or spiteful manner. To repair or strengthen relationships, we may use collaborative approaches such as checking out and calling in, demonstrating a willingness to engage with compassion and empathy. Although canceling and calling out may be ethically justifiable in certain situations, we should first consider whether checking out and calling in are safe and feasible.

Means vs Ends
According to deontology (duty-based ethics), we should act in a manner that’s consistent with our core ethical duties regardless of the consequences of our actions. This approach suggests that the means are more important than the ends. Drawing from this approach, we should treat others with respect, we should be honest, and we should promote human relationships. We might be able to use shaming and shunning to shut down a person who has been spreading bigotry. However, a deontological approach suggests that it would be more ethical to treat the person with respect and strive to engage with them in a collaborative, compassionate, and fair manner.

In contrast to deontology, teleology (consequence-based ethics) suggests that we should choose an option according to which course of action produces the greatest good (ie, the best outcome). Essentially, the ends may justify the means. Using this approach, we might try to justify blaming, dishonesty, violence, or shunning to stop a person from spreading bigotry and hate. Although the means are immoral, the outcome is desirable. We must be cautious, however, about using immoral approaches because of the long-term consequences of our actions, not just the short-term consequences. If we use blaming, dishonesty, violence, or shunning every time we have a concern about how another person has behaved, how do you think this will affect us as a society? What do you think the long-term consequences of calling out and canceling will be within a family, workplace, or community? Although we may initially be concerned about a specific instance of bigotry or misconduct, we also need to consider whether our responses may promote greater division, mistrust, stress, and dysfunction in our relationships and social structures.

When faced with bigotry, harassment, or discrimination, we may experience a range of emotions: anger, anxiety, fear, and even a desire for vengeance. In such moments, the decision to call out or cancel someone might lead us to feel a sense of righteousness, believing that we have a moral calling to use these strategies to terminate their harmful behavior. Before acting, however, it’s crucial to adopt a reflective approach, perhaps with the assistance of a supervisor or trusted colleague to help us work through our thoughts, feelings, and proposed actions. While there may be situations in which calling out and canceling may be justified or necessary, we should not be using them merely out of spite or anger.

As part of our ethical deliberations, we should consider both the intent and impact of our actions. In terms of intent, our goals may be to promote social justice, challenge racism, erase bigotry, and protect people from harm (including ourselves). When choosing a particular method for redressing our concerns, we should evaluate the potential impact of various courses of action. We should seek methods that not only redress the current problem but also that do so in a manner that promotes respect, strengthens relationships, ensures safety, and facilitates honest, trusting relationships. There may be times when checking out and calling in are not feasible, at least as a first response. Still, regardless of our means of redressing injustice and other harmful behaviors, we should ensure that our actions are rooted in social work ethics.

— Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD, is a professor of social work at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches courses on social work practice, professional ethics, and forensic practice, among others.


1. Code of ethics. National Association of Social Workers website. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English. Updated 2021. Accessed September 25, 2023.

2. Zucker K. Introduction to the special section “cancel culture”: its impact on sex/gender teaching, clinical practice, and research and a call for commentaries. Arch of Sexual Beh. 2023;52:17-19.

3. Barsky A. Conflict Resolution for the Helping Professions. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2017.

4. America has a free speech problem. New York Times website. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/opinion/cancel-culture-free-speech-poll.html?referringSource=articleShare. Published March 18, 2022.

5. University of Chicago. Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. https://provost.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/documents/reports/FOECommitteeReport.pdf. Published 2014. Accessed September 25, 2023.

6. Harvard University. Calling in and calling out guide. https://edib.harvard.edu/files/dib/files/calling_in_and_calling_out_guide_v4.pdf?m=1625683246. Accessed September 25, 2023.

7. Interrupting bias: calling out vs. calling in. Tufts University website. https://diversity.tufts.edu/resources/interrupting-bias-calling-out-vs-calling-in. Accessed September 25, 2023.

8. Fulghum R. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. 1st ed. New York: Villard Books; 1988.