On being the edge of the Overton window that the increasing anti cancel culture turn defines itself through and against
In the bad old days of covid lockdowns and the early days of Leftist opposition to cancel culture, I was in a private discord chat of people with big instagram accounts who were sick of cancel culture. We commiserated and schemed and became friends. We each worked to shift cancel culture in our own ways, and we came together to support each other whenever any of us was put on the public chopping block.
Once, someone in the group shared a video to the group of a very “social justice” type instagram person complaining that cancel culture was going too far. The person making the video was obviously way more inside “social justice” orthodoxy than any of us were, so this video was shared as a positive sign that things were changing. Even people deep in “social justice” world were speaking out against cancel culture, so this was reason to be hopeful. People in the group chat agreed and there was even discussion of reaching out to the video creator as a potential ally. Curious, I clicked through to watch the video.
As described it was a video of a very “social justice” person complaining that cancel culture was going too far and becoming abusive. As I listened further, I heard my name. The video creator insisted that obviously people like Clementine Morrigan go too far, and use “anti cancel culture” discourse to avoid accountability for their obvious badness. They didn’t phrase it exactly like that, but that was idea. Cancel culture was bad in many cases, but Clementine Morrigan was badder still.
I immediately felt my heart rate go up and the familiar waves of nausea roll over my body. The panic response that never quite goes away when cancellers have your name in their mouth. Back then, my First Cancellation wasn’t that long ago, and the panic was intense. I immediately messaged the group chat and was like what the fuck? Why was a video in which a canceller was talking mad shit about me being applauded in my anti cancel culture group chat? Why was this one tiny space on the internet where I could count on not being dehumanized now celebrating a video in which I was being dehumanized?
My friends insisted that we should count it as a win. Of course the “social justice” types would not go so far as to cease their scapegoating of Clementine Morrigan. But it was movement in the right direction, it was something we could work with. I became insanely triggered by this line of reasoning. How had we reached a place where I was acceptable collateral damage? Why did I have to remain the sacrifice to the “social justice” gods in order to secure our pathway out of cancel culture? Why is it obvious that my humanity would not be defended? What the fuck is so irredeemably bad about me?
Years later, things have changed drastically. The Overton window keeps moving. The cancellers not only failed to destroy my career, or drive me to suicide, but more and more people on the Left are willing to come out and say that cancel culture exists and is not a good thing. Recently, Jay and I did an event with Kai Cheng Thom in which we discussed cancel culture on the Left. The event was well attended and well supported, despite the obvious flare up of harassment and slander that came with its announcement. At the end, in the Q and A portion, an audience member compared the title of Kai Cheng’s book I Hope We Choose Love to the title of Jay and I’s podcast Fucking Cancelled, calling the language Jay and I use “polarizing and inflammatory.”
The audience member said nothing at all about the content of Fucking Cancelled, and has probably never listened to it because if they had they would know that Jay and I are extremely generous and kind. Despite being punks who like to say the word “fuck” and aren’t afraid of the phrase “cancel culture”, we are consistently choosing love. Even when it’s extremely difficult and challenging to do so. I answered the hater in the audience by saying that queer people who wanted to reclaim the slur “queer” used to be called polarizing and inflammatory by gays who wanted to be legitimized through homonormativity and didn’t want to be perceived as rocking the boat. I talked about why it’s necessary and important for us to have language with which to talk about cancel culture and pointed out that I constantly put “fuck” in my titles because I swear a lot and believe in talking like a normal person.
But what I want to point out here is the way that this interaction betrays a similar logic to the group chat incident described above. As the Overton window shifts, as it becomes more and more acceptable on the Left to oppose cancel culture, the palatable, acceptable version of “anti cancel culture” becomes intelligible through it’s juxtaposition with the bad kind which is, of course, still evil, and the bad people, who we are, of course, still allowed to dehumanize.
Kai Cheng is a friend of mine, and I deeply respect her body of work, and her courage to speak publicly about cancel culture. It is fucking weird the way that we are placed in juxtaposition when the principles that underly both of our bodies of work are very much in alignment. Critiques of cancel culture coming from Kai Cheng, and other thinkers more accepted within “social justice” culture like adrienne maree brown, are integrated into “social justice” culture through the reassuring insistence that there are still bad guys who we will never have to accept. I am, unfortunately for me, one of the bad guys.
Importantly, this situation sucks for both sides of the equation, because the existence of bad guys is also a tool to keep people in line. You better bend over backwards to soften and sweeten your challenges to dehumaization lest you say something that could be framed as “inflammatory” or “polarizing”, aka watch yourself. The existence of bad guys is always a threat. And yes, of course, people tagged Kai Cheng with demands for “accountability” for daring to freely associate with the likes of me and Jay.
People sometimes say to me “I don’t know how you do it.” To be honest, I don’t know how I do it either. Being a dehumanized scapegoat is exhausting. Being the acceptable collateral, the edge of the Overton window that the increasing anti cancel culture turn defines itself through and against, totally erases my humanity. The entire point of anti cancel culture discourse is the insistence that no one should be dehumanized. No one is disposable. We don’t throw anyone away in service of the liberation of others. There are no acceptable losses. No one is symbol that we get to work out our political struggles on and through. Everyone is a person with a nervous system, hopes and dreams, and a fundamental human need to belong.
My dms and inboxes are full of people who want help, who want witnessing, who want resources, who want someone to see their humanity, weigh in on what’s happening, say something, do something. People come to me, constantly, hoping that I will be a salve and a fierce defender of their humanity. The extent to which I am expected to personally support others through their experiences of dehumanization far outweighs the amount of support I receive during my consistent and frequent experiences of dehumanization. I don’t blame traumatized people for reaching out to me in a panic, but I am exhausted by the fact that people fail to imagine that I may also need support.
If I don’t keep my comments section locked down, it immediately explodes with the parasocial entitlement and anger of people who believe they know exactly what I’m doing wrong. The outrage that the symbol Clementine Morrigan isn’t operating the way someone believes it should operate. Even in my personal life, my reputation as a powerhouse, as someone with impossibly thick skin, as someone brave and wise, means that few people offer me the kinds of emotional support they would naturally assume other people would need if they were in my position. Other people wouldn’t be in my position because most people would have folded a long time ago. My tenacity and stubbornness are evidence that I am not quite human, more like an idea.
In therapy, I was discussing my deepest held fantasy of having a place to rest. A place where I am seen and known and loved and allowed to stop. A place where I am not expected to always hold things for other people or be a symbolic realm in which political ideas are worked out. A place where I am allowed to be hurt, where no one is surprised that I can be hurt. At first my therapist suggested that this fantasy may represent the desires of infancy: a place where we can be taken care of totally. Something those of us with disorganized attachment never experienced. But I believe this fantasy has more to do with a deep desire to be allowed back into humanity. I don’t want to be taken care of totally, I just want to be taken care of. I want to be someone who it is possible to imagine also needs care.
Clementine Morrigan is a socialist-feminist writer, educator, and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and proponent of building solidarity across difference.
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