Cancel Check“Cancel Culture,” Abolition, and the Meaning of Accountability

photo of author J.K. Rowling, a white, red-haired woman in a turquoise top

J.K. Rowling (Photo credit: J.K. Rowling/Facebook)

Nora Salem is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Global Feminism

Recently, a primarily volunteer-led Brooklyn activist organization that works to end gentrification and police brutality faced an internal reckoning: On September 2, 2020, an ex-employee of the organization, who prefers to remain anonymous, published a piece on Medium accusing the lead organizer of abusive behavior. The ex-employee wrote that they experienced gaslighting and manipulation from the organizer, and that the organization began to “follow a corporate model.” By September 17, they weren’t the only one making allegations, as several other organizers on the leadership team published (also on Medium) an “accountability statement” that announced a group departure. This statement both echoed and clarified the ex-employee’s accusations against their lead organizer, indicting verbal abuse, a tendency to escalate personal conflict, and, most recently, an unprecedented attempt to force a departing employee to sign a backdated employment contract and nondisclosure agreement.

The lead organizer responded by announcing, in an email, that he was “reclaiming” the organization. Soon after, the leadership team departed. Was that lead organizer “cancelled”? The long list of academics, writers, and public intellectuals who signed on to “A Letter on Open Justice and Debate,” published in July 2020 by Harper’s, would likely say he was. One of the largest discussions of cancel culture in recent memory, the Harper’s letter (which appears in the magazine’s October print issue) addressed the trend toward “ideological conformity” among the ostensibly liberal in publications, classrooms, and artistic endeavors, calling out “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The letter’s contents caused a stir, and the boldfaced names who signed it—Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, and Margaret Atwood among them—even more so.

It wasn’t the first time in recent years, or even recent months, that “cancel culture” had been decried by its ostensible victims on prominent platforms. In June 2020, Bari Weiss, the New York Times columnist who made a name for herself by sneering at cancel culture, resigned in an open letter to NYT publisher A.G. Sulzberge; in it, she cites, in part, a complaint that “Twitter has become [the New York Times’] ultimate editor” and that a “new McCarthyism” was taking hold behind the scenes. In August, 18-year-old Nick Sandmann, whose smirking presence as a counterprotestor at 2019’s Indigenous People’s March went viral, spoke at the Republican National Convention about the United States needing a president who would “challenge the media to return to objective journalism.” In September, author J.K. Rowling adamantly defended herself against charges of transphobia while publicizing a new crime novel—a 1,000-page thriller about a male serial killer who dresses as a woman to prey on unsuspecting victims.

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Blanket critiques of cancel culture reached a fever pitch in an October Trump-Pence campaign ad, which warned voters, “Joe and Kamala will cancel you.” The summer’s high-profile cancellation discourse coincided with a national movement to change the entirety of our mainstream, structural approach to and understanding of justice. Though activism against police brutality has flourished nationally since Michael Brown Jr.’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, George Floyd’s May 2020 murder brought to the fore a new focus on police abolition, inherently racist law-enforcement and court policies, and even our understanding of words like “harm” or “accountability.” The work of finding the delicate balance of righting wrongs without adding to the list of harms done has a long history; take, for example, Indigenous traditions like the Māori practice of utu (which roughly translates to “reciprocation” or “balance”) and the peacemaking process of the Diné.

In the United States, abolition has been central to the work of Black intellectuals and activists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba. The practices they advocate are those of restorative or transformative justice—two concepts that are related, but that vary in intent and scope. In “What is Transformative Justice?” a recent video produced by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, adrienne maree brown (who has contributed to Bitch), describes restorative justice as an attempt to “restore ourselves back to the relationship that existed before the harm happened.” It contrasts with punitive justice, which focuses on expelling the person who caused the harm—whether that’s a parent putting a toddler into a time out or the state condemning a criminal to a life sentence. For brown, however, restorative justice is not enough, because “if the original conditions were unjust, then returning to those original conditions is not justice.”

Stas Schmiedt, cofounder of the nonprofit Spring Up, meanwhile, believes that transformative justice “address[es] harm but also understand[s] why that harm happened and address[es] the underlying dynamics that created conditions for this harm to happen in the first place.” It’s important to note here that while the phrase “cancel” has been commonly used by Black Twitter since at least 2015 to describe withdrawing support, admiration, or friendship, it gained mainstream prominence in 2017 as the #MeToo movement captured national attention and headlines. The #MeToo campaign, likewise, was not new—activist Tarana Burke started it in 2006—but the accusations against Harvey Weinstein by Hollywood celebrity women he sought to silence made the hashtag inescapable. In the context of #MeToo, “cancellation” described an effort to remove power from someone who was wielding it to hurt others. Similarly, on the ground, activists have long worked to ensure that awareness of power imbalances are addressed in their communities.

The concept of “cancellation” is, in practice, simply a call for accountability. In 2019 the popular Twitter psychotherapist @QueeringPsych wrote a detailed blog post about community accountability and underscored this: “That’s all boundaries are and that’s all ‘cancelling’ is: People deciding what they want and don’t want in their lives. Deciding what they will and won’t put their energy and/or money towards. People don’t have to deal with everything and everybody.” He goes on to explain that “[r]estorative justice and change for those who have caused harm is not possible if the community/environment is not set up for change.” This raises a key question that knee-jerk condemnations and defenses of cancel culture rarely address in full: What does it look like to take accountability seriously and practice transformative justice? In the case of the Harper’s letter, many people who didn’t agree with its contents pointed out the hypocrisy of decrying cancel culture from the pages of a widely read and respectable publication.

It seemed disingenuous for such popular authors to complain about the curtailing of their free speech when, in many cases, the “stifling atmosphere” they were describing was mostly tweets they found mean, or colleagues correcting them in public forums. But what about the smaller stages on which cancellation and calls for accountability play out? Soraya Palmer, one of the anti-gentrification organization’s departing leadership members, was aware of its lead organizer’s habitual boundary stepping and conflict escalation. Palmer, who runs a youth program that uses restorative-justice practices to solve conflict and support community safety in her Brooklyn community, had experienced it herself—noting, for instance, that the organizer accused her of not being a “real revolutionary” when she expressed discomfort after being left alone at a protest at which police were beginning to react violently. She knew he was notorious for making volunteers, often young women, cry. As she puts it, “He really had a way of making you feel like you weren’t shit.”

Concerns like these don’t rise to the level of physical or sexual abuse. But it’s easy to see how they ran counter to the values of an activist project that has the goal of imagining a world without hierarchies, one where all people can, supposedly, feel safe, strong, and heard. In the end, the attempts to hold their leader accountable for behavior they found unacceptable failed. “You don’t publish a letter like [ours] unless you’ve tried a lot of other things first,” Palmer said, noting that the organization’s leadership attempted many conversations, including bringing in a restorative justice–trained mediator. “Some of the complaints were more hurtful but some were like, ‘I really love you, but you hurt me.’ Some people still can’t hear that,” she said. The subject of who has power, and how they use that power, is at the heart of both accountability and cancel culture. 

What is Transformative Justice?

In her 2016 book Conflict is Not Abuse, Sarah Schulman explains that, whether in an open letter in a prominent legacy publication or a leadership meeting among activists, it is necessary to identify whether a dispute or incident involves “power struggle” or “power over.” The former might describe, say, Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe publicly countering J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments; the latter is recognizable in the stories of women who left the film industry because Harvey Weinstein assaulted them or bullied them into silence. But what happens when the answer to this question is blurry or even indefinable? In an August 16 Medium post shared with her Patreon members, Clementine Morrigan recounted her experience in a long-term relationship that she came to understand was abusive. Again, there was no physical or sexual abuse, but Morrigan routinely felt emotionally neglected, and a friend she confided in identified this as a sign of abuse.

Morrigan (who suffered from PTSD as a result of childhood and intimate partner abuse prior to this relationship) wrote in her post that, “I did notice when I thought of it as abusive I felt more anger and less despair.” Her therapist, however, balked at Morrigan’s use of the term. According to Morrigan, “She said ‘That was an unhappy relationship where your needs weren’t being met, but it wasn’t abuse. It’s really important for you to be able to discern the difference.’” The moment was a sort of epiphany for Morrigan, who realized that the relationship, while not abusive, did trigger her past trauma. “Because trauma essentially means flashing back to the time of original abuse, many survivors of developmental trauma feel helpless and powerless in adulthood, in a way that does not accurately reflect the level of choice and power they have,” she wrote. That revelation has informed Morrigan’s attitude toward cancellation. In an email exchange, she told Bitch that “[T]he movement to believe survivors, while coming from a good place, has actually caused a huge amount of harm. In social justice scenes [currently], accusations are to be believed without question, and the accused’s life can be totally upended. Even the criminal justice system offers more space for self-defense than that.”

Schulman would likely agree. In Conflict is Not Abuse, she writes that “Sometimes, we really do not want to face ourselves, our own participation, our painful pasts, the fact of our projections, distorted thinking, mental illness. When we have nowhere to go but inside ourselves, and when that self we inhabit is convinced that it cannot bear to be seen, we call the police.” Many transformative justice advocates have a habit of telling each other to “kill the cop in your head”—in other words, to stop recreating the dynamics of punishment and ostracization that have made indelible impressions on us. If only power dynamics were so simple. In fact, the closer a relationship is, the harder it can be to identify “power struggle” and “power over”—especially since, as Aviva Stahl wrote in a 2017 review of Conflict is Not Abuse, “[A]busers wield power by manipulating their victims’ sense of reality and self-worth.” And a person’s willingness to own their accountability can vary depending on the social or economic context in which they occur.

How would our organizations and relationships shift if, from the outset, we began with a full reckoning on power and how it shapes our interactions?

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In “What Is Transformative Justice?” adrienne maree brown says that recognizing a person’s “transformative capacity” is foundational to the work of real justice. As someone in recovery, Clementine Morrigan’s understanding of transformative justice is informed by the 12-step process—a background that helped her to understand that you can’t force someone to take accountability—“the willingness to be responsible comes from the person themself, not from outside forces.” In the tangle of opinions, theories, and eye-rolling that encircle cancel-culture conversations, the concept of transformative capacity lends a shining light—especially if we expand its application beyond individuals and to culture as a whole. How would the three paragraph-long “Letter on Open Justice and Debate” in Harper’s be altered by an honest consideration of the human capacity for change?

How would our organizations and relationships shift if, from the outset, we began with a full reckoning on power and how it shapes our interactions? Building communities, workplaces, and activist spaces where people can feel safe speaking up about harm and, by the same token, equally safe acknowledging that they have caused harm, requires nuance, vulnerability, the willingness to cede power—all things that seem in increasingly short supply. Those in power continually belittle and dismiss cancel culture by longing for the “civility” of a time when it was legally, socially, and technologically difficult to hold power and abuse to account, but we can’t find answers there. Nor can we find them in dynamics that recreate ineffective punishments in shiny new ways. But on the path to shaping ideals of justice that might transform our society, making and owning up to mistakes seems like an integral part of the deal. 


Nora Salem, a writer of color, wearing a yellow shirt and light-blue jeans
by Nora Salem
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Nora Salem is a writer and teacher. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, she completed a Fulbright research program in Kuala Lumpur and an Open City Fellowship at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two cats.