On Cancelling Cancel Culture

By now, I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase “cancel culture,” and I’m sure you’re aware that it’s yet another aspect of the perceived culture wars in America. There’s been a lot of national discussion and politicization around the concept, and I see support for the idea of cancelling cancel culture seep into the spiritual community in various forms, usually under the guise of “everyone is on their own journey” or “we have no right to judge another’s path” or something like that.

That said, I also notice that a lot of people talking about cancel culture don’t seem to actually understand what it is and they’re making a very dangerous conflation that, in the end, would rob a great number of people from an opportunity for spiritual growth, perpetuate division, and is antithetical to one of spirituality’s main goals: unity consciousness.

Let’s explore!

What is Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture (also termed “call-out culture”) has been generally defined as many things, including, but not limited to:

  • Online or public shaming
  • Deplatforming people with ideas that are deemed unpopular or harmful
  • A form of social ostracism where someone experiences real consequences for their thoughts and opinions, such as losing their job
  • Censorship

There’s a lot of sociological nuance involved around these subjects which I find to be severely lacking in public discourse, and that’s partly the reason why I wanted to touch on it myself.

A lot of people are not going to like what I have to say about this, particularly people who think that cancel culture inhibits free speech, discussion, and debate.

People in positions of power who knowingly espouse ideologies, beliefs, attitudes, and biases that are directly harmful other groups of people should absolutely be canceled. People in positions of power who unknowingly espouse ideologies, beliefs, attitudes, and biases that are directly harmful to other groups of people and who refuse to educate themselves about why those things are harmful should also be cancelled. And in fact, the US Constitution has already cancelled a lot of those people, which we’ll get to in a minute.

This is the paradox of tolerance: The one thing a tolerant society cannot tolerate is intolerance. If a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized and destroyed by the intolerant.

In other words, if we ever want to build a society that is tolerant, free, and healthy, we need to stamp out intolerance wherever we see it, because if we don’t, it perpetuates itself and continues to drive division.

But before we can do this successfully, our entire society needs to undergo a massive education about what intolerance actually is. The rest of this post is what that education looks like.

The Dangers of Cancelling

There’s a couple of really harmful side-effects of cancel culture that need to be recognized and taken into account. A common instance of canceling involves someone digging up and exposing a video or written piece by someone from several years ago expressing cultural beliefs and opinions that are not deemed acceptable by today’s standards.

This is harmful for a number of reasons. For one, society and culture are changing rapidly. It may not look like it in the moment, and certain themes are changing slower than others, but overall, the world is definitely not the same place it was 20 years ago. Need proof? Just watch any comedy movie from the 90s. A good chunk of the jokes and many of the social situations that were made light of in those movies would never see the light of day by today’s standards. And that’s a good thing, because many of them were socially harmful to vulnerable groups like women and LGBTQ+.

Pop culture’s vast evolution of the last 20 years is a reflection of the evolution of our society. We’ve all grow and changed, too, and for many of us, our core views have as well. When we judge someone by a video or something they wrote years ago without taking into account their views today, we risk ostracizing people who may have actually already grappled with their discriminatory beliefs and attitudes. We have to be willing to give people the opportunity for growth.

A second major danger with cancel culture is how public it is. Many times, cancel culture leads to doxing. If you’re unfamiliar with doxing, it’s the practice of finding private information about someone and publishing it for all to see. Doxing in and of itself may not necessarily always be bad, but it’s extraordinarily bad in cases of mistaken identity where the wrong person is identified, or the person is doxed for something that is completely unproven. This has led to completely innocent people receiving death threats and harassment.

We can’t operate under a mob mentality, even if and when we have good intentions.

Misconceptions About Cancel Culture

Now I want to talk about all the ways that cancel culture is being used as an umbrella to shield deserving targets from the consequences of their actions, and subsequently rob them of an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Since the summer of 2020, we saw people being fired, losing corporate sponsorships, and experiencing other consequences of violent and racist behavior. There have been many people labeling this as cancel culture, and it absolutely is not. Why?

Businesses in the US, both private and public, are given the discretion to hire and fire who they want, for whatever reason they want, so long as it doesn’t discriminate against those individuals on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, color, or national origin. By this same law, those businesses are legally bound to protect their employees from discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, color, and national origin.

Another driving factor in who a company hires (or fires) is company values. Company values are the foundational beliefs and qualities that a company holds which direct everything from company policy, to product development, to branding, to company culture. If an individual who works for a company exhibits behaviors that are out of line with a company’s values, the company has every right to let that person go (again, so long as it’s not discriminating against them based on one fo the things outlined above).

So when you have individuals on video exhibiting violent behavior or expressing “opinions” which are clearly rooted in subconscious bias or bigotry, one must assume that this person is bringing those same behaviors and opinions to work with them every day, and that those behaviors and opinions have already created a hostile work environment for other employees. The person expressing those opinions then becomes a liability to the company, because they are opening the company up to a potential discrimination lawsuit, and it’s in the company’s best interest (and the company culture’s best interest, and the other employees’ best interest) to eliminate that liability.

If they had expressed any of those “opinions” or behaviors within the walls of where they work, they’d be fired. And by displaying those opinions and behaviors publicly, on video (fully knowing they are being recorded), they are demonstrating that 1) they are unconcerned if anyone finds out and 2) they are knowingly bringing attention to themselves, their behaviors, and their opinions in such a way that it doesn’t matter if they are in a work environment or not. They’ve made their conduct public knowledge and damaged the company reputation by association.

These people aren’t being “cancelled.” They are experiencing the real-world consequences of their attitudes and actions. Actions have consequences. It is the epitome of entitlement and privilege to believe that one is somehow exempt from being held accountable for those actions.

The same goes for celebrities losing endorsements, for companies pulling funding, etc. etc. They have the right to dissociate themselves with anyone or anything that is not in alignment with their company/brand values, or anything that would create a hostile or discriminatory work environment or culture.

All of this applies to social media companies as well because they are businesses, too! A social media company crafts a set of terms and conditions for the usage of its platform that is in alignment with its company’s core values. So if a user of that platform violates the terms and conditions, they are also out of alignment with the company’s core values, and the company has the discretion to suspend or ban that user. As long as there are no government regulations place on that industry’s standards and practices, they are free to do whatever they want.

A lot of people (mistakenly) believe their First Amendment right to free speech somehow entitles them to free speech in the corporate realm. It doesn’t. You know why?

The United States Supreme Court has given corporations (most of) the same constitutional rights as people. That means that they are just as protected by the First Amendment as you are, but with the additional regulation that they cannot discriminate based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, color, and national origin.

All the first amendment means for you, as a person, is that the government can’t legally censor you. A business can censor you all day long as long as you’re standing on their property, be it physical, digital, or intellectual. So all of those people talking about how Orwellian it is for Twitter to be able to deplatform Donald Trump? They’re totally confused. 1984 was about government censorship, not corporate censorship, and Twitter has had the power to do this all along because America’s disdain for corporate regulation gave it to them.

This also applies to business-to-business companies and publishing houses. If a person or company is utilizing a service provided by another company, and it violates that company’s terms of service or core values, the company providing the service has every right to discontinue the contract. The Supreme Court set this precedent when it allowed a Colorado bakery to deny service to a gay couple on the basis of religious/moral values, and it also applies to businesses who refuse to serve anyone not wearing a mask, and business who chooses to end their contracts with politicians and celebrities who do and say anything that business doesn’t want to be associated with.

There’s really no other way to say it: if someone’s beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and actions are in any way based on conscious discrimination or subconscious bias, you’re not protected by the First Amendment at work because it doesn’t cover hate speech, the business itself has the exact same constitutional right that we all do, and it’s in direct conflict to the The Civil Rights Act, which protects vulnerable populations from discrimination at work.

The fact that a person isn’t aware of their subconscious bias or how it relates to their beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and actions doesn’t matter. That’s a personal problem because they refuse to educate themselves, not the law’s problem.

The law exists specifically to protect vulnerable populations from people like them, so by continuing to publicly espouse those ideas, they are in fact cancelling themselves, because the law has been the law since 1964, and their ignorance of it (and of their own bias) does not absolve them from their actions.

What is Bias?

Time for another sociology lesson! One of the biggest issues we have regarding sexism and racism is that no one understands what bias is…so I’m going to break it down for you.

Racism/Sexism, bigotry, and bias are three separate, but interrelated things.

The “isms”–racism and sexism–are the systemic power dynamics which one race or sex holds over another. We live in a world that was built specifically to oppress women and people of color, and while we have created some laws and enacted certain reforms in an attempt to rectify this, much of the structure is still at work. The people who benefit from maintaining this structure the most are white and male (and cisgender, heteronormativ).

Anyone who defends or upholds this structure, be they bigoted or biased, are considered racists and sexists. This is why we say that a person of color can never be racist: they do not have the societal power to systemically oppress white people–because it lies with white people. Likewise, women can’t be sexist. Reverse racism and reverse sexism are a structural impossibility, because a group of oppressed people simply do not have the collective systemic power to oppress their oppressors. When people talk about reverse-racism and reverse-sexism, what they are actually talking about is bigotry.

Bigotry is an overt prejudice, or an openly hateful attitude toward someone of a group other than yours. Women who hate men are bigoted toward men and get their own special label as well: misandrists. Black people who hate white people are bigoted toward white people. And likewise, white people who hate Black people are bigots, and men who hate women get their own special label: misogynists. People often use the term racist when talking about bigots, and indeed, racist does encompass bigotry. White supremacists are both racists and bigots. Not all racists, however, are bigots.

This leads us to our third category: bias. Bias is a covert or subconscious prejudice against other groups to which you do not belong. Everyone is biased. Literally everyone, regardless of your sex or skin color. You have subconscious programming (i.e. beliefs and attitudes) about everything. Those racists who are not bigots, but still defend and uphold the white power structure? They’re biased. The sexists who are not misogynists who defend and uphold the male power structure? They’re also biased.

These are the white people out there who think they have to be burning crosses to be racist and have absolutely no idea that their behavior is, in fact, biased (and racist). These are the men out there who think that they love women and also think that women should take cat-calling as a compliment, and the white people who keep insisting they aren’t racist and yelling “all lives matter.”

These actions are what we call microaggressions and they create a climate of hostility within our society. This is where the most confusion, and the most insidious abuse in society lies, and it’s the kind of thing that the concept of anti-racism is meant to tackle.
Bias is baked into our society, because our cultures themselves are built upon socially accepted stigmas and stereotypes that subconsciously program us with beliefs and attitudes about certain groups of people. Those stigmas and stereotypes are fed to us every day through our own media and culture.

As noted earlier on, as a society, we are becoming more conscious of these stereotypes and how they are portrayed and slowly beginning to make change, but it’s going to take a long time to dismantle them and subsequently deprogram our society.

Racism and misogyny can also be internalized by those who are victims of it.

Because of these pervasive, subliminal messages we receive from society, many people who are actually oppressed by these concepts end up internalizing them and viewing them as “correct.” Women who say things like “I hate feminists” have internalized misogyny. Black people who are against Black Lives Matter have internalized racism (and are often trotted out as the token examples of “This Black person who agrees with [insert covert racist concept here]”).

Why do these things become internalized? As noted earlier, a lot of it is completely normalized within our culture itself. Professional dress codes at work, for example, are inherently more rigorous for women than men, because women are expected to wear makeup, jewelry, heels, and dress up, whereas men only have to put on a pair of slacks and a collared shirt. If a woman were to walk into a job interview with no makeup, no jewelry, wearing a pair of slacks and a casual dress shirt, she wold automatically be judged more harshly than other women who wore makeup, because that’s what our entire society as a whole expects. And that’s a double standard.

It’s all of these double standards and subconscious biases that have the most insidious effects on the individuals subjected to them. It’s why women disproportionately struggle with body image and eating disorders. It’s why Black people are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated.

What’s it all got to do with spirituality? I’ll tell you: spirituality is the examination and subsequent integration of the subconscious aspects of ourselves. The very nature of spiritual self-inquiry requires us to examine our subconscious bias.

Spirituality devoid of anti-racism work is not spirituality. Spirituality devoid of anti-misogyny work is not spirituality. It’s spiritual bypassing. The same goes for every other bias you may hold, whether it’s bias toward LGBTQ+, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, or any other kind of ism. As a spiritual person, it is also your duty to help liberate the people who are oppressed by these systems.

Calling Out vs. Calling In

Now that we’ve established what is and isn’t cancelling, and what the grounds for it are, let’s talk about the appropriate way to go about it. Cancel culture is also known as “call out culture,” and lately there’s been some counter movement toward something called “calling in” instead of calling out.

Calling Out: the practice of issuing a direct challenge or criticism of someone’s words, attitudes, or behavior.

Calling In: the practice of engaging in thoughtful discussion about someone’s behavior, asking questions, and attempting to understand their perspective and gently call their bias into question.

Calling out and calling in are both necessary and useful tools for social change. You just have to know when is the right moment to use each one.

Calling out is necessary when someone is in a position of power or authority and they are abusing that power, or they are exhibiting overt bigotry, and even in some cases of covert bias. If we don’t, they continue to abuse that power and authority and harm others, even their own followers in the case of social media influencers. We enable them when we say nothing.

Calling in is useful when it’s obvious that the person is simply ignorant of their own bias (which is literally all of them) and that person is not in a position of power or authority where their behavior can be directly and immediately harmful. It’s easier to call in people who are on the same level as you, with regard to power balances. It’s harder to call in people who are above you. It is absolutely your responsibility to call in people who you are in a direct position of authority over.

As we established at the beginning of this post, some people, especially in the spiritual community, think that calling out is akin to public shaming, and therefore, invalid. Let’s clarify that shame is about who you are and guilt is about what you did. You can call out a person’s actions without shaming them as a bad person. Shame and guilt are naturally occurring human emotions and as such, serve a purpose to motivate us to do better when it isn’t being used by an abuser as a tool to manipulate.

Using spiritual concepts to avoid feelings of guilt or sitting with shame is spiritual bypassing, and not confronting harmful (bigoted or biased) messaging, attitudes, and behaviors when you see them is what allows these structures to continue.

It’s just as important to be aware of your own motivations for calling someone out. Are you doing it to shame, or are you doing it to protect the vulnerable by raising awareness?

 

Xo,

Ash

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