Cancel Culture, Accountability, & Transformative Justice
Cancel culture has continued to be a very hot topic for activists, politicians, and overall just people existing in the 21st century. Recently this topic has been talked about at great lengths within hip-hop and rap due to DaBaby’s recent homophobic comments towards the LGBTQ+ community and the fallout he has been facing in light of them.
Now more than ever we are looking at the people we have been made to look up to within all facets of life and have seen the many ways they fall short of our values, morals and the kindness we expect from one another. And in response to seeing these shortcomings, cancel culture has become many peoples widespread reaction. Now more than ever questioning cancel culture has become of great importance in our battle towards justice for all. We must ask the question—is cancel culture justice for these comments and acts?
Before diving into this topic I want to say this is in no way a piece against the anger that many feel when others commit injustices towards them. All reactions towards all oppression, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and all other forms of hatred or hurt are valid, and tone policing towards these to groups who have been historically silenced in an unacceptable treatment.
The Faults of “Cancel Culture"
Cancel Culture or “cancelling” as most have come to know it first began to make waves on Black Twitter in 2015. However, it has a long history within Black culture and empowerment dating back to civil rights boycotts in the 1950s and ’60s. Linguist Ann Charity Hudly calls this “a survival skill as old as the Southern black use of the boycott.”
The origins of the words “cancelled” and “woke” come from Black culture too, and are just two examples of white appropriation of Black culture and slang. With the white commodification of these words also came the bastardizing of their practice.
Cancel culture arises for the needs of the powerless. When your community is not given the political power to change systems of inequity then cancelling arises as a way to use the power your community does have to create a culture that doesn’t harm you. When cancelling began to make waves on Black Twitter it wasn’t calls for boycotts or YouTube apologies, it was people sharing their personal choice. It was saying that you didn’t enjoy something or someone anymore, that you personally no longer had an interest in consuming content from certain individuals due to their actions. And people had the choice to follow suit—which is where the power of cancel culture came from.
Screenwriter and journalist Barry Michael Cooper touches on this explaining that cancellations were “a way to wield power, where we haven’t been able to really do it before on a cultural level,”. They explain further that “Twitter has allowed us to say, ‘We’re here, we’re not going to be discounted, and if you say anything to try to diminish us, we’ll cancel you.’ ”
That was what cancelling was until around the mid-2010s when the co-opting of this practice first began outside of Black Twitter. This marked the beginning of call-outs aimed at pointing out problematic behaviours and holding people accountable for them. And throughout that time as more and more problematic issues came to mainstream and white attention, the consequences of people’s behaviours became greater.
Brian Stout touches on these consequences creating a punishment-based culture, saying “That judgment usually takes the form of ‘you did/said something wrong but the punishment takes the form of ‘you don’t belong’.”
Author adrienne maree brown also touches on this subject saying that nowadays in cancel culture “We deconstruct [transgerssors] as thinkers, activists, groups, bodies, partners, parents, children—finding all of the contradictions and limitations and shining bright light on them. When we are satisfied that that person or group is destroyed, we move on.”
brown touches on this more saying, “But lately, as the attacks grow faster and more vicious, I wonder: is this what we’re here for? To cultivate a fear-based adherence to reductive common values? What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy, complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there’s no one left beside us?”
We are all living in this fear-based culture and are in need of moving forward in a way that honours humans, people, and values them for all pieces. However, we need to do this while holding space and honouring the pain felt by victims. We need to do this while understanding the systematic influences on people. We need to set boundaries for our safety. And we need to honour the beginnings and initial need for cancel culture.
It’s all messy, it’s all complex—there’s no easy way to deal with pain or any of these issues. We haven’t been modelled a way to deal with them. So how do we move forward?
Moving Towards Accountability and Transformative Justice
brown touches on the difficulties of these complexities explaining the ways she works within them. She points out that often in the cancelling of others it’s parts of ourselves which we want to separate from—the reductive values she talked about live in us. That in response, we don’t allow ourselves to be messy, complex humans. And so when approaching these issues she shares that:
“If I can see the ways I am perpetuating systemic oppressions, if I can see where I learned the behavior and how hard it is to unlearn it, I start to have more humility as I see the messiness of the communities I am part of, the world I live in.”
She continues this idea, explaining how transformative justice is about “justice practices that go all the way to the root of the problem and generate solutions and healing there, such that the conditions that create injustice are transformed.”
Activist Mia Mingus touches on these ideas as well asking us:
“What if we rushed towards our own accountability and understood it as a gift we can give to ourselves and those hurting from our harm? What if we understood our accountability, not as some small insignificant act, but as an intentional drop in an ever-growing river of healing, care, and repair that had the potential to nourish, comfort and build back trust on a large scale, carving new paths of hope and faith through mountains of fear and unacknowledged pain for generations?
What if we understood the harms we’ve caused and have been part of allowing, not as things that don’t need to be tended to or things that will blow over or be forgotten about in time? But instead as one small part of a collective gaping wound that we have been taught to pretend away that sits in the middle of our hearts, our relationships, our families, our movements, our country, our world? What if we all understood our parts—individually and collectively—in that collective gaping wound?
What if we could understand that in a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done?”
Mingus asks us to dream of accountability, asking us:
“What if we took more time to dream accountability? What it could be and the kind of magic it could grow? What we need in order to practice it more and better, both individually and collectively? What if accountability was so normalized, so everyday, so run-of-the-mill, that it was second nature? That it was our default? That it was something that everyone knew about and you could easily pass a group of children and youth of any age casually talking about it?”
Ultimately cancel culture began as a way to hold people accountable, and navigating accountability is hard. Perhaps we can dream of other ways to do so that work for all of us, and create the long-last effects we want to see. Perhaps we can dream of other ways to go about accountability, but ultimately it takes labour. It takes the emotional labour of those oppressed— labour that is not owed to anyone. It takes a commitment to justice and change by oppressors— which historically has not been given. It takes asking for that today and the oppressor working towards building trust that change will be made, and justice is what they are working towards.
About the Author
T Schwab (they/them) is currently majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. They currently live on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Their passions lie in holistic care and sustainability.