Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Cancel culture can go wrong, but that doesn't mean the objections of far-right trolls and social justice activists should be mistaken for having equal worth.
I recently spoke with a reporter about the legacy of Gamergate, a hate and harassment campaign directed at women and people of color in the gaming and tech industries. The offensive, which began in 2014 and lingered for years, was a nightmare for those targeted, sending some women fleeing from their homes out of fear for their physical safety. The threats weren’t just credible, they weren’t just terrifying; they were incessant, sometimes targeting family members as well. Gamergate continues to be a nightmare for many. Just talking about it can subject a person to new waves of abuse and harassment.
The anger of those seeking justice—especially those who are Black, brown, female, or members of other minority groups—is minimized, pathologized, and knee-jerk condemned.
I explained this history to the reporter. Gamergate was far from an isolated, past-tense event, I said; it is an ongoing pattern and behavioral template. You can’t understand the rise of the reactionary far right since the 2016 election without understanding where and how those energies emerged. Nor can you separate the tactics used by Gamergate participants in 2014 from the tactics used by white supremacists in 2019. These include brigading (swarming a person with abuse) and doxing (publicizing private information to facilitate even more abuse), both of which remain common practices within far-right circles.
After I explained all this, there was a pause on the other end of the phone.
“Don’t you think,” the reporter asked, “that there’s a similar energy on the other side?”
I asked them to clarify.
“People on the other side,” the reporter continued. “Canceling people, attacking them for the things they say on Twitter? Calling their bosses, getting them fired? Wouldn’t you say it’s the same kind of thing?”
When I followed up again, the reporter specified even further: they weren’t just talking about attacks against everyday people. They were suggesting that the violence done during Gamergate was the same as pushback against the very kinds of people responsible for Gamergate.
Given the focus of our discussion, and all the horrors I’d just laid out, I was taken aback. But I can’t say I was terribly surprised; this wasn’t the first time a reporter had asked me this type of question. I’ve seen similar assertions made even more frequently in news articles, on cable television, and screamed across social media.
Sometimes the equivocation between bigots on the right and cancel or call-out culture on the left—which tends to align with anti-racist activism, intersectional feminism, and other social justice efforts—is explicit. People say, directly, that “both sides” are responsible for the chaos roaring through our politics. Other times, the equal sign is implicit. Yes, we have a problem with white supremacy or misogyny, this argument goes, and that’s a special kind of bad. But all the social justice warrioring happening on the left is out of control. Cancel culture, often cited as yet more evidence of “PC culture run amok,” is accused of undermining the progressive cause and, ultimately, benefiting racists by equating violence with poorly chosen words, providing “real” racists a convenient smokescreen.
Still other times, the comparison between violent reactionaries and social justice pushback is more subtle. In these cases, cancel culture is denounced as the reason we can’t have nice things online, while bigoted violence is omitted from the discussion entirely. Presumably, bigots still exist in this narrative universe, and are unwelcome figures. But when the focus of all the hand-wringing is on the people pushing back against bigots, the threat level of cancel culture gets unnecessarily elevated. In a New York Times op-ed, for example, David Brooks illustrates how quickly this argument can escalate, suggesting that “The Cruelty of Call-Out Culture” has “taken a step toward the Rwandan genocide.”
Any equivalence, implicit or explicit, between the push for justice and reactionary violence is false. This isn’t a claim about what specific tactics are used on either side. A hateful message and a supportive message could both be written on a piece of paper in pencil; no one would say the messages were the same, simply because the tool was the same.
Similarly, regardless of what tactics might be used, terrorizing, dehumanizing, and endangering someone because of how they were born is a different thing, with different power dynamics and different consequences, than efforts to confront hate. Hate is a source of injustice; it punishes its targets for existing. Confronting hate is a response to injustice; it punishes its targets for making it more difficult for marginalized people to exist. There is, without question, room to critique how social justice efforts unfold in particular cases. But punching a Nazi isn’t the same as being a Nazi. Those on the progressive left and reactionary right should be analyzed and historicized separately.
There is, without question, room to critique how social justice efforts unfold in particular cases. But punching a Nazi isn’t the same as being a Nazi.
The false equivalency between social justice activists and reactionaries doesn’t just obscure the fact that they’re doing categorically different things. It also obscures the divergent rules and expectations social justice activists and reactionaries are subjected to, particularly around the expression of anger. In other words, it is not just that their actions aren’t equivalent; they also aren’t treated equally. The anger of those seeking justice—especially those who are Black, brown, female, or members of other minority groups—is minimized, pathologized, and knee-jerk condemned. By contrast, the anger of those enacting injustice against those very bodies—who tend to be white, frequently male, and members of dominant groups—is taken seriously, placed in context, and very often granted a path to redemption.
• • •
The pathologizing of cancel culture begins with the name itself. For those who criticize the practice, the term “cancel culture” is especially fitting; it represents the dangers of being caught in the eye of the online storm. At any moment, for any reason, the mob will strike, erasing people—maybe even you!—for the slightest mistakes.
It is certainly true that collective pushback efforts can get out of hand, or emerge from a misunderstanding, or even be manufactured by far-right instigators to sow chaos and confusion on the left. It is also true that some people pile on for the sake of piling on; they repeat calls for cancelation not because of a strong ideological conviction, but because being a member of the in-group is preferable to being labeled as one of “them.” Each case is different; some instances warrant strong critique, and so do some people.
That said, broadly condemning all instances of call-out and cancellation—in some cases, equivocating between ideologically motivated critique and people simply being mean to each other—obscures the root of the problem. Collective intervention is very often the only available channel for dissent, because social accountability is so frequently denied those targeted by bigotry and other forms of identity-based violence. Sarah Hagi emphasizes this point, arguing in Time that the angry mob caricature of cancel culture gets the issue all wrong. What’s actually happening, she argues, is a move toward public accountability. Thanks to social media, marginalized people now have public channels for pushing back against the powerful. “This applies to not only wealthy people or industry leaders,” Hagi explains, “but anyone whose privilege has historically shielded them from public scrutiny. Because they can’t handle this cultural shift, they rely on phrases like ‘cancel culture’ to delegitimize the criticism.”
Condemning all instances of call-out and cancellation obscures the root of the problem. Collective intervention is very often the only available channel for dissent.
And there’s a lot to criticize, online and off. Examples of unchecked injustice are everywhere. They are the Jeffrey Epsteins and Harvey Weinsteins, who continue abusing and raping and exploiting with impunity with the backing—even the blessing—of powerful institutions. They are the everyday acts of violence—online and off, professional and personal, big and small—directed at trans and indigenous and immigrant and Black and brown bodies, and framed as that person’s fault, or not fully investigated, or merely ignored by those who take their own embodied safety for granted. They are the hugs and calls for forgiveness when the perpetrator is white and is believed to have a promising future, or is seen as deserving the benefit of the doubt. They are the people who have done wrong, and should face consequences, yet barely experience a hiatus, let alone a cancellation.
The policies of companies such as Facebook and Twitter all but guarantee this last outcome. In doing so, they point to a facet of the debate that is rarely discussed. While the equivalence between justice and reactionary violence doesn’t hold up, there is another, less obvious equivalency that does: the equally destructive effects of the reactionaries themselves and the social media companies that aid, abet, and normalize them. These companies have long privileged the experiences of abusers, antagonists, and bigots over the people these groups target, who are either sacrificed in the name of “free speech” (or maximizing profits, as there is significant overlap between what is said and what is monetized) or are simply not regarded at all by those in positions of power. “Both sides” are simply treated differently. The result isn’t just to obscure what should be a clear line between justice and dehumanization. It also lays the foundations for the existence of cancel culture: if the platforms won’t intervene, the people will.
Opponents of cancel culture, of course, are quick to highlight the people whose lives have been upended by the wrath of the online mob. Sometimes this happens; sometimes people lose jobs or friends or social standing because of what they say online. Sometimes the punishment doesn’t seem to match the crime, say when the offending comment is made out of ignorance or thoughtlessness rather than willful maliciousness. But as ten years of my research on online abuse, harassment, and media manipulation attest, the widespread, structural problem on social media is not people facing backlash for disagreeing with “progressive dogma,” as comedian Ricky Gervais sneered in an interview with the National Review. Instead it is that platforms are calibrated to streamline the spread of sensationalism, falsehood, and harassment—harms that disproportionately affect marginalized communities online, just as environmental toxins in the sky, water, and soil disproportionately affect marginalized communities offline.
In an overwhelming number of cases, those who choose to harm and dehumanize, who make violent threats against vulnerable groups, and who trade in dangerous conspiracy theories, face zero consequences—most basically because they’re often anonymous or pseudonymous, but also because the platforms refuse to step in and consistently enforce their own moderation policies. Many of these abusers are permitted—even outright incentivized—to build entire brands around hate. It took years and significant public pressure, for example, for Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories, bigotry, and targeted abuse to finally warrant an intervention from the platforms. Moreover, these interventions often come with exploitable gray areas, or are otherwise rife with workarounds. For all of Facebook’s talk about combatting white nationalism and supremacy, a recent investigation at the Guardian uncovered that white nationalists and supremacists are still operating openly on the platform. Sociologist Jessie Daniels explores a similar pattern on Twitter. As she argues, hate groups’ longstanding reliance on the platform to organize and coordinate wide-scale attacks isn’t some accident of history. “White supremacists love Twitter,” Daniels states, “because it loves them back.”
All the while, feminists, social justice activists, and community organizers are banned or have content removed, often without clear explanation, or for reasons not equally applied to far-right content. For example, Black activists are regularly suspended for violating Facebook’s hate speech standards. Their infraction? Using the word “Black,” or calling out racism. Suspensions of this kind are so common that activists have a name for it: getting “Zucked.” On Instagram, queer and plus-sized users have been suspended and subjected to “shadow bans,” meaning posts are hidden from view, for violating policies prohibiting “sexually suggestive” content—even when those queer and plus-sized bodies are fully clothed and not engaging in sexualized behavior. Similarly, Twitter applies its moderation policies unevenly and inexplicably, allowing deluge after deluge of misogynist attacks to remain up, but taking swift action against those most frequently targeted by all that abuse. For example, when a queer feminist filmmaker tweeted about a project titled “Love your cunt,” which focused on body acceptance, their account was suspended within minutes for posting “hateful content.”
This is where the arguments of cancel culture hand-wringers fall apart. “I’d say civilization moves forward when we embrace rule of law, not when we abandon it,” David Brooks frets of the dangers of call-out culture. What Brooks fails to acknowledge is that, online, “rule of law” is not granted to certain populations.
These are precisely the kinds of institutional failures that Martin Luther King, Jr., highlighted in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King’s letter was directed to Birmingham’s moderate white clergy members who, while professing support for the overall goals of the civil rights movement, urged activists to slow down, take a breath, and stop being so disruptive. Their actions were tearing Birmingham apart. Responding to the clergy’s concerns about disturbing the city’s peace, King conceded: “I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time. But I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”
For many segments of the population, there is no other alternative for repsonding to constant sexual abuse and harassment.
No other alternative: for many segments of the population, this is a daily lived reality. No other alternative for responding to constant sexual abuse and harassment is why the Me Too movement, founded by Black feminist Tarana Burke, took off the way it did. No other alternative for pushing back against white nationalist, xenophobic policies is why immigration and human rights activists use social media to organize and to make clear: no Muslim ban, no babies in cages, this country belongs to us, too. No other alternative for protecting Black communities against police brutality and other forms of systemic violence is why Black Lives Matters exists as a movement. No other alternative for ensuring a safe and equitable learning environment is why students of color at my own institution, Syracuse University, created the #NotAgainSU hashtag and staged a weeklong campus sit-in.
It should go without saying: not every action undertaken in the name of social justice is so pointed, or even particularly well thought-out; at a recent event, Barack Obama warned that being judgmental to strangers on the Internet should not be confused with serious activism. (Journalists quickly pounced on Obama’s statements as a cancellation of cancel culture, although he only mentioned calling someone out in passing; his remarks were more focused on the political ineffectiveness of saying harsh words without following them up with meaningful action. Superficial wokeness, in other words. Still, that fit the tidy narrative that even Obama hates the screaming hoards.) Obviously, yelling one woke thing one time certainly doesn’t an activist make. But that’s not all that happens online, not by a long shot. A great deal of the behavior lumped under callout or cancel culture reflects deeply engaged, deeply thoughtful, deeply necessary civil rights activism both online and off—activism spurred by the fact that institutions have proven too slow or too disinterested or too worried about the bottom line to adequately address imminent threats against marginalized bodies.
Writing in the New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a blunt assessment of how we got here. The new cancel culture—which differs from the old cancel culture, Coates explains, when the tool of cancellation was used exclusively by dominant voices to silence the marginalized—reflects a world in which the “great abuses” of racism and sexual violence and other systemic marginalizations are now put on display for all to see. The impulse to cancel and call out, he argues, are birthed from compounding institutional failures, hypocrisies, and “capricious and biased” uses of power. Earnest Owens elaborates, also in the New York Times: “As a millennial who has participated in using digital platforms to critique powerful people for promoting bigotry or harming others, I can assure you it wasn’t because they had ‘different opinions.’ It was because they were spreading the kinds of ideas that contribute to the marginalization of people like me and those I care about. It was because I didn’t want them to have a no-questions-asked platform to do this.”
The claim that failed institutions spur vigorous, even vigilante, pushback isn’t specific to cancel culture or the left, as Megan Ward and Jessica Beyer illustrate in a study of the effects of global disinformation. When people feel that no one else will intervene, they’re inclined to take matters into their own hands.
Regarding identity-based harassment, violent bigotry, and disinformation online, it is not just that people feel abandoned by institutions. They have been abandoned, reflecting years of corporate decision-making that, as legal scholars Frank Pasquale and Danielle Keats Citron argue, maximizes harmful speech at the expense of public health. People can’t count on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or YouTube—to say nothing of the United States government, which is currently courting the likes of Mark Zuckerberg in a play to shore up political influence—to do the right thing. And so, they take up the cause themselves. Not every resulting call-out, invective, and campaign warrants unquestioning praise. What they all do warrant, however, is context, and a good-faith inquiry as to why it is happening.
• • •
For critics of cancel culture, discussions of the pervasiveness—and in their view, the excesses—of cancellation often dovetail into lamentations about the death of civility. We used to be able to talk to each other, this argument goes, but now we can’t. This is what makes the impulse to call out and cancel others so damaging. Instead of working through differences, people become heat-seeking missiles for anyone who disagrees.
Well, some people. In the ten years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen anyone take a bigot to task because they’re not using their inside voice. Instead, media coverage of white nationalists and supremacists during and after the 2016 election often marveled at how “polite” and “articulate” the racists were. This isn’t a new framing; as Juan González and Joseph Torres explain in a history of race in U.S. media, journalists have long employed sympathetic language to describe white racial terrorists—including lynch mobs during Reconstruction and settlers who massacred Native Americans during U.S. colonialization—while simultaneously blaming their targets for the resulting violence.
The tendency to transform victims into victimizers feeds into calls for civility, which have for generations been used by members of the dominant group to muffle the frustrations of the oppressed.
Much contemporary news coverage replicates a similar dynamic, as those who have been directly targeted by violent bigots—or clap back when others are targeted, or refuse to sweep wrongdoing under the rug because some time has passed or the perpetrator swears they didn’t mean any harm—are the ones most policed for their volume and tone. And not just policed; often decried as the problem itself.
The tendency to transform victims into victimizers feeds into calls for civility, which according to the Atlantic’s Van Newkirk have for generations been used by members of the dominant group to muffle the frustrations of the oppressed. Indeed, civility was explicitly weaponized to stymie the civil rights movement, which was denounced at the time as deeply uncivil by nervous whites who recoiled from the deliberately confrontational nature of the movement.
Also writing in the Atlantic, Adam Serwer zooms that historical camera out even further. As far back as Reconstruction, calls for civility have been tethered to disenfranchisement. After all, it’s easy to discuss the “race problem” using calm inside voices when the only voices present are white, male, and personally unaffected by the threats to civil rights under discussion. In our present era, Serwer explains, lamentations about the loss of civility have a similarly antidemocratic undercurrent, pointing to a halcyon yesteryear when there were fewer voices at the table, and fewer restrictions on what those in power had to answer for. Civility then and civility now is an assertion of power, and an effort to maintain the status quo. It is best defined, Serwer says, not as “not being an asshole,” but rather as “I can do what I want and you can shut up.”
For all the pathos, disappointment, and often outright disgust projected onto those who opt for direct pushback against reactionary violence, little attention is paid to the subjective experiences of those doing the pushback—their feelings, their fears, their personal motivations. In contrast, those who target and terrorize marginalized bodies are approached as individuals who have stories to tell and grievances to take seriously. Their context, their reasons for acting the way they do, matter.
Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper lays out the root of this discrepancy. There are different standards, she explains, for white anger and white fear, both of which are regarded as “honest” emotions. White anger is legitimized, contextualized, and traced back to past traumas, granting the white folks who feel it a de facto interiority. In contrast, nonwhite anger and fear is minimized, decried as irrational, or framed as an existential threat to the status quo. The only psychologizing it tends to generate is how white people feel about it.
The most obvious example is the deluge of coverage devoted to Trump’s base during and after the 2016 election. Some coverage is, of course, appropriate. Trump won the presidency; Trump, his policies, and his supporters make news. But some coverage isn’t what Trump supporters get. Instead, the interests of the pro-Trump minority—and it has only ever been a minority—are given an outsized amount of attention, coverage, and concern. MAGA anger comes from somewhere, and it is our job to get to the bottom of it. Very often, this means handing Trump supporters a microphone so they can explain—and justify—that anger themselves.
The myopic focus on white anger and fear is most conspicuous, and most insidious, the more dehumanizing and terrorizing the behaviors. Following mass shootings, for example, a familiar pattern emerges. The news media first focuses on the shooter’s manifesto, his (and it is almost always a his) online activities, and the ubiquitous question: Why did he do this? Like clockwork, this reporting spurs a backlash from people such as myself who argue that we should not be oxygenating these views, we should not be handing these people a microphone to say anything. Then, there is the backlash to this backlash: we have to understand why this is happening. Light disinfects, this argument goes. If we don’t crack the code of what inspires a person to pick up an assault weapon and aim it at mostly Mexican American families at a Walmart, we’ll never figure out how to prevent future attacks.
It should go without saying that it is critical to understand the process of radicalization. It is critical to listen to scholars such as Daniels, whose work on the centrality of white supremacy within U.S. culture and the ways that digital spaces have long been havens for violent bigotry provides decades of context for the current far-right resurgence. But there is a big difference between analyzing the conditions that give rise to violent extremism and providing violent bigots a platform to plead their case and their humanity—especially when it comes at the expense of providing a platform to the voices and the humanity of the people they terrorize.
• • •
This hierarchy of personhood plays out in much more subtle ways online. When people who have long been abandoned by institutions take matters into their own hands and name and shame bigots, or unmask serial sexual abusers, or mete out some other punishment for behaviors that threaten public health, the knee-jerk response is to lump their calls together and condemn it as toxic, cruel, and dangerous to democracy. Their anger is perceived as out of control, irredeemable, not worth considering other than to condemn it. Why bother? These are people whose interiority is irrelevant.
If you truly want to do something about cancel culture, take the radical step of doing what you do for everyone else. See them.
Simultaneously, the rise of the so-called “alt-right” online has spurred a cottage industry of analysis, interest, and armchair psychologizing in an effort to “understand” their anger. “In the future,” Daniels tweeted in October 2019, following the release of yet another page-turner about white supremacists, “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes for a book on the alt-right.” Their interiority is relevant. Let’s listen carefully.
In his op-ed, Brooks lamented that “even the quest for justice can turn into barbarism if it is not infused with a quality of mercy, an awareness of human frailty and a path to redemption.” Brooks is right; what’s missing from discourses around call-out and cancel culture is holistic, fully contextualized understanding. What he’s wrong about is the direction the barbarism is traveling when only certain people are given that grace—when the motivations, anxieties, and built-up anger of the victimizers are treated more mercifully than those of the victimized.
The irony, of course, is that failing—or outright refusing—to see both sides of the “both sides” debate deepens the anger of those condemned to invisibility. It also reinforces targeted people’s need for aggressive grassroots pushback against bigots and their apologists—both witting and unwitting. If you truly want to do something about cancel culture, take the radical step of doing what you do for everyone else. See them.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.