Emma Peyton Williams
Why "canceling cancel culture" must be anti-carceral
On July 7th, 150 writers and public figures published an open letter in Harper's Magazine titled, "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate" that defends the value of "the free exchange of information and ideas" against the rise of "cancel culture." Signed by many well-known writers and academics (including Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, and J.K. Rowling) this letter quickly circulated online and has come to be known as the "cancel cancel culture letter." The authors state that though they support the current uprisings against police and prisons, they caution against "an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty." How ironic, as this letter is a great oversimplification in and of itself.
When we talk about cancel culture, we must also talk about survival and abolition. The current discourse about "cancel culture" misunderstands canceling as a new and reactionary trend that hinders public speech. While hindering public speech is undeniably an issue, this is not how canceling began. "Canceling" has long been a survival strategy for marginalized communities: women and gender non-conforming people warning each other to look out for a particular creep in their neighborhood, people of color alerting new coworkers of color to the racist behavior of a certain colleague, etc. Historically, "canceling" is a way that marginalized persons and survivors have looked out for and protected one another without police and prisons; communities have taken care of each other without requiring people who cause sexual harm to register or criminalizing people who commit racist acts through anti-hate crime legislation.
In the rise of the internet era, it is natural that these community care measures have become digital. The shift to digital canceling has blurred the lines over whether or not this practice remains anti-carceral. While the intentions of canceling originated as a means to equip marginalized friends and survivors with the information they need to keep each other safe, the rapid growth of this practice has led to a shift in the methods and the meaning of canceling. Now canceling can look like public postings condemning one's behavior and doxxing (distributing one's personal information online. This often includes sharing one's place of work and contact information.)
"Canceling" has become so widespread that it has little concrete meaning anymore. Last month I saw Conan Gray, a young queer pop singer-songwriter, get "canceled" when the hashtag #conanisoverparty started trending because Conan Tweeted "boys r ugly and so so stinky that's why i'm a lesbian !" I don't know enough about Conan Gray to make any larger statements about his character, so I will only comment on this tweet. While you can debate whether or not it's appropriate for queer men to jokingly call themselves lesbians (as a lesbian I feel fine about it in this context), I think it's clear that "canceling" Conan Gray was not a step for community safety in this instance. The "canceling" of Conan Gray is representative of a new wave of canceling that I believe is an embodiment of insecurity and white fragility. I believe it is this same insecurity and white fragility that motivated the "cancel cancel culture letter."
As many white liberals and progressives become invested in anti-racist work and what were once seen as "radical" criticisms of police and prisons, many feel unclear about their place and role in social change. For the first time ever, my mother showed me her Instagram feed and asked, "Am I going to get canceled for posting the black square? I thought I was being an ally by silencing my white voice." Until now, I didn't know that she knew what canceling meant.
In response to this new wave of canceling, many feel fear, and understandably so. The idea that one's public image and relationships might be damaged is unsettling at the least, and for those who rely on their community to get their basic needs met, this is a threat to one's safety and wellbeing. But we know that white supremacy leads to an individualistic, competitive, and perfectionist culture. Naturally, when we feel our connection to community and resources is threatened, we fall back on these habits which white supremacy culture taught us would keep us safe. We fall into the trap of wanting to be "perfect" and do no harm, which experience tells us is impossible. Harm is a painful, inevitable reality of being in relationships with one another. Regardless of our wonderful intentions, we step on toes, we say things we don't mean, we fumble our words. These human faults are informed and exacerbated by the oppressive cultures that we are socialized to uphold.
So instead of working to avoid harm entirely – which we know is impossible – we often choose one of two routes:
1) We shut down. We stop engaging with social change and stop working through challenging ideas. Or in another manifestation, we "cancel cancel culture" and cry "freedom of speech!" when we refuse to entertain the possibility that we've caused harm by reinforcing oppressive systems through our actions.
2) We point fingers. It is hard to be canceled while you are being valorized for canceling someone else. We clamber for the throne of "the perfect activist/friend/anti-racist/white person," disposing of others along the way who are just like us: humbly, imperfectly, trying to do better.
This new wave of canceling is no longer anti-carceral. It is not a creative community notification system; it is both a mirror and a precursor to carceral systems. A prominent example is the arraignment of Amy Cooper, the white woman who called 911 on a Black birdwatcher who asked her to leash her dog in Central Park. Amy Cooper was quickly fired, required to surrender her dog, and she is now being arraigned for a false 911 call. Many would argue that losing one's job is not a carceral punishment but instead a deserved consequence; that people who cause racial harm should not maintain positions of power, like her job managing an investment portfolio. I will leave it to animal welfare experts to determine whether or not repossessing her dog was warranted. But does criminalizing her actually bring us closer to disinvesting from the criminal punishment system as a response to harm? I don't think so. A system that initially kept individuals safe from harm without involving the criminal punishment system is now yet another pathway to criminalization.
So while I similarly value free speech, I am less concerned about cancel culture's hindrance of "open debate and toleration of differences," than I am about the way that cancel culture has become a conduit for the criminal punishment system, or the ways that the process of "canceling" parallels the carceral practices we are trying to move away from. The difference between doxxing and surveilling, – a tool that has often been used to intimidate and punish radical organizers – is murky. While I won't link to them because I don't want to spread their harm, Canary Mission is a salient example of this. Both the carceral system and contemporary cancel culture make a commentary about who is and is not deserving of love, community, connection, and opportunity for growth. If we are going to oppose carceral systems, we must divest from them institutionally and interpersonally. This does not mean we should stop sharing vital information that will help us keep our communities safe. But it's time to reframe that practice and think beyond canceling.
So do I think we should "cancel cancel culture" as we now know it? Yes. But not because I think that people who are harmed by others must "tolerate" the ideas that informed their experience of harm, but because we must honor the intentions that originally informed the practice of canceling: community care without police and prisons.