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What If The Real Cancel Culture Was 'People Freaking Out About Cancel Culture' All Along?
Is the cancel culture calling from inside the house?
For the last three or four years, The Atlantic has been publishing endless screeds about the dangers of "cancel culture." They've not been alone.The New York Times has practically had an entire op-ed beat dedicated to it. Bari Weiss, who spent pretty much her entire tenure at the Times yelling about cancel culture, has since left and now publishes her own substack primarily focused on cancel culture and the many other ways those on the "illiberal" Left are existing in the wrong way. Harper's , notably, published a completely batshit letter calling for an end to "cancel culture" signed by a variety of authors and cultural luminaries, along with people like Weiss who have made a whole damn career out of yelling about cancel culture.
Today, however, The Atlantic has published a far more thoughtful piece from author Eve Fairbanks, who posits that the real threat to free speech is people freaking out about a cancel culture that doesn't necessarily exist in real life. Which is what some of us have been goddamned saying the whole time.
In a nutshell, Fairbanks's story is that she moved from the US to South Africa for a few years, came back with a non-fiction book about South Africans, and was immediately told by her fellow writers and editors that this was a brave new world in which people would have their entire careers destroyed for even the slightest misstep. She was given advice on "how things are now," what she could expect, and what she had to do to avoid this cancellation.
Via The Atlantic:
Two editors, though, told me in private conversations to evade criticism by cutting the manuscript so it focused exclusively on white people. I’d discussed representation for years with the people I interviewed. No South African believed it was possible—not to mention desirable—to write about the country’s white people without writing about its Black citizens; everybody’s self-understanding incorporates ideas proposed by people unlike themselves.
“That doesn’t matter,” one of the editors told me, warning me I’d be “misread.” A white writer, prominent in New York, warned me that my publisher now demanded “at least three sensitivity readers” and that I would not “be allowed” to object to anything these readers wanted to change or delete.
In the run-up to the book’s publication, two writers of color said that although they wished it wasn’t necessary, I should spend days memorizing a perfect, canned answer to the question “What made you think you had the right to write a book that includes Black people?” The question would arise “in every interview,” one said.
Surprise — literally none of these things happened!
But along the way, Fairbanks did feel she self-censored, she did feel the burden of so-called cancel culture, to the point of having nightmares about her life being destroyed by a tweet. However, while she noticed that sure, some people on social media went a little overboard in their reactions to some things, it wasn't pervasive, it wasn't the actual culture — it was just a few people saying a few things. Which is to be expected!
The experience made me wonder: Why do we assume that cancel culture is a pervasive reality, and what’s the impact of that assumption?
A lot, I would think.
For one, it makes people who are not necessarily very tuned into leftwing online discourse extremely confused about what is actually even going on, which I am sure leads to people over-correcting and self-censoring in entirely unnecessary ways. It turns into a game of telephone where people who have never actually even heard or read a particular criticism of a particular behavior are offering their own interpretations of what those criticisms are, and frequently getting them very wrong.
As an example, those giving Fairbanks advice somehow conflated a public discourse over whether or not it might be a bad idea for a white writer to write a fiction book or a movie from the perspective of a person of color with "white journalists can never interview Black people about anything and that is the rule now, sorry!"
For another, absolute hysteria over it obfuscates legitimate criticism to the point of "I guess I'll go eat worms" absurdity. It makes people feel like anything they may have to say about a subject is invalid because "Oh what are you going to CANCEL this person now? Do they have to go away forever?"
And how are we to decide who it is that should have to self-censor? Because the assumption on the part of those who flip out over so-called cancel culture is that it is bad and oppressive for certain people to have to self-censor and that in order to prevent that from happening, other people have to self-censor any criticism they may have of those people, legitimate or not.
As humans, we have a tendency to assume everything is everybody — especially when something feels bad. When we feel like shit, we don't say "A seemingly large number of people hate me!" — we say "Everyone hates me!" There's also a tendency for people to see and talk about "the internet" as if it is some kind of independent voltron instead of a thing on which humans interact with one another.
I used to write for a site where everything was always "And The Internet Was NOT Having It!" — half of the articles were just Twitter reactions. It didn't matter if something was actually trending on Twitter or anything, you just searched for whatever it is you were writing about, found a few tweets that matched your premise and ta-da! You had an article.
Allow me to demonstrate, shall I?
The Whole Internet Is Eating Grilled Cheese Sandwiches!
“All my subtweets belong to grilled cheese sandwiches.”
— Jade Dragon (@Jade Dragon) 1666021272
“I didn’t eat yesterday, just liqour and someone at the bar bought everyone grilled cheese sandwiches.”
— JAWN PAUL GAULTIER (@JAWN PAUL GAULTIER) 1666624490
“Why do grilled cheese sandwiches go so hard!!!”
— 𝐆. (@𝐆.) 1666384265
The Internet Has Spoken: Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Are Canceled!
“Grilled cheese sandwiches are only good if you have one like every two years or so”
— Mira 🎃 (@Mira 🎃) 1665962051
“grilled cheese sandwiches are gross. i just ate one so i know best”
— abi (@abi) 1643331084
This is silly, but the fact is, "the internet" is pretty much the entire world, so it is always going to be possible to find people who will say anything about anything in order to produce a particular narrative. Even if they are very wrong.
“I hate Robyn’s hair”
— r (@r) 1665954745
There is real, actual censorship happening in the country right now. Conservatives are out here defunding libraries, banning books, and trying to ban drag shows . Strangely, none of the "Intellectual Dark Web" types who have been sobbing over cancel culture for the last several years seem to be at all bothered by this. Indeed, it is entirely possible that they would consider any criticism of this actual censorship to be "cancel culture."
I get it, actually. It hits you differently when you know that the people who are criticizing you or something you've done don't actually have a point of any kind. It hits differently when you know what kind of person you are trying to be and someone criticizes you in a way that makes you feel like you are maybe not that person. Getting swarmed by angry misogynists doesn't make me feel badly about myself or question anything I'm doing. It in fact makes me feel sure that I'm doing the exact right thing. Where I do feel crappy is with the current criticism of true crime and copaganda shows like Law and Order , because I absolutely do love that shit ... while also realizing it is very, very problematic.
But we all need to be able to take a step back and realize that just because we feel something disproportionately, it doesn't mean that it exists disproportionately, in reality. And in reality, none of the small changes people are being asked to make in order to make things more equitable are actually all that painful.
There is nothing wrong with having a sensitivity reader, especially when you are writing about other people's experiences — Fairbanks notes she asked several actual South Africans to read her book so she could get their take on it before even submitting it to the publisher. There is also nothing wrong with writers asking themselves if they should be the one to tell a particular story. Such things are hardly the end of the world and/or free speech. It is entirely possible to be normal about these things without working to create the perception that minorities are pushing entirely unreasonable demands on a population of the helpless privileged whose very livelihood is dependent on following said demands.
Because that's some bullshit.
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