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Cancel culture does not prevent abuse
Proponents of cancel culture or ‘accountability’ frequently argue that it is a necessary tool for confronting abuse. People will say that cancel culture is about supporting survivors and keeping our communities safe. How the actual behaviours involved in cancel culture actually result in ending abuse or keeping communities safe is not usually spelled out. To be generous, I will try my best to spell out their arguments for them. In what follows I am assuming that the person has actually been abusive, but it’s also important to remember that many cancelled people have been falsely accused.
The idea, from what I gather, is twofold. The first has to do with physically barring the accused from social spaces so that they won’t be able to abuse people in those social spaces, and warning people about the accused so that people will stay away from them. The second has to do with the concepts of punishment and consequences: we should show people that you can’t ‘get away’ with abuse and this will act as a deterrent.
The question is, do these strategies actually work to prevent abuse or keep people safer?
Barring people from social spaces and banning them from community events is supposedly, at least in part, to keep social spaces and community events safe (the other function of this I think is that it’s supposed to act as part of the consequences or punishment – you did something bad so now you don’t get to take part). Barring someone from a social space or an event does prevent them from committing violence at that space or event or from meeting someone in that space or at that event that they will later abuse. I can give the cancel culture people that. But, there’s more to consider. Leaving aside murder or solitary confinement, there is actually no way to prevent someone from being around other people. We are social creatures and we live our lives in relationship. Even putting someone in jail does not remove them from other people – it just removes them from some other people. So, at best, the cancel culture tactic of barring people from social space only results in moving the problem somewhere else. It doesn’t end abuse. It just makes sure it isn’t happening here. At worst, this tactic actively increases the likelihood that an abusive person will continue to abuse because you have removed from them all social support and they need social support in order to transform their behaviour and because cancel culture permanently marks people, and being permanently marked does not motivate people to change.
When it comes to warning people, the idea is that if a person did something abusive in the past everyone should know about it so that they can protect themselves from having that happen to them, probably by not having a relationship with the accused or, perhaps, by remaining on guard for abuse if they do decide to have a relationship. I don’t think this is a very good method for keeping people safe. First of all, it assumes that people’s past behaviour is a good indicator of their future behaviour, which isn’t necessarily true. People can and do change. People who have been abusive in the past may have totally and profoundly changed their life and are no longer at risk of doing something like that again. For example, people who are addicts and get sober are not going to randomly do things they did when they were drinking just because those were things they did in the past. The reverse is also true. Just because someone never abused anyone in the past, or has never been accused of abusing anyone, does not mean that they won’t do something abusive in the future. The idea of warning is based on the idea of it being more or less likely for someone to abuse based on their actions in the past. This might give you some information about odds, but it isn’t actually clear or dependable information about what the future will be. It also permanently defines people by their pasts, which, as I said above, actually discourages people from changing. What’s the point in doing the hard work to change if no one will ever treat you like you have changed? Finally, relying on warnings distracts us from having conversations about how to spot reg flags for abusive behaviours, how to intervene on and deescalate violence, and how to know if we are at more or less risk of being abused in any given situation. It takes the complex social issue of abuse and acts like it’s a weed we can cut out by banning certain people, instead of something we have to understand and to the best of our ability, prevent. It never admits that this whole strategy is based on the premise of warning people after abuse has already happened, rather than trying to find ways for abuse to happen less in the first place.
The second defense of cancel culture is the idea of consequences or punishment as a deterrent. This is exactly the same logic used by the criminal system and by certain styles of parenting. Before I go further I want to clarify what I mean by consequences and punishment, and explain how cancel culture advocates actually use the word consequences when they means punishment.
Consequences relate to the context in which the infraction occurred. If I break someone’s trust, they won’t trust me anymore. Punishment is about ‘balancing the scales’, or ‘not letting someone get away with it.’ It’s a step beyond the relational consequences of an act, and it extends past the original context of an act. If I break someone’s trust, they get to decide if they will trust me again, but if they insist that no one should trust me again, and I should not ever be in a position where anyone puts trust in me, that’s punishment. Being removed from a position of power that you used to abuse someone would be a consequence. Not being allowed to have a cool job because you abused your partner would be punishment.
I am not saying that we should remove consequences, in the true sense of the word. If you break someone’s trust, they have the right not to trust you. If you use a position of power to abuse, you shouldn’t be trusted in that position of power until you can demonstrate substantial change.
The question is, does threatening to take nice things away from people deter them from abusing? Do harassment, shame, social exile and other ‘consequences’ meted out by cancel culture actually work to prevent abuse?
To some extent, yes. I think people are less likely to do things if they know they will be punished for doing them. But, every good anarchist knows that we are only punished if we are caught. So the math for whether or not it’s worth it to do something we will be punished for if we are caught includes not just the severity of punishment, but also the likelihood of being caught, and how much we want to do the thing. It is also true that people do things when they are out of their minds: drunk, high, or in a massively dysregulated nervous system state, and the truth is, when people are in that state they aren’t thinking about the consequences or the punishment in store for them. So, while punishment does act as a deterrent in some instances, I don’t think it’s a very effective one. People can be sneaky and dishonest and hide their behaviour to avoid punishment. People can also do things when they are quite literally not thinking about the punishment or consequences at all.
A weak deterrent is better than nothing, I guess, if it had no bad sides to it. Unfortunately, punishing people fills them with shame and makes them more likely to hide their behaviour, and permanently punishing people makes the work of change seem absolutely pointless.
So what should we do instead of punishment? Look to the wisdom of parents who learned that punishing children does not get good results. What gets better results is making the desired behaviour attractive and make sense. It is so much more effective to help people develop empathy, integrity, and principles, so that they choose for themselves not to act in abusive ways because it is out of alignment with their own values. It is also so much more effective to help people remove barriers that block them from acting in alignment with their values, such as dealing with substance use issues and nervous system dysregulation.
Finally, in cases of serious, violent abuse, cancelling someone on the internet, degrading them, humiliating them, attempting to control them, is not going to make them stop their abusive behaviours. It’s going to send them into a rage and that rage is going to be taken out on the person they usually abuse. You will never see a domestic violence org advising survivors to cancel their abuser as part of their safety plan. Doing so would most definitely put them in serious danger.
On top of all these reasons why I don’t think that cancel culture effectively prevents or challenges abuse, is the fact that cancel culture strips away as much social and material support from its targets as it can. People who are alone, isolated, stressed, and without resources are not in a position to do the hard work necessary to change their behaviour. People who chronically abuse others need to be resourced. They need support: a therapist, a 12 step group, time, and the support of community who sees their humanity and doesn’t define them through their mistakes. This is not ‘enabling’ abuse. It’s literally how we transform abuse. We can still intervene on abuse while offering support to those who abuse. We can (and we must) challenge abuse without dehumanizing and exiling abusers. It’s the only way to get to the root of the problem. People change when they are able to. People are not able to change when they are traumatized and alone.