Issue #19: Cancel Culture and Belonging

"Saying nothing sometimes says the most." — Emily Dickinson

The internet is abuzz about cancel culture. People are tearing down Confederate statues and calling for changes to the racist names and iconography in sports teams, buildings, and consumer brands. Everyday news shows that there's a Karen around every corner hoping to police the lives of Black folks through verbal threats, false police reports, destroying property or other means of social control through their words. With video and digital sleuthing skills in everyone's hands, it's only a matter of time before identities are uncovered.

Over 100 authors and other luminaries co-signed an open letter published in Harper's Bazaar decrying the harshness of cancel culture. There were several high-minded appeals to free speech and the impact on creative expression. In many ways, it feels like we should all walk on eggshells out of fear of being cancelled ourselves due to an accidental misstep or phrase taken out of context. But is that true?

Cancel culture has always existed in some form with certain changes based on the perpetrator. In its current form, cancel culture means that an individual has decided to stop supporting someone, who is often a public figure, based on objectionable actions and/or speech and often campaigns to have others join them as well. Cancel culture emerged from both Black Twitter and the #MeToo movement as other modern day tool of protest to advocate for justice and equity for people who are usually exploited by people in power. Generally, it is used as a tool for greater inclusion.

Much like the concept of reverse racism, the notion that powerful influencers like billionaire author JK Rowling publicly advocating for transphobia are unjustly cancelled belies a perversion of the power dynamics that underline cancel culture. Vulnerable individuals and populations have to use tools like cancel culture to equalize the damaging power dynamic where they are often the victims rather that the aggressors in the narrative systems that power their exclusion from full participation in society. Trump often rails against cancel culture while using those same instruments to get individuals fired and promote the failure of companies and media outlets that he disagrees with.

In contrast, consider a different manifestation of the act of cancelling: doxxing and swatting. Doxxing is the public sharing of personally identifiable information such as one's address, often for the purposing of harassment. Most recently, the mayor of St. Louis doxxed residents of St. Louis on a Facebook livestream who submitted public comments advocating for defunding the city's police force. Swatting takes the disclosure of doxxing further by intentionally make a false report to law enforcement to compel a SWAT raid on a target's home. Both doxxing and swatting have been used by the alt-right to silence feminist activists and others to keep them from advocating for their cause and contribute to their exclusion and suppression, often with lethal impact.

In recent years, popular discourse has tried to equate free speech with consequence-free speech. These are not one and the same. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of speech like an unfavorable performance review or an argument with someone who you care about knows that words can hurt. While people are free to say whatever they want, there are consequences to that speech. Speaking in profanity on a live broadcast can leave you and the TV network you are on open to FCC fines. Yelling fire in a crowded theater can cause you to be charged with public endangerment. What we choose to say, who we choose to say it to, and where we choose to say those words influences safety, the strength of interpersonal relationships, as well the social norms and ethical systems that shape our behaviors.

Cancel culture has existed in American history in numerous forms. The Declaration of Independence was essentially 100 White slave owners and property holders in the American colonies cancelling the British monarchy. Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter describes how woman adulterers were cancelled in the eyes of society as women included in polite society. The Red Scare attempted to cancel artists, intellectuals and others with alleged anarchist and Communist leanings or associations.

American culture doesn't value moderation or nuance but rather certainty as an expression of power. And in a context that values certainty over clarity, recourse will always be swift and severe. This undermines the trust and psychological safety necessary for people to feel a sense of belonging rather than hypervigilance at being punished by a faceless stranger. So it's reasonable for silence to be the response to this acceleration of cancel culture as a coping mechanism to avoid potential shaming and ostracism. Except this fear is not just about coping.

It's about our world splitting into us vs. them in starker ways than it has before in the past. Since we really have been living as Two Americas, the America that has not had to grapple with the legacy and the present of racism simply does not understand the deep pain of hundreds of years of injustice experienced by the other America that has been ignored and dismissed. So when protestors declare that silence is complicity, it is not an exaggeration but rather an expression of what is right and wrong of who is included and excluded in society. To act otherwise is to gas light millions of Black folks with stories and experience that counter the false narrative that racism doesn't exist.

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. — Martin Luther King

Silence is complicity. Racial injustice is cancel culture driven by the active participation of racists in power and their colleagues who passively support these systems with their silence. The fact is that speech and expression have always functioned as levers for defining and redefining belonging. We sanction a set of beliefs and norms when we enable platforms for individuals to share their ideas. Our choice of words bring certain connotations and meanings to discourse, influencing perceptions of urgency and importance.

Rather than criticizing cancel culture as judgmental, cancel culture represents a learning opportunity for all of us as a society to question why we allow certain people and behaviors to belong. Lin-Manuel Miranda recently released a film version of his hit Broadway play Hamilton on Disney Plus. I will admit that I still have not seen it. While the show garnered praise for minority representation by the actors playing the roles of the White founding fathers, it also does not deeply grapple with the founding fathers as slave owners and the inherent contradictions in calling for freedom and liberty while owning humans as property. Although they have been some critical whispers associated with Hamilton due to this significant oversight, Miranda has publicly acknowledged the validity of the criticism and encouraged ongoing dialogue about the subject.

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. — Elie Wiesel

The next wave of cancel culture doesn't have to be division, polarization and mistrust although that may happen in some circles where defensiveness rules the day. Rather, this can be an opportunity and call to learn how to learn and unlearn. Earlier this year, I read Scott Young's Ultralearning which I recommend for level setting and establishing your own self-guided learning journeys. You can check out resources on LessWrong, an online library to help people develop and train their rationality so they can apply it to real-world problems. If you curious about learning about racial equity and unlearning systemic racism, you can join Rachel Cargle's The Great Unlearn and take a look at Attn: White People on Instagram, a visual resource library on ways to fight for racial equality.

Cancel culture is an approach to make a wrong visible and call for greater inclusion. Responding with humility, respect and curiosity goes a long way toward cancel culture continuing to evolve as a mechanism for greater belonging and an expression of love within our society. Cancel culture is a sign that the most vulnerable among us have suffered great cruelty, yet still believe that those who have committed or condoned that cruelty are capable of so much more growth. Ultimately, it’s the belief that we can move from us vs. them to we. I can't think of anything more beautiful or more human than that.