On The Conflict Around Cancel Culture

Originally published on Instagram on December 9th

The Conflict Around Cancel Culture - Part 1

Recently I've noticed conflicting views about cancel culture. One side says cancel culture isn't real and perpetrators of harm just don't want to be accountable. The other side says cancel culture is real, mirrors supremacy culture, and is destructive to both individuals and collectives. 

Both sides hold a kernel of truth. To claim that one side is truth and the other a lie avoids the complexity of our collective humanness and invalidates the variety of experiences millions of people have regarding call outs. Any claim to the absolute truth regarding humans is actually a superiority claim. Supremacy culture loves to tell us how it is and how we are.

I've personally witnessed many call outs and I've seen them go different directions. I’ve seen call outs for actual harm caused and for differences in worldview. I've seen powerful people called out for abuse and regular people with small followings relentlessly harassed for making a mistake. I've seen privileged people hold themselves accountable and others dig into their privileged position, refusing to account and repair. I've seen less privileged people call out without violence and I've seen them pile onto call outs with emotional and verbal violence, going so far as trying to destroy a person's reputation and livelihood. 

Doing research into canceling I learned of marginalized content creators (not powerful people) who cannot go online due to PTSD from severe harassment, people whose friendships were compromised because association with the subject of a call out brings punishment, and people who committed suicide at least partially in reaction to being torn apart by their own community for one problematic tweet. To claim call outs are never problematic and cancel culture doesn’t exist is to deny the actual harm experienced by many. To claim only powerful and privileged people have issues with canceling is not factual, many marginalized people are deeply afraid of the impact of call outs. You aren’t hearing from them because of that fear. 

It is reasonable that some people are afraid of call outs and canceling if they’ve witnessed harm. It is also reasonable that some people believe powerful and privileged people are unwilling to hold themselves accountable. Both are true because humans are complex and every call out is different. To claim all call outs are the same - all healthy or all harmful - is not reality. 

What’s frustrating is that there is so much possibility in this conversation if we allow ourselves to sit with the complexity. There are many questions to explore. See part 2 for questions to consider. 

The Conflict Around Cancel Culture - Part 2

Questions to consider: 

What warrants a call out? Should call outs be public or private? Are call outs effective? Would a direct conversation be more effective? Are there steps to take before a call out? What do we hope will happen because of a call out? Why are call outs often presented as the first and only option? 

What are the differences between calling out and canceling organizations, sexual abusers, powerful people, fellow activists, and marginalized folk with small followings online? What are the individual and collective power dynamics within specific call outs? 

What are our definitions of violence, harm, abuse, conflict, misunderstanding, and mistake? When are we conflating conflict with abuse? When should we stop communicating with someone who is committed to their superiority and violence? When is trying to ruin reputation and livelihood a community safety measure and when is it coercive violence? 

What makes a good apology? Why are many public apologies judged insincere? Why do we bring up harm people did years ago if they already accounted for it? 

Does one problematic tweet make a person a racist or transphobe?  Or do we make people one dimensional when we reduce them to a few words? How does essentialism play out in call outs (defining a person as forever good or bad based on one or two choices)? Does one misstep make a person irredeemable? 

What do accountability and repair look like? Who gets to decide? Are we offering repair and forgiveness as options? Are we allowing time and space for transformation? Do call outs inspire transformation? Can a person transform while they are being publicly harassed, shamed, humiliated, and/or banished by their own community?  

How do groupthink and mob mentality impact call outs? Is there room for conflict and disagreement? Does social justice culture mirror supremacy culture by demanding perfection and conformity?

How does sovereignty apply to call outs? Does anyone have the right to make demands of others - whether the subject of a call out or the people who associate with them? How do domination and submission show up in call outs and canceling, and how does that mirror supremacy culture? 

How does our trauma - both individual and collective - impact our beliefs and choices around call outs and canceling? 

How do we respond compassionately to the real fear people feel about using their voice because of the violent call outs they’ve witnessed? 

How do we support survivors and honor their safety needs? How do we create safe space for harm-doers who desire to transform? How does abolition respond to people committed to their violence?  

What are non-coercive ways of approaching conflict? How do we make ourselves safe and safe to be with amidst harm on social media? 

There is so much to put our imaginations toward if we move beyond looping in these over-simplified arguments and dismissing people who experience things differently than we do.