Black Lives Matter Part3: Cancel Culture

How I Understand the Fight for Racial Justice as a White, Vegan Woman: Part 3

For the third part of my series in understanding racism and our current climate of racial injustice, I will take a look at Cancel Culture and its impact. (For the other posts, visit part one and part two.) Cancel culture has been a hot button topic for the last few years as it arose and garnered steam during the Me Too movement. What is Cancel Culture? Dictionary.com defines it as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for ([cancelling]) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

There are many that call for an end to cancel culture and each call is differently motivated. For some, there is concern that it equates to censorship and threatens freedom of speech. For others—myself included—there is concern that it encourages a culture of puritanism in which personal growth is discouraged. However, I believe cancel culture is more nuanced than these critiques and represents both a buoy and an anchor in the fight for racial justice.

Critiques and Endorsement of Cancel Culture

Importantly, cancel culture creates an atmosphere of critical thinking with a lens for identifying actions that promote bigotry and hatred, such that those actions can be named and discouraged. This approach is necessary to any campaign for social justice and change. Critiques that claim this approach/culture is negative because it threatens freedom of speech are motivated by the need to maintain a non-egalitarian status quo. This critique of cancel culture as a threat to freedom of speech, though grounded in injustice, is complicated by the fact that it is technically true for the United States, though not for most other liberal democracies for which hate speech is not a protected right. That hate speech is protected under the US Constitution may be the clearest proof of institutionalized/systemic racism. As a Canadian, I’ve grown up in a culture influenced by anti-hate speech law and the belief that personal freedoms end where another’s begins and no one holds the right to denigrate or threaten the safety (physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise) of another.

Critique of Cancel Culture: Motivations

While I support the growth of cancel culture for its readiness to identify and draw attention to problematic and hateful actions and their actors, I think there are some serious issues with cancel culture that derail the movement for social justice, and those issues have nothing to do with freedom of speech. My concern, instead, is the motivation behind the calls for accountability, as well as the very issue of accountability. Cancel culture lives, thrives, mobilizes online through social media and often through “gossip” and “drama” channels. It is largely consumed in this way, as entertainment for a detached and insulated audience that will move on to the next “scandal” as it inevitably surfaces (or is dug up). Often, cancel culture stops short of demanding real change because the motivation is less about creating positive change through identification and accountability, but instead about creating entertainment and casting/projecting judgment on others and reiterating the false narrative that racism (and bigotry) is an individual problem of “bad people.”

Critique of Cancel Culture: Virtue Signalling and “Purity”

Despite the ubiquity and normalization of racism, there is broad cultural consensus that racism is bad, yet this represents no real challenge to the practice of prejudice. Whether this is because of human nature not to want to accept blame or error, or because of our tendency to dismiss bad actions with good intentions, culturally, it’s hard to move past the bad, the shame, toward accountability and change. This allows racism to triumph even in the face of calls for accountability.

The issue of “badness” becomes a focal point for cancel culture and propagates the phenomenon of “virtue signalling.” In virtue signalling, people can make a big show of their disapproval of the offending individual to align themselves on the side of good and righteous, without actually doing anything to make real and lasting change. It’s generally a pejorative term that points to a performance without genuine action. It’s effectively how cancel culture is performed. When I was seeking a break to my social media consumption it’s partly because of this. Mixed in with justified anger on my social media feeds, were those reading the script of indignation and coasting on their virtue signalling social media posts, the voices of white friends screaming out and threatening to silence those that needed to be heard. What is the right balance between performative virtue signalling and consciousness raising, between speaking out and staying quiet?

One of the difficulties of virtue signalling is that it tends to point outward to observe rather than reflect and to take actions out of context and assess with rigid standards of purity. Within a puritanical culture of cancellation, there is no room for growth, improvement, forgiveness, or compassion; a mistake, lapse in judgment, or gaff, and you’re cancelled. Though we need to demand responsibility be taken for prejudicial behaviour, this approach limits the agents of change when we no longer expect or accept restorative justice from those offenders looking to make amends and improve.

Critique of Cancel Culture: Individual Versus Systemic

The fight for racial justice becomes complicated by the issue of accountability. Cancel culture remains at the individual level, demanding through public shaming a show of personal responsibility without considering the climate of racism that allowed the problematic behaviour’s initial acceptance. So often calls for cancellation are on the basis of past inappropriate action. Indeed, often the problematic/racist behaviour is the cause of the public figure’s popularity. It is necessary, therefore, to see the offense within context: who said what; who provided the public platform; who supported/encouraged the racist performance and the performer’s career; and why was it not initially received with outrage and calls for accountability? To ignore the surrounding context of the offense and place blame solely on the public figure reinforces the false narrative that racism is individual and not systemic. Offending individuals are momentarily “cancelled,” meanwhile receiving increased publicity, and then return to profitable careers, often marketed as edgy, and racism prevails.

What we see, instead, is a pattern of examples like comedian Louis C.K. during the Me Too movement; he was called out by multiple women for his sexual assault/misconduct, took a ten-month break from gigs, and then returned to work at sold out shows. He remains the butt of many jokes now, but his cancelling has done little to impact his financial viability and influence.

Making the Most of Cancel Culture: A Shift to Forgiveness

The solution that I see is not to cancel cancel culture, but to shift calls for accountability to include a broader definition of responsibility that addresses context (the enabling platforms, supporters, audience, etc.) and a big shift away from purity. While accountability needs to be emphasized, focusing on purity is detrimental. The fact is that humans make mistakes and, usually, it is through mistakes that we learn and grow. While cancel culture provides the cultural climate for the necessary acts of calling out bad behaviour and asking transgressors to take responsibility for their inappropriate actions, it has the unfortunate symptom of halting cultural transform in not providing space for growth and reintegration. I believe what is required is adaptation and patience—not patience for racism, but patience for those fallible humans of good intentions trying to facilitate change. Further, the work of patience and calls for transformation should come from other white people. We need to take responsibility for the bad actions of our fellow white people because we benefit from unchecked white supremacy. We need to do this with patience and with action, avoiding the requirement of purity and without invoking virtue signalling to tout our righteousness.

With the most recent publications of Black murders by police and the ensuing political activism and protests, we are seeing the start of real change. Cancel culture and virtue signalling may well be the necessary cultural environment for such movements to gain real traction, but it must do more. It cannot remain in the textual performance. While the critiques of offensive behaviour are necessary, they need to shift focus from only the individual to the systems of oppression that have allowed this behaviour to be accepted. We must not become complacent or silence anger, but we need to direct that anger towards motivation.

As the late Maya Angelou wrote:

If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it. — Maya Angelou

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