Cancel Culture and White People

The other day I was making canvassing calls to people in Western Wisconsin in support of non-partisan redistricting. As part of the call script, we asked people what they thought the biggest problem facing our state is. One person told me that it is “the ‘libtards’ in Madison.” Whoa. This is the world we live in.

I am fascinated with trying to understand what the Republicans are doing in order to win the rural white vote. I think they have been very good at using cancel culture techniques to go after the Democrats and people allied with them, while at the same time casting any attempts to hold them accountable as unfair cancel culture. They are winning the cancel culture game by playing both sides. This is a game that the Dems can’t win, and we need to stop playing.

I am new to cancel culture. What the heck is cancel culture? Where did it come from? Is cancel culture about dangerous mob mentality, or about abusers being held accountable? Is cancel culture an important tool for social justice, or is it just another form of injustice? Can Ted Cruz just get a little family vacation to Cancun, or should he resign because of it? These are open questions that I don’t know the answer to. I’m especially curious: What does cancel culture mean for rural white men like myself?

I like when people are held accountable for their actions. But for Democrats like me to engage in cancel culture against Republicans seems to be having the opposite effect that we think it is. While Dems think we are calling out hypocrisy, it is just alienating rural white voters and driving them further away. If we want real change, we need to get rural white folks to see our common cause with other liberation struggles — cancel culture does the opposite.

Last week when Ted Cruz was caught on camera boarding a plane to Cancun during a crisis in Texas, it triggered waves of condemnation in the media. The sense was “Gotcha!” Here was Senator Cruz showing his privilege, while people were literally dying in his home state. It seemed like a perfect example of hypocrisy — if only all the white working class people who support Cruz could see they are being duped by a privileged hypocrite. But the conservative media decried this gotcha moment as yet another time when “cancel culture” tried to take down one of their champions. They were able to turn being held accountable into another martyr moment. White working class people looked at the liberal elite mocking someone (btw, the SNL cold open was on fire!) who looks like us and we didn’t think of it as hypocrisy, we just saw cruelty.

Although the phrase cancel culture seems to have risen to prominence on Black Twitter, Trump and his crowd have both appropriated its tactics and also called it the enemy. During the 2020 Presidential campaign at Mount Rushmore, Trump famously called cancel culture “the very definition of totalitarianism.” Of course, it is ironic that Trump has spent so much time denouncing cancel culture, when he himself is one of its biggest proponents — when it comes to people he disagrees with. After all, his whole catchphrase is “You’re fired!” It seems Trump and his people are only against cancel culture when it comes for one of them. Cancel culture and “political correctness” are siblings in the culture wars that the Republicans claim are being waged against them. They feel they are being unfairly attacked, yet they attack people all the time.

If Donald Trump is against cancel culture, then maybe I should be for it. Cancel culture at its core is about boycotting someone who has enough power that the only way you can touch them is with a boycott. It would be fun to pile on when Ted Cruz is being called out. He seems immune to other criticism. But I won’t do it. I think it is a trap. The Republicans want us (liberals, leftists, progressives, Democrats) to pile on. They want it because it will appeal to their base of rural white working class voters. They will be able to point to persecution and rile people up into a defensive culture war. They thrive on liberal people hating them. We must not hate them and certainly not ridicule them, partly because their base is also our natural base. Their base is composed of people who are upset with the current system, and instead of offering their base real solutions, they offer them someone to blame. Right now they are blaming the liberals for trying to cancel them. We need to offer their base real solutions.

Last week I read Chris Hedges’ piece: “Cancel culture: where liberalism goes to die” (linked below). Chris always tweaks my brain with his writing, and this piece is no exception. He describes Rev. Will Campbell’s seemingly contradictory life during the Civil Rights Era as a person fighting like hell for civil rights while simultaneously ministering to the local KKK. Hedges notes the outrage that was directed at Campbell when he told a group of college activists: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being.” They walked out and jeered him — trying to “cancel” him for being pro-Klansman. Campbell lived by a creed: “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ’em all.” Hedges says what our moment needs is more people like Campbell, and he accuses the liberals of sanctimonious arrogance in their/our embrace of cancel culture. I’m with Hedges and Campbell.

What even is “cancel culture?” I know what it looks like to me. It looks like someone discovering something damning or embarrassing about a public figure and then confronting that person in a public way with the goal of discrediting and silencing that person. It looks like a snowball of shame being heaped on a person for something they said or did, sometimes a long time ago. The goal of cancel culture is to eliminate the person who is being canceled from public life. That can come in the form of a person being fired or forced to resign, or the person losing sales in their business, or the person being arrested, or any number of other consequences. Cancel culture looks like a person being held accountable for their actions, but with this type of accountability there is no chance for forgiveness, redemption, dialogue, growth, or learning. It looks to me like cancel culture is about identifying a person as the source of something we hate and attempting to purge the person in order to stop the thing we hate.

The idea of cancel culture seems to relate to what debaters call “ad hominem” attacks. Here is how wikipedia describes the typical ad hominem attack: “The most common form of this fallacy is ‘A makes a claim x, B asserts that A holds a property that is unwelcome, and hence B concludes that argument x is wrong.’” That looks a lot like cancel culture to me. For example, AOC argues for a minimum wage that is livable, her critics note that she wears nice clothes and is a hypocrite to talk about poverty while wearing designer clothes, and hence her critics charge that a livable minimum wage is not necessary. This is the sort of attack that would not fly in high school debate. Your judges would see right through it and you would lose. But for proponents of cancel culture the goal is not to defeat the idea, it is to eliminate the person, and failing that, divert the attention of your base and stoke divisions.

When I look at something happening in the public political sphere, my first question is always: “Who benefits?” Last week, people went nuts over the fact that Senator Ted Cruz went on vacation during a crisis in Texas. I don’t have cable or twitter, but I can imagine all of the outrage and counter outrage. What did that outrage serve? Who benefited? The outrage served two things that I can see: division and distraction. And both of these serve the status quo. When either side serves up someone on the other side to be canceled, this increases division and decreases the chance that people will be able to work together. Divided politics benefits the people in power on both sides. The distraction caused means that each side can get nothing done on key issues and then blame the other side for not compromising.

In Texas, divided politics means that politicians on the left can attack Cruz for going on vacation and those on the right can feel wounded and cry about cancel culture, and neither side can address the systems that failed Texas at almost every level. The status quo politicians thrive on distraction. For Ted Cruz to be all over social media meant that no one was talking about the causes of the crisis (which appear to be a mix of climate change causing an increase of weird polar vortices and the deregulation of Texas’ energy sector causing providers to not winterize generation and delivery of energy in an effort to squeeze profits out of their businesses).

I’m not trying to say that people should not be held accountable. Absolutely people should be held accountable. When people do things that cross a line (I am well aware that different people have different lines!), they should be held morally and legally responsible. But can Ted Cruz just go on vacation? The Senate is not in session. The people who have the power in Texas to respond to the crisis are at the State level. Raise your hand if you have ever wanted to go to some place warm on vacation to get away from the cold weather? Okay? Okay. Let’s hold Ted Cruz accountable for other things and not cancel him for taking the family to Cancun. To cancel him is to take the bait, and we should be smart fish.

To think about alternatives to cancel culture, I go back to human evolution and to social groups of up to 150 people living through hunting and gathering. When someone violated the social norms, there were consequences, but there was a strong motivation from both sides to continue the relationship. So people probably usually worked it out. But, in the case of modern cancel culture, the person who is being called out is, almost by definition, someone outside of your community. Shame doesn’t work on someone who has no desire to win your affection. Instead it becomes a point of pride for them within their own group. Trump has elevated this to an art form. The more the liberals hate and mock him, the better he looks to his base. He is proud to be hated. Distraction and division.

I really don’t know what to do about cancel culture. On the one hand, a boycott is one of the tools of the unheard and oppressed. It is no coincidence that the phrase cancel culture arose on Black Twitter. In spirit, it goes back to Civil Rights Era boycotts. We must interrupt abuse and hold abusers accountable and do it publicly. On the other hand, I think that there must be a way to interrupt abuse without playing into the hands of the abusers.

The politics of blame, division, and diversion are a huge distraction to the real work of dismantling systemic oppression. On a deeper level for me, when people engage in cancel culture attacks against specific white people, it starts to seem like all white people are being attacked. White people, like myself, need to feel a common cause with anyone who is against oppression, and cancel culture seeks to divide us. I love white people because I love human beings, including myself. I am especially concerned when rural and Southern white people are called out as objects of shame and derision. That is harmful to all white people and, by extension, all people.

This is especially important to me because cancel culture can be toxic to white people like myself who want to work to end white supremacy from a place of self-care and self-love. Many white people who are engaged in anti-racism work come to see whiteness as a problem. We wake up to fact that we have privilege and that we benefit from present day and ancestral wealth that was gained through genocide, slavery, and oppression. We are left ashamed of our skin, and hating that part of ourselves. As a culture, college educated white people have projected that shameful part of ourselves out onto rural and southern white people and called them out for their racism. In order to do the work, we need to love ourselves and love each other, skin and all. We need to stop locating the racism or other flaws outside of ourselves and stop hating each other. We can accept our own flaws and blind spots and work on them from a place of self love, and we can interrupt abuse and oppression from a place of love and respect. When we practice radical self-love, it places us in a good position to love and accept all people. We need to see our solidarity in order to work together against oppression.

Note: This essay was too long in the first draft. So this particular essay is long on diagnosing the problem of cancel culture and short on actual solutions. Please see the companion piece “Self-Acceptance vs Cancel Culture” for alternatives. In addition, check out Adrienne Maree Brown’s work. She has a new book about transformative justice called We Will Not Cancel Us. And she tells a lot of truth in the following podcast:

More references:

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Andrew Gaertner

Andrew Gaertner

1.7K Followers

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.