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Early Termination Fees: The (Necessary?) Costs of 'Cancel Culture'

A lot of column inches have been burned on pieces about “Cancel Culture” lately; this is another one. The tenor of those pieces range from concern trolling about the fates of mostly-privileged folks who find themselves targeted by Cancel Culture, to pieces defending it as an unavoidable and necessary process of accountability. Too often, though, those pieces lack a critical element: the costs of Cancel Culture paid by those partaking in it. Without evaluating whether Cancel Culture is “good” or “bad” (which are fallacious concepts nevertheless), this piece will try to explore the taxes Cancel Culture imposes on the progress towards a goal.

For those unaware, Cancel Culture can be described as a massive, and usually final, criticism of a person or entity because of their opinions, actions, or behavior regarding a certain thing, usually in the scope of social justice. Made possible largely through social media, Cancel Culture reflects widespread backlash, typically as a reaction to some event. Often times, the things that cause the canceling are not proximal causes, but rather distal complaints that reflect an accumulated list of grievances that must be brought to light. There are dozens of examples, and I will provide a few. When Quinn Norton was hired by the New York Times, she was “cancelled” over past comments she made that used homophobic slurs, among other things, and in response the New York Times rescinded her offer. When Natalie Wynn, better known as Contrapoints, made thoughtless remarks challenging the validity of non-binary identities, she was cancelled to the point where she deleted her Twitter account. And the entirety of the #MeToo movement is implicitly rooted in Cancel Culture; allegations of sexual violence and other misconduct have led to celebrities being dropped from movies and TV shows, to politicians withdrawing from races, and to people stepping down from jobs.

Opponents of Cancel Culture will claim that it reflects the Wisdom of the Mob; that it risks harm without due process; and that lives, dreams, and reputations are ruined seemingly randomly, particularly because the grievances brought forth are often several years old. Proponents of it say that it is necessary to provide accountability; that outside a court of law, due process is merely the reflection of the invisible hand of the free market; that the act of “cancelling” is truth being spoken to power by the oppressed.

I have, of course, played a not-insignificant role in the canceling of people. I was, for instance, quoted in one of the pieces about Quinn Norton, when I surfaced months-old complaints that she treated me callously when I asked her to be more mindful of the victims of neo-Nazi violence, particularly because she had past connections to one of the main players in the current far-right. I have taken politicians to task. And I have no doubt engaged in pettier interpersonal dramas. It would be incorrect and hypocritical for me to say that I can hold a blanket position against Cancel Culture in general, and one could make an argument that I have a not-insubstantial role in promoting it. Cancel Culture can be a powerful weapon, but lately I’ve been thinking about whether its collateral damage.

Optimistically, the act of cancelling is an act of enforcing accountability; one should not profit off of harm, and one should be held to answer for the harms done in the past so that they are not repeated in the future. Proponents will disarm criticisms of undue harms by pointing out that most of the people cancelled, particularly celebrities targeted by the #MeToo movement, simply resurface after laying low for a bit; that no lasting harm is done. It is here where I raise my eyebrow: if the cancelled person simply resurfaces once the heat dies down, then where is the accountability that we make such a fuss about?

Moreover, we can ask what is “accountability” in this framework? Typically, we think of accountability as a level of taking responsibility for an action deemed harmful. That responsibility can be an admission of wrongdoing, an attempt to make whole, or a promise to do better in the future. In the context of modern criminal justice, we scale accountability based on the nature of the offense; the punishment for negligence is different than the punishment for malice. But cancellation is supposed final; implicitly, then, “accountability” is the demand to no longer co-exist.

This isn’t per-se negative; I don’t want to co-exist in any space with a rapist or a Nazi. And I don’t think that wanting not to co-exist in a space with someone who has done harm is extreme or excessive. But it is stark, and it therefore means that those spaces now have an inside (where the cancelled person is not allowed) and an outside (where the cancelled person must now find their future). The question is who gets to define the inside? And when someone is relegated to the outside, never to be allowed back in, what does that mean for what they will do next?

The challenge with Cancel Culture as a model of accountability is that by employing it we do not define what accountability actually looks like and what ends of justice are being served. Cancel Culture lacks nuance; was Norton negligent, willful, or malicious with her use of homophobic slurs and proximity to Andy Aurenheimer? How does Natalie Wynn leaving Twitter service the needs of non-binary people? Were the suitable alternatives? Accountability isn’t a thing that happens; accountability is a process that is supposed to move us towards justice. Of course, Wynn rejoined Twitter not long after her “cancellation.” Her next video, rather than making amends to the community she harmed, instead further widened the rift. There was no accountability after all this was settled, but instead a clear boundary, recognized more or less equally by those on either side of it. How then, did this move us towards justice?

Most of the people engaged in so-called cancellation will often talk about being adherents of Restorative Justice philosophies. Without questioning whether these convictions are sincere, we can instead explore what restorative justice means in a practical sense. The National Associate of Community and Restorative Justice maintains a list of public resources on these concepts. For the most part, these resources deal with the concept of criminal justice, and alternatives thereof. But if we look at community justice within the framework of our digital spaces, where few laws exist to govern our conduct, we can start to see parallels.

In a paper titled, “Community Justice: A Conceptual Framework” by D. R. Karp and T. R. Clear, the authors note that community justice includes many factors, including Equality, Inclusion, Mutuality, and Stewardship. They address reintegrative processes as a core element of a community justice model.

Without a specification of behavioral norms, community justice processes can quickly devolve into a tyranny of the majority in which stultifying conformity is demanded without reflection on why social control processes are necessary.

But part of this approach requires that the offenders be able to accept that their conduct was in violation of “normative consensus.” This means that the offender must acknowledge their wrongdoing, but also that their concerns about community inclusion be addressed. Often times, as with drug crimes, this involves addressing the social ills serving as oppresive factors harming the offender. Without addressing why a drug dealer needs to sell drugs to make a living, we can hardly begin to approach a notion of community justice at scale.

These factors apply to our online communities as much as they do our co-located ones. It is not wrong to want to call out someone for bad behavior, but if we can come together on an agreement that accountability must be sought, we should be able to come together to derive a strategy for reintegrating the offender and addressing the harms in a constructive way. When we deal with vulnerable communities and safe spaces, it can be tempting to send a strong message to offenders. But sometimes, what we accomplish is setting our own demolition charges instead of reinforcing our own ramparts. In the end, this can undermine the safety of a space just as much as the original offender did. This is neither true justice nor true accountability.

This is not to say that there are not people who deserve canceling. The #MeToo movement is a prime example of continued intolerable behavior finally reaching a boiling point. Many of the offenders were habitual offenders who faced no consequences under the existing justice models in place. Here, cancellation can work. But because it it effective in some scenarios does not mean we should accept it in all scenarios as the only possible tool to meet our needs. We can, and should, question the inclusion/exclusion model of communities as much as we question the inclusion/exclusion model of our prisons, particularly when looking at the possibility of expelling someone who is, for all intents and purposes, an in-group member. In many cases, the exclusion becomes permanent, and the boundary that is drawn becomes an impassable barrier. Someone who has done us harm in the past is not incapable of doing us good in the future. To permanently sever ties because of a reparable harm carries an opportunity cost. We would be wise not to ignore that cost in our value calculus. These are the early termination fees we pay when we are incapable or unwilling to model the communities we want to create.

Creating a framework of community justice is not easy, nor is it a simple task of not cancelling people. We have to put in the effort to understand what our community model is, what our values are, and what recompense looks like. Liberation isn’t the absence of grievance; liberation is the freedom to make mistakes and then make amends. But it requires patient stewardship and cultivation to establish what those norms are, what those amends look like, and what it means to be excluded or reintegrated. It should be easier to do this in an ungoverned digital community than it is in a regulated physical space; and yet, perhaps due simply to the experience level or the table stakes, there is much more structure around these ideas in the latter.

There is no final chapter in any of these stories, but rather an ever changing community. Nevertheless, if we move with intention in our spaces, we can choose to explore and implement these models. I hope we do, because our practice in our online spaces translates will soon translate to how we govern our physical ones. We have to remember that we march towards justice, not perfection.

Author

EG

Emily is a data scientist and activist. The opinions shared herein are her own.