By: Jacqui Higgins-Dailey
Decrying cancel culture is proving privilege. When someone gets called out for offensive language or behavior the only thing cancelled is the presumption they can do it again with plausible deniability about the impacts to their actions. It means they have been seen.
“Cancel culture” is becoming synonymous with fragility. Pundits increasingly resent when racial, cultural and sexual norms are enforced in public. They bemoan cancel culture as a form of censorship, despite the fact that no one has actually been “cancelled.” They grieve the loss of free speech when they’re merely being taught a lesson: there is currency in our words and the price paid is accountability.
People who condemn cancel culture as virtue signaling or a way to censor and squash free speech: we see you.
A quick Google search reveals these people are:
- Predominantly white
- Have something to lose by being on the receiving end
- Wrap their fragility in a guise of lost “free speech” and open dialogue
Consider this. Is free speech infringed when a listener lets it be known they take offense to the message?
Calling someone out is hardly imposing “morality” and most certainly doesn’t rise to the level of allowing companies to deny medically prescribed birth control to women when business owners “don’t believe in it.” In the latter instance, people’s actual health is at risk. In the former – the ego is at risk.
As Sarah Hagi said, in a 2019 Time article “… cancel culture isn’t real, at least not in the way people believe it is. Instead, it’s turned into a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to.”
Most of the people writing about the dangers of cancel culture are those who are more likely to have their PRIVILEGE challenged when being called out. A culture that listens to white voices over marginalized voices amplifies white voices over BIPOC voices. As a white woman, I do not exclude myself from this cultural phenomenon.
What actual damage is cancel culture inflicting? No one is being silenced. No one is being denied services or basic rights. People feeling embarrassed are personally injured. Egos are bruised. Careers are impacted. Boycotting is our right as citizens of this capitalist society – we spend our money where we want to share our support. That is hardly an infringement on anyone’s rights when they lose customers, fans, etc.
Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She writes that cancel culture can be dangerous, stating that “achieving social change requires pulling along vast groups of people who don’t get it at first and then gradually come around. They will do so more readily when they don’t fear that anything they say can and will be used against them by the places they depend on for education, employment and political representation. The current movement toward a more equitable, just society will be strengthened by rejecting an instinctive impulse to appeal to authorities to punish errant speech.”
Let’s translate this – but first know that BIPOC have been translating this for us (white people) for a very long time and to no avail. What Nossel seems to be saying is that white people need marginalized people to be “nice” and “palatable” when advocating for themselves. There is a term for this. It’s called tone policing. If you want more information on tone policing and how it equates to violence and silencing, you can read Layla Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy.
Behavior has consequences. For example, racist behavior can predictably cost someone their job, or a scholarship, when the granting organization deems that behavior detrimental to its mission. This is not new. It is certainly not dangerous. If white people no longer hold the same degree of privilege held for centuries and begin suffering more repercussions for overtly/covertly racist, bigoted speech this does not equate a constitutional crisis.
Cancel culture IS open dialogue. Very rarely do we witness the person on the receiving end of a call-out actually stopping to listen and engage in a dialogue with their detractors. Even more rare is a purely redemptive apology.
Alarmists continue to label “call-outs” as cancelling.
Replace “cancel culture” with the term “call-out culture.” In a recent piece on Well & Good titled, Reframing Cancel Culture: Why Calling Someone Out is an Act of Service Erin Bunch spoke with a variety of anti-racist activists who help deconstruct why call-out culture is not only crucial to racial justice activism, it’s a gift.
Bunch asks Maryam Ajayi, founder and CEO of accessible wellness organization Dive in Well to explain what a call-out is. “… (calling out) …refers to one person or entity bringing awareness with intention to another person or entity about a harmful or otherwise problematic behavior they committed. This can be—and, these days, usually is—done publicly. (To call someone out privately is technically to call them in.)”
In the piece, Ajayi continues to explain that when you believe someone can do better, calling them out is “an act of service for a higher good, and it’s rooted in love.”
The danger of call-out culture lies in prioritizing the feelings of the person being called out over those of the people being oppressed. Bunch says in her piece, “…framing cancel culture, specifically in reference to racial-justice issues, as a tool that victimizes the subjects of a cancelation or call-out is racially problematic, panelist Rachel Ricketts, Well+Good Changemaker and founder of the Spiritual Activism, said during the event. That’s because labeling cancel culture as ‘bad’ in this way is ultimately white-centering in that it shifts focus away from the behavior or opinion that resulted in the call-out and is instead more concerned with prioritizing white feelings and white comfort. The root issue—the one that catalyzed the cancel or call-out—though, remains protecting people in marginalized communities who suffer from systemic racism. ‘We generally talk about cancel culture under the guise of white supremacy, meaning that we feel that cancel culture is some form of an act of violence,’ she says. ‘[Instead], can we think about cancel culture in a way that it’s actually an act of restorative justice? I can cancel you in a way that restores my healing.’
When someone of a marginalized group says they are being harmed, we (the dominant group) say the harm wasn’t our intent. But impact and intent are not the same. When a person doesn’t consider the impact their beliefs, thoughts, words and actions have on a marginalized group, they continue to perpetuate the silencing of that group. Call-out culture is a tool. Ending call-out culture silences marginalized groups who have been censored far too long. The danger of cancel culture is refusing to take criticism. That is stifling debate. That is digging into a narrow world view.
Updated: September 12, 2020
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey has been a public librarian for 10 years. After three years as adjunct faculty, she is currently a full-time residential faculty librarian at Glendale Community College in Arizona. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico and a masters in library science from the University of North Texas. She is passionate about information literacy instruction and loves to read, write, hike and travel.