The problem with “cancel culture”

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One of my greatest fears is waking up to find that my Twitter mentions have been inundated with people calling me out for something problematic I tweeted. Perhaps they even took a screenshot of something I posted years ago, lest I delete the incriminating evidence and deny it exists. The fear of being the “problematic fave” of the day — or worse, even longer — cripples me to the point that I find it hard to share my opinions on social media.

My fear is the lived reality for a lot of high-profile people on the Internet, especially those known in social justice and activist spaces. In these communities in particular, the things people say and share are constantly scrutinized, and a single “wrong” tweet or statement can ruin people’s credibility. This phenomenon is called “call-out culture,” or “cancel culture,” and involves the public denouncement of those perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or perpetuating any other forms of bigotry.

While many would agree that it is necessary to call out bigotry, the prevalence of call-out culture creates toxic online spaces that are not conducive for learning. Call-out culture presumes that humans are either born woke and are good, or weren’t and are bad. It fails to recognize that people are able to, and routinely do, develop new ideologies over time and shed ones that they’ve outgrown.

This presumption is clear in terms of the common practice of users reposting or resharing problematic statements made long ago by others, and using that post to discredit anything that user says or believes now. Take Brother Nature for instance. The 20-year-old Twitter personality recently faced backlash for racist tweets he sent when he was 12. Before he could apologize for his past statements, he had to make his Twitter account private because of all the attacks he was facing.

It’s important for people to take responsibility for their past actions, but call-out culture does not give individuals being called out room to do so. Instead, the incriminating evidence equates to a person being “canceled” and any apologies they offer are dismissed. Given the fast-paced nature of social media, this means that people who are called out are often ostracized — immediately unfollowed or blocked —  before they even get a chance to redeem themselves.

Additionally, call-out culture often seems to diverge from its supposed intention of holding people accountable into a justification to insult and demean people. When someone on social media makes a mistake, they are often then not only denounced for that action but deemed completely unworthy as a person. Take, for instance, the case of Nigerian dystopian fiction author Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor was rude to a Twitter user who declared that she was going to be one of the best writers to come out of Nigeria, replying that “talk is cheap.” Other Twitter users then called Okorafor out for discouraging the user, and some went as far as writing off her award-winning books as “trash.”

The main issue with call-out culture, however, is that we lose opportunities to educate, especially within activist spaces. Instead of calling out people by insulting and shaming them, we would do better to take time to explain why what they said was hurtful or problematic. While some might argue that this education is labor, and too much unpaid labor can be detrimental to the activist doing it, how will we ever progress if we do not educate or do the labor of helping others learn? How do we win over new people and challenge problematic mindsets if we do not take the time to educate them?

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made a similar argument in a speech at Harvard in May. Adichie gave an account of how a presenter at a talk in London mispronounced her name — calling her Chimichanga instead of Chimamanda — even after they practiced how to pronounce it over and over. She then talked about how she re-told this story to a dinner party guest who then got angry that the presenter did not try harder. Adichie was not, however, angry at the presenter. She didn’t feel that the presenter had made a mistake out of malice or mockery, but had made it despite intending to pronounce her name right. Adichie used this anecdote to illustrate why people must check for intent and context, and be empathetic before rushing to attack others for statements they make.

“Think of people as people, not as abstractions who have to conform to bloodless logic but as people — fragile, imperfect, with prides that can be wounded and hearts that can be touched,” Adichie said. “Literature is my religion. I have learned from literature that we humans are flawed, all of us are flawed, but even while we are flawed, we are capable of enduring goodness.”

A lot of people, however, conflated this to the time she came under fire for making problematic statements about transwomanhood. People saw it as her using her negative experience with cancel culture to pass a lesson on empathy and checking for intent.

Of course, no matter how we approach them, not everyone wants to learn or examine their opinions. This reality should not blind us from the fact that many other people are willing to learn from their mistakes if given the opportunity and guidance to do so.

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Garnett Achieng’
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