There has been a lot of discussion on Cancel Culture recently as a result of an open letter by a group of writers and academics. This post is based on a number of comments I made in Facebook groups where this topic came up.
What is Cancel Culture?
Cancel culture can mean several different things. Partly it is about holding people responsible for their actions, so that society doesn’t endorse and prop up people who are spreading bad ideas and doing bad things. So celebrities who say bad things can find themselves dropped from television shows and such. Journalists who say racist things can find themselves unemployed. That sort of thing.
Jian Ghomeshi was a Canadian radio show figure about whom there were rumors for years. He eventually got outright accused of abuse, and he tried to argue to his employers that it was just rough sex. Some people argue that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but cancel culture recognizes that often wrong is done even if it doesn’t meet the legal standards and that there can be behaviour that is legal and yet deserves to be shunned. So Jian Ghomeshi was fired and shunned. In many cases, it makes sense, because it is hard to prove sexual abuse.
Sometimes it is about rejecting certain music or shows because people found them offensive. Generally the term is applied to the left-wing attempts at protest rather than right-wing attempts, which are still referred to as boycotts or protests.
The problem of course is that different things offend different people. The play Vagina Monologues was first created to help women speak about their private parts and to help people recognize the variety of different ways women feel about them. Some universities made a routine of having it performed once a year. Then some people started to feel like it was offensive to talk about vaginas in a way that doesn’t include transgender people, and so they protested to get the play cancelled. That’s an example of cancel culture. Was it right or wrong? Depends on who you ask.
Sometimes people apply it to individual choices, telling their friends “you’re cancelled” when they think their friends are being out of line. Someone is deemed racist or transphobic or sexist or abusive and they are shunned by their friends. The intent is to support minorities and oppressed people, but sometimes it ends up silencing people. (Can a woman speak out about abuse by a minority person without getting shunned/harassed by the community trying to protect that minority person? What exactly counts as misogynistic? What counts as racist or transphobic?) There’s also questions about whether this actually progresses the topic of just creates different echo chambers where people who have been shunned for being something find other people like them and never learn from the community that might have helped them slowly give up their beliefs. On the other hand, communities of friends have the rights to set boundaries of what is acceptable, right?
Cancel Culture and Violence
Cancel culture can be the equivalent of the pillory, except instead of one person in authority putting the person in the pillory and telling the mob to throw things at them, the mob is stirred up by social media. Sometimes their target deserves it. Sometimes the target probably doesn’t. Sometimes the things thrown are reasonable – calls for accountability – and sometimes the things thrown are unreasonable – death threats, rape threats, etc. People go after the person’s family, friends and employers too sometimes. All in the name of social justice and holding bad people accountable.
Sometimes cancel culture is backed up by protests and threats of violence. Meghan Murphy is a Canadian feminist. When feminist organizations rented space in libraries for her to speak, other people tried to pressure the libraries and sent threats to her. The result was the libraries had two reasons to consider cancelling – does hosting her endorse her position, and is that position one that shouldn’t be shared? And can they facilitate the protection necessary to keep people safe when there were threats? (They shifted the burden of protection to the feminist organizations, requiring them to hire private security guards. They pointed out that renting space is not the same as endorsing the organization, leading to attempts to change the libraries room rentals polices to make it harder for rooms to be rented to discuss controversial issues.)
It is Easy to Miss Hearing Those Who are Silenced
I think it important we act with love and mercy as well as justice, and that we not define the scope of acceptable conversation too narrowly. I think of a young woman rejected by her friends for expressing regret for an abortion because her friends determination to be pro-choice made her remarks uncomfortable and seem traitorous to them. I think of lesbians kicked out of university LGTB groups because their refusal to date a trans woman was taken as proof that they didn’t see her as a woman and thus were transphobic. I think of women involved in social justice work who get “cancelled” because they appeal to the evil police for help dealing with a rapist. These stories won’t necessarily hit the news and people won’t see how the urge towards ideology purity is hurting people.
I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss the open letter by saying that those writers and academics are able to speak out thus cancel culture is not a thing. One of the writers of the letter has responded about the fall out of the letter, but more than that I want to point out that the writers are trying to speak for others… not just for themselves. They may have job security and independent wealth, but they are trying to defend the ability of others to speak out. Others see the harassment that befalls those who have resources and they keep quiet knowing that such harassment could devastate them. I’ve definitely learned to self-censor more in the last few years than I used to, aware that if I earn the ire of the others it could affect my employment opportunities.
Changing Goalposts – Sometimes Good, Sometimes Bad
People also say “if you don’t say racist-or-transphobic things” you have nothing to worry about, but I look at how young adult authors have been pushed to withdraw their books because a book meant to represent one situation (modern day slavery) was interpreted as being about a different situation (enslaved African-Americans) and deemed problematic. Even those who try to do good end up falling short.
On the topic of transphobia, the goalposts are constantly changing and even transgendered people are harassed for not using the “right” terminology. Ten years ago it was progressive to recognize that sex and gender were different things and a person might be of the male sex but her gender might be woman. Now, that is considered transphobic to say.
And in some ways, goal posts have to be moving. When people complain about the hypocrisy of criticizing Trump for visiting Mount Rushmore when Obama and Sanders were not, I see it as a sign that goal posts have moved in a healthy way. The Lakota Soiux are able to talk more freely about how that mountain is the Six Grandfathers and how it was desecrated in carving the figures of presidents on it. The goalposts have moved. We’re recognizing native rights more. And that’s good…. if we can also recognize that it doesn’t make people evil for not having instantly caught up. If we condemn everyone who visited the monument or has an opinion different than the Lakota Soiux, then we have a problem. If we work to change people’s understanding, then it is good.
Sometimes, the moved goalposts don’t work. Sometimes they silence the oppressed. It means something different if one says “prostituted woman” or “sex worker” but the left-wing cancel culture would have journalists, activists and feminists who use “prostituted woman” deplatformed and forced to use the “correct terms” even to the point where formerly trafficked women are told to “shut up” by those who don’t like what they say about prostitution. The changed goalposts make it impossible for a subset of women to be heard.
In the same way, the changing goalposts around transgenderism are making it harder for women to talk about their sex-based oppression. Women are being told they are transphobic for language they used when talking about Female Genital Mutilation. Women are being told it is transphobic if they call the person who raped them a man when the man identifies otherwise. Women are told they are transphobic if they talk about the problem of a sexual offender being imprisoned with vulnerable women. There are problems that need to be worked out to support both women and transwomen, but these problems cannot be worked out if women are constantly being attacked for their language or told that any discussion of the problem marks them as evil.
The Importance of Nuance
I think many people who call others out end up doing a disservice to their cause by treating things like an all-or-nothing agree-or-you-are-evil situation instead of meeting people where they are, finding common ground and helping move people towards the goal. I think that sad, because we need to work so much more on moving towards a more equitable and just society. We need the ability to be nuanced.
Take the issue of Islamophobia. There are lots of people who attack Islam in a very nasty way, not caring about Muslim people and not listening to Muslim people. These generally are right-wing people. Some want to rip women’s hijabs off. Some want to ban women in hijabs from working. Some assume every Muslim man abuses his wife.
However, there are other people – many of them ex-Muslims – who try to make nuanced criticisms of Islam. I’ve seen some of these people write about how they feel ostracized from the left, even while they agree with the left on many things. They feel like the progressive left is attempting to be accepting of all religions to the point of trying to get them to shut up about their criticisms of aspects of Islam. Eventually they get accused of being right wing because right-wing publications are the only ones willing to talk with them or publish their writings.
That is the sort of thing I see happening on the issue of transgenderism too. There are detransitioners who want to talk about the way the doctors helped push them towards transition without being willing to explore the possibility that they were responding to other mental health problems. There are transgender people who want to talk about how even while they are transgender women, they aren’t the same as ciswomen and they see a need to allow ciswomen protection and space. There are people who want to have nuanced discussions – as I believe JKRowling wanted to – who end up getting slammed with transphobia.
We need to be able to have nuanced discussions. Nuanced discussions are sometimes painful because they involve recognizing the possibility that we’re wrong on details. It is easier to block others out and try to shut down the conversation calling it hate speech. Disagreement often feels like hatred. I think that is a mistake. I think it possible to have loving, respectful disagreement.