Why Cancel Culture Matters
to me, to you, to us.
In 2017, I was accused of being an “abuser” and a “misogynist” to an audience of 11,000 people after telling the aggrieved individual that they seemed like a TERF—after they accused me of being a misogynist. Reading this sentence back, it sounds almost comedic. It’s like a caricature of itself. Yet, it happened. And unfortunately, there was very little comedy to be found in the moment.
I was harassed for 5 months by this person. They threatened to sue me. Then, they threatened to blackmail me with further false allegations unless I publicly apologized. They got third parties involved, including leaving fake reviews on my business page. They made multiple accounts to continue harassing me. By the end of it, they publicly declared some “pest” (context clues indicated: Me) would be “gone for good soon” like a “slimy slug underneath [her] heel where they belong.”
In the beginnings of this incident, I too made a (de-identified) post to my 600 followers, defending my right to explore and express my gender, declaring some insults they hurled at me abusive, and doubling down on my interpretation of them as TERF-like. It was a classic scene in the call out world, really. Yet it continued on and on, escalating intermittently even after I had blocked them.
Throughout those 5 months, I felt forced to address the issue a few times again when she made periodically made contact. Every day for those 5 months—the full year following, really—I was terrified of what might happen next. Checking my phone when I had notifications felt like an icicle to the gut.
I am not a person who likes to admit when a person scares or intimidates me. As a rule I do my best to not be intimidated or silenced by bullies. But with the combination of this person’s social capital in the industry I had just quit my full-time job to break into, alongside her demonstrated impulsivity and vindictiveness, I felt terrified. Given the “gone for good soon” post, I started wondering if this person was actually trying to get me killed.
I spent New Years of 2018 being talked out of killing myself. I have battled mental illness for the better part of a decade, and even in my worst depressions I had never actively considered or attempted suicide until this experience.
In writing this article, I re-acquainted myself with Natalie Wynn’s (Contrapoints) video, Cancelling. She has been ruthlessly canceled online. I highly recommend watching this video if you are struggling to understand what exactly “cancel culture” means. While her experience is a much, much larger scale than mine and in a different context with different reason, the spirit of this quote captures the level of fundamental betrayal and broken heartedness I felt when this happened.
In a way, leftist Twitter finally accomplished what 4chan, Nazis, stalkers and TERFs have been trying and failing to do to me for years. They've made Twitter into a platform so hostile to my existence that I've decided to leave it forever. And they’ve demoralized me to the point I could barely get out of bed for a month. And I know that sounds really melodramatic, but I'm just trying to be honest with you about what a melodramatic person I am.
I find I have trouble convincing people of the severity of the pain that being canceled causes because I think it's just hard to imagine if you haven't been through it yourself. And I don't know a more succinct way to convey it to you than by telling you that, in the last few years, I've been harassed by Nazis, I've been harassed by TERFs, I've been stalked, I've been doxxed, I've been threatened, I've been sexually assaulted. And the pain of being canceled, of being totally trashed by other trans people online for years, has been more difficult for me to cope with than all the rest of it combined.
And, like Wynn, I find resonance in the words of Jo Freeman, who wrote about the eerily similar phenomenon of “trashing” in her 1976 article published in Ms., TRASHING: The Dark Side of Sisterhood:
I had survived my youth because I had never given anyone or any group the right to judge me. That right I had reserved to myself. But the movement had seduced me by its sweet promise of sisterhood. It claimed to provide a haven from the ravages of a sexist society, a place where one would be understood. It was my very need for feminism and feminists that made me vulnerable. I gave the movement the right to judge me because I trusted it. And when it judged me worthless, I accepted that judgment.
I have been through hell and back in my life, although from a young age I was self-assured and refused to let others control me. Nevertheless, other people hurt me, and my psyche has sought to destroy me for years. Yet nothing was as painful and soul-shattering than my experience being “canceled” online. It felt like, more than the violence from this person, this entire ideology, the church at which I worshipped for years, had abandoned me. I had submitted myself to its doctrine, and finally, it deemed me unforgivable. At least God offers a path to redemption. Woke world has no such thing.
This was 3 years ago and I thankfully feel that far away from it. That experience no longer has a chokehold on me. Really it is what forced me to release the white knuckle grip with which I clung to my ideological beliefs. It made it impossible for me to sit in the cognitive dissonance of knowing that public shaming is cruel and ineffective, yet believing that punishment and retribution was acceptable “because oppression”; of knowing that people lie and falsely accuse others of being “bad” (I lived this as a child at the hands of adults), yet conceding to the logic that we must always believe anyone who claims harm from a certain positionality.
I could not simply see this as a one-off experience of abuse from a bad actor. It would be delusional to not see this as a pattern that is fully permitted—even rewarded with the seductive currency of social media engagement—in the world of social justice. Not only had she weaponized the (un)logic of call out culture to abuse me, claiming she was under attack for being a woman, I had actually tried legitimizing my own claims from an identity standpoint.
When the first altercation in the comments happened (“Maybe you’re just a misogynist,” “Maybe you’re just a TERF”—truly schoolyard-level nonsense), I panicked. I did the thing I thought was the most righteous and just. I called out the behavior. This is what I thought was the only way to regain my balance. I was afraid of being publicly accused of being a woman-hater. I will say, though, I would’ve preferred that to abuser.
I was consumed by fear of her, of the mob, of the hunt, of the performance.
I imagine she was too.
I’ve though a lot about this. I try my best to humanize the people who hurt me, though it doesn’t come all at once. It has taken me a long time. In retrospect, I think her behavior, as cruel it may have been, is indicative of exactly what is wrong with this culture, but not only because of her cruelty. This woman was so furious at the notion of—likely also afraid of—being branded with an irredeemable epithet that she became fixated on harassing me for 5 months.
I wonder, without the looming threat of the cancellation mob, would this woman have done this? Was her violence ultimately a self-protective reaction in a culture that she knew would try to cancel her if the word “TERF” became forever enmeshed with her brand? Without cancel culture, would this have happened at all?
I don’t think it would have. I wouldn’t have been afraid. I wouldn’t have felt the need to defend myself immediately. I wouldn’t have taken her threats as seriously. I would have been able to avoid my bout of suicidality without this extreme stressor.
This story is why I care so much. I have lived it. I have lived every side of it. I see what it does, and I see what it fails to do. I was psychologically terrorized by this person. By the end, I posted every “receipt” I had collected. She never contacted me again after that, thankfully. Someone messaged me and said they had seen this woman do something like this to someone else. Yet, I was not helped. I was still wounded. There is no community to hold this person accountable. There is no community to tend to me, or to her. There is an audience. That’s all there is.
A year after this happened, in the fall of 2018, I started having nightmares of this happening again. I became paranoid, bordering on delusion, afraid that strangers somehow knew what had happened and they would believe her. My therapist was from the same town as this woman and I wondered, What if she finds out and tells people? I have never in my life experienced that type of mental distortion or fear. The flashbacks were physically painful. It’s not a joke. It’s not an internet skirmish. This type of violence is traumatizing to people involved. The culture that enables and rewards this is even frightening to the people who see the spectacle unfold. What if that happens to me one day? So, people feel coerced into playing along.
I have received responses to my recent writing on “cancel culture” that say 1) its existence is a mere figment of the privileged’s imagination. Other floating criticism includes, 2) cancel culture is a misnomer for a process of sacred vigilante justice in a country with a useless legal system. Some go so far as to saying there is a divinity to the call out. 3) Others dismiss the connection between social justice and “cancel culture,” saying that the former has nothing to do with the latter. The latter is just “general toxicity” of the internet.
I firmly disagree with every one of these perspectives.
While it may not be the world’s most horrific social ill, it is hurting individuals, relationships, communities, and the movement for a more just world. It does disproportionate harm to people who have the least amount of resources—material, psychological and relational—to withstand the call out fall out.
2) Spiritualist perspectives on retributive justice have no place in this discourse, in my opinion. Invoking divinity when discussing issues of ritualistic abuse is dangerous, especially to dismiss criticism of it and even legitimize it, is entering cult-like territory in my opinion (and experience, as someone who used to indulge in that sort of thought).
3) Punitive justice is, of course, not exclusive to “woke” “social justice” (more aptly: neoliberal identitarianism). And public “call outs” alone are not sufficient to foster what I call “cancel culture” in this ideology. For example, we could possibly have a world where high-powered CEOs get “canceled” for abuse of power and wealth hoarding without that fostering a “culture” of fear and gossip and the normalization of exile within the specific context of a shared ideology or movement. Yet, there is a specific way that punitive justice in the form of “cancelling” merges with the ideology of neoliberal identitarianism.
First of all, what is cancelling? It is a nebulous term, to be sure. It is a broadly applied term. Some use it to denounce mere criticism. When I use it, I refer to the accountability spectacle.
This is normally how the spectacle goes: A person is publicly accused of some type of violence or harm by another(s) through a social media post. Attention is drawn to the spectacle, perhaps by tagging others in the post or asking the audience outright to “signal boost.” Then, those in the audience spread the word, decrying the accused’s bad language or behavior, or contacting them demanding “accountability.” What that “accountability” looks like is variably, and not always clearly, defined. Games of telephone ensue. Often, these accusations reappear after a time, decontextualized, and the cycle continues.
Natalie Wynn outlines seven “tropes” of cancel culture in her video Cancelling. While Natalie’s video is more focused on the relationship between “the mob” and the influencer (and their career), rather than experiences with horizontal violence, I think this remains a useful framework for understanding the foundational impulses and logic of cancel culture. And even still, in the case of online cancel culture, there generally is a lack of community; instead, there is a relationship between a person and their audience. More on that soon.
Cancel culture Trope 1: Presumption of Guilt
We legally have the presumption of innocence. But canceling does not abide by the law. Canceling is a form of vigilante mob justice. And a lot of times, an accusation is proof enough.
Cancel Culture Trope 2: Abstraction
Abstraction replaces the specific, concrete details of a claim with a more generic statement.
Cancel Culture Trope 3: Essentialism
Essentialism is when we go from criticizing a person's actions to criticizing the person themselves. We're not just saying they did bad things. We’re saying they’re a bad person.
Cancel culture Trope 4: Pseudo-Moralism or Pseudo-Intellectualism
You can pretend you just want an apology; you can pretend you're just a “concerned citizen” who wants the person to improve. You can pretend you're simply offering up criticism, when what you're really doing is attacking a person's career and reputation out of spite, envy, revenge. It could be any motivation.
Cancel Culture Trope 5: No Forgiveness
Cancelers will often dismiss an apology as insincere, no matter how convincingly written or delivered. And of course, an insincere apology is further proof of what a Machiavellian psychopath you really are.
Cancel Culture Trope 6: The Transitive Property of Cancellation
Cancellation is infectious. If you associate with a canceled person, the cancellation rubs off. It's like gonorrhea, except doxycycline won't save you this time sweetie.
Cancel culture Trope 7: Dualism
It's binary thinking. People are either good or they're bad...[I]f a person says or does a bad thing, we should interpret that as the mask slipping; as a momentary glimpse of their essential wickedness.
The culture emerges from an approach to “abuse” that is punitive and demanding of the accused. People who “do harm” are generally seen as disposable and worthy of ostracization. In practice this results in an authoritarian culture of conformity, obedience, surveillance and fear. Paranoia and hostility are commonly felt, leaving little room for vulnerable intimacy to bloom. Relationships become shallow sites of distrust rather than exploration. Dynamics of dominance and submission are commonplace (and not the fun, consensual kind).
adrienne maree brown illuminates some of the dynamics at play:
the call outs generally share one side of what’s happened and then call for immediate consequences. and within a day, the call out is everywhere, the cycle of blame and shame activated, and whoever was called out has begun being punished.
we are afraid, and we think it will assuage our fears and make us safer if we can clarify an enemy, a someone outside of ourselves who is to blame, who is guilty, who is the origin of harm. we can get spun into such frenzy in our fear that we don’t even realize we are deploying the master’s tools.
many of us seem to worry that if we don’t immediately jump on whatever mob wagon has pulled up in our dms, that we will be next to be called out, or called a rape apologist or a white person whisperer or an internalized misogynist, or just disposed of for refusing to group think and then group act. online, we perform solidarity for strangers rather than engaging in hard conversations with comrades.
Partly responsible for this culture is, of course, the anti-social architecture of corporate social media, which rewards competition for virality and the propagation of influencer-follower parasocial relationships. It enables anonymity and instant connection. It allows for thousands of people to yell into the void all at once, even when “the void” is actually a human being. Yet, what distinguishes the “cancel culture” of “leftism” from typical online harassment campaigns you’d see at the hands of 4chan or kiwifarms, is its relationship to ideology. It is not only bullying, nor is it only entertainment.
Cancel culture functions as a process of community surveillance. It searches for moral impurity, a slip of a mask, and reacts to it with condemnation. The culture keeps people in line with the doctrine of the day. It is a paradoxically decentralized-yet-authoritarian means of control. While in some-or-many cases legitimate harm has been done, that is not always the case. And inherent to cancellation is a lack of “due process,” which is enabled by the mis-applied ethos of “believe women/survivors/marginalized people.” In my own case, I can confidently say any “harm” I may have done by calling this person a TERF was not worthy of public condemnation as an “abuser” nevermind 5 months of harassment.
Part of the issue with how cancellation is employed on the left is that we have collapsed the notion of harm. We have flattened what danger is, and coupling that with a black-and-white punitive approach to “accountability” means that these public spectacles, which can result in undue distress and negative material ramifications, are misused or even manipulated for momentary gain.
What’s more, in neoliberal identitarianism, identity confers functionally infallible authority in discussion of harm. (Let me be extremely clear: I am saying this happens ONLY in the context of this ideology, in which people are actively seeking to adhere to the ideology in cases of the vigilante justice of accountability spectacles. NOT in society at large, and certainly not in the criminal justice system.) Functionally that means, if a woman claims that a man has done something misogynist, he cannot argue; her subjectivity is more True than his in this case. While not everyone abuses that, some do. And that some, in a community “justice” process that has absolutely no built-in checks and balances, can do a whole lot of damage.
It is because of that damage, including the damage done to me, that drives me to so vocally speak out about cancel culture. Public call outs can significantly influence people’s mental health. This is the case every person who participates: the accuser, the accused, and the audience. In cases of legitimate harm, accusers can be bullied. The people who watch these spectacles become increasingly anxious and scrupulous. This is a problem especially for people with OCD (something I have mentioned on my Instagram, to which people responded affirmatively). This culture creates disconnection and fosters distrust rather than solidarity.
The cancellation spectacle hurts us so much more than it helps. This ideology, too, is not working. Identity politics are crucial, but neoliberal identitarianism is not the only way to engage with identity.
I plan to, in time, write more exhaustively about what I mean when I say “neoliberal identitarianism.” I have written a mini-essay / scraps on this which are available to paid subscribers. And also a clearer breakdown of how and why identitarianism “confers functionally infallible authority” on the basis of identity.
In the meanwhile, check out White Purity by Asad Haider, his book Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, and this interview with him on The Intercept; this podcast interview with academic Annie Olaloku-Teriba and her essay Afro-Pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness, and Fucking Cancelled podcast for critical engagement with ideas related to neoliberal identitarianism.
I also highly recommend subscribing the the Fucking Cancelled podcast Patreon to unlock access to Jay’s essay “An Introduction to the Nexus.” Really thoughtful and thorough explanation of identitarianism and analysis of how cancellation / cancel culture functions in what they call the “nexus.”