Cancel Culture

Question Everything

I’m going to wade into what has become a dangerous topic. Just expressing an opinion about it can subject you to horrible attacks (and worse) from both sides of the issue. However, I also think it’s something that needs to be considered and discussed, so I’m going to make the attempt.

The Right uses the term “Cancel Culture” a lot. On the surface, it’s almost funny coming from a group who has spent decades trying to cancel anything and everything that they found offensive, including books, movies, albums, art, and events such as Gay Pride Parades. Digging deeper though, I come away with two things:

First, they are exceptionally good at coming up with short, memorable expressions and getting their followers to repeat them as often as possible, until the term gains common usage that is strongly associated with their message. Often, this is even to the point of using the term when the meaning doesn’t really apply, or even when it’s the opposite of what they’re actually saying. A perfect example is “Fake News”. The truth is there is a lot of actual fake news out there, running the gamut from exaggerated and misleading stories to things that have been simply made up, but when you hear the term used, it quite often doesn’t refer to something that isn’t true, but rather to something that someone doesn’t like or doesn’t want to hear. This is in no way actually “Fake News”, but the term has so much traction at this point, that it scarcely matters how accurately or inaccurately it’s being used at the time.

Second, they haven’t suddenly changed their views on cancelling things that are offensive, nor are they actually upset about the fact that offensive things are being cancelled. They are upset because this weapon that they’ve used for so long is now being pointed at them. Society is now trying to remove racist symbols and rhetoric that are quite often things that they consider to be part of their “heritage”. People are being called out (and often facing harsh consequences) for making racist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic statements, which many on the Right view as “Political Correctness gone wild” (with “PC” being another term they use frequently). To be fair, the Left hasn’t suddenly changed their views and decided that it’s okay to cancel things that are offensive, after years of pushing back against the Right for doing that very thing. They are simply calling out the things that they believe to be offensive. And I say that as someone who is, full disclosure, extremely liberal. I believe that most people on the Right genuinely believe that the things they object to are offensive, while they think the Left is just “overreacting” to the things they find offensive. I honestly think a logical case can be made as to why a Nazi flag is more offensive than two guys kissing in public, but that’s not the point of this post, so I’ll move on.

It is the second point that I think needs to be considered and discussed. As society has shifted away from ignoring blatant racist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic statements, the rigor with which such statements are called out continues to increase. People are sometimes being savagely attacked for things that said 20 or even 30 years ago, and in some cases even losing their livelihood over it. As I see this happening, I find myself in the extremely rare position of actually agreeing with one specific accusation of the Right: I do think that sometimes we are overreacting to these things. I do not, in any way, agree with their blanket use of the word “overreacting” to negate the validity of calling these things out at all. I think when such statements pop up, past or present, they need to be called out and discussed, however I don’t think we need to always be so quick to dismiss (and even punish) the person who made the statements. Context is everything (or should be).

Now, at this point, I’m reasonably sure that at least a small segment of the Left is now accusing me of being Right-wing, and possibly even racist (or at least a racism sympathiser), and many on the Right are almost certainly upset about most of the other things I’ve said so far, but I think ignoring problems is part of why nobody called these things out for so long. They really do need to be not only repudiated, but also examined and discussed.

What started me down this line of thinking was something that recently happened with Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins is a very intelligent, articulate man, who seems to try to evaluate and discuss most things logically and rationally. However, that often makes him come across as cold and unfeeling, and sometimes causes his criticisms to seem (or perhaps actually be) harsh – maybe harsher than he might’ve intended (although there’s no way to know for sure what his intent is). On the whole, I find him to be someone worth listening to (whether I agree with what he’s saying or not), but he’s probably not someone I would actually like personally.

In April of this year (2021), Dawkins posted the following tweet:

Richard Dawkins on Twitter (10 April 2021)

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as Black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.

There are several problems with this tweet, especially in the second sentence, which is not only factually incorrect, but is also using wording that is often used to attack and disparage a marginalised group (those who are transgender). As expected, the response was swift, but unfortunately, while most of them made valid points, far too many attributed nefarious motives that are simply impossible to determine from this tweet, and the extent to which they began to attack Dawkins’ character and, in his own words, “vilify” him for these statements, almost proved the point of the third sentence of his tweet.

A few days later, The American Humanist Association, which had awarded Dawkins their Humanist of the Year Award in 1996, rescinded the award, in response to his tweet. In their statement, they not only condemn what he said, but they accuse him of doing so “in the guise of scientific discourse”, which again attributes him with motives that are impossible to know.

Many people approved of the move, but some, even some who had condemned Dawkins original tweet, questioned whether it might be an overreaction to what he said, especially given that The American Humanist Association has not withdrawn the award from others who have said and done similar (and in some cases, arguably worse) things.

At this point, the people who dared to pose this question were almost immediately accused of defending Dawkins (although most of them clearly were not), defending his tweet, and in some cases, even of being transphobic themselves. Regardless of how you might feel about the reaction to Dawkins tweet or the actions of The American Humanist Association, this is a clear overreaction, and goes even further to support Dawkins’ statement (and even worse, the accusation from the Right) that we are vilifying people for asking questions or expressing a view that they disagree with. I’m sorry, but in this case, that is precisely what we are doing. Questioning and discussing is exactly what we need to be doing in these situations, not shutting down the conversation or punishing those who try to engage.

I can’t (and won’t) claim to know what Richard Dawkins’ motives or intents are. Is he actually transphobic? Maybe, maybe not. Did he say a transphobic thing? Yes, he did, but that does not, in and of itself, mean that he is transphobic. We are all products of the time and place we live and of our upbringing, and it colours our perceptions and instincts in ways that we’re not even always aware of ourselves. It can make the best of us say, or do, something completely tone-deaf and inappropriate, without meaning to. We are all imperfect, and I can almost guarantee that every one of us has, at one time or another, said or did something that was racist or homophobic or transphobic or misogynistic. I don’t say this to defend what Dawkins said, nor does upbringing excuse statements such as the ones he made, be I think we need to be careful lumping such statements into the same category as those of obvious transphobes who not only say horribly transphobic things (and try to legislate their transphobia, at the expense of those who are transgendered), but they make no question of being transphobic and are quite clear in their intent and motives; and we definitely need to be careful about demonising and punishing such offences equally, because doing so sends the wrong message, and provides evidence to the Right that we truly are suppressing people just for what they believe or for questioning certain beliefs – which sadly, in cases like this, we actually are.

I think, in part, what may be happening here is that after years of attempting to push back against homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric being thrown about without consequence, the pendulum is starting to swing too far the other way, leading to instant vilification and harsh punishment for even the slightest offence. If previous societal shifts are any indicator, I think (hope) this will eventually course correct and the response to these things will eventually be more appropriate to the specific offence. At the moment though, emotions are running too high (on both sides) and rationality is getting lost somewhere along the way. Plus, the Internet and Social Media change things in a way that’s difficult to predict.

One thing I think we need to do though is learn how to disconnect “You said a transphobic thing” from “You are a transphobic person” (or “You said a racist thing” vs “You are a racist”). The difference between someone who isn’t racist and someone who is racist isn’t that the not-racist person will never, ever, under any circumstances say something that is racist; it’s that someone who isn’t racist will question what they said and consider that it might’ve been unintentionally racist, while the racist person won’t bother. We do need to call out this type of language, intentional or unintentional, but instead of rushing to punish the offender, we need to make them aware of the problem and give them a chance to consider their words and see what their reaction is. If they appear to be genuinely trying to sort it out and get it right (even if they don’t manage to do so right away), that’s a pretty clear sign that they’re not just horrible people saying horrible things, but rather someone who either spoke without thinking or said something based on outdated ideas that had been lodged in their heads.

So, at the risk of being unfairly judged in a similar fashion, I will now go on record with my opinions on this whole thing. Was Richard Dawkins’ tweet transphobic? Yes. Was he intentionally attacking trans people? Impossible to know, based merely on this tweet. Perhaps it was unintentional, perhaps not. Is Richard Dawkins transphobic? Again, insufficient data at this point. Was it right to call him out for what he said? Yes, definitely. Was it right to demonise him and attack him personally? No. I think the best response would’ve been to do exactly what he said in the last word of his tweet: “Discuss”, but not quite in the manner he meant, instead by pointing out to him specifically what was wrong with what he said, the factual inaccuracies in his statement, as well as the harmful effects of what he said. Give him a chance to consider his words, and perhaps question himself and his views. Was The American Humanist Association right to call him out for his tweet? Yes, and there are a few other recipients of the same award that should’ve also been called out for things they’ve said and done. Were they right to accuse him of doing so intentionally? Again, no. Were they right to take back his award? There is room for debate on this one (or there should be), but I think no. In my opinion, going so far as to “punish” someone (by banning or firing them, or in this case, stripping them of an award) should require something a good bit more extreme than what Dawkins said. I think someone needs to be blatantly and actively transphobic (or racist, etc) and show no remorse or willingness to even consider changing to warrant a response such as this. Was it right for some people to support what they did? Of course. Was it right for some people to disagree or just question it? Definitely. We should question everything. One of my strongest beliefs is that anything we are not allowed to question is, by definition, suspect. Immediately slapping someone down (as it were) for daring to question something is the kind of emotional, knee-jerk reaction that I’ve grown to expect from the Right (because, in all fairness, they do it so often), but it surprises, and disturbs me, to see it happen on the Left. Honestly, that goes against everything we supposedly stand for. Was it right to accuse the people who questioned/disagreed as defending what Dawkins said or being transphobic themselves? Definitely not. The is exactly the kind of overreaction that the Right loves to accuse us of and that we really should not be doing.

I will end, by calling myself out for something. At 57, I’m probably about as liberal as you can get, but I still remember in my early 20s locking my car doors when a black man would walk by, and even more so, I remember how uncomfortable I felt about that reaction. I had to question why I did it and face the fact that my upbringing in a severely racist household had had more of an effect on me that I wanted to believe was the case. Am I a racist? I don’t think so; I definitely hope not. I try very hard to critically examine my words and beliefs, because I know how easy it is for that old programming to sneak in. Was I racist then? Again, I don’t think so. I was appalled and ashamed that I had that reaction. Did I do a racist thing? Oh yes, definitely. The fact that it was unconscious and unintentional doesn’t make it less racist. I was making the instant, subconscious decision whether or not to lock my door based entirely on the race of the person who was approaching. Rationally, it made no sense, but it wasn’t a rational act. As disgusted as I had always been, even as a child, by the horribly racist things my father said and did, I cannot claim to have been unaffected by them, as clearly demonstrated by my actions here.

So, how did I “fix” it? Well, the first step was to recognise it and call it out for what it was. The next step was to question it. Does it reflect my actual beliefs? If so, why do I believe those things? If not, why am I doing it? Once I had determined that it did not reflect my beliefs and recognised it as what it was, an unconscious reflex action brought about from a lifetime of being warned about scary, dangerous, black men and all the terrible things they do, I set about to overcome it by making the conscious decision not to lock the door. To my shame, I remember more than once when that instinct would kick in and I would force myself to leave the door unlocked, and during those times, in spite of myself, I felt apprehensive as the man walked by my car. I knew it was irrational; I knew there was no real basis for it; but that didn’t change how I felt. Over time though, the apprehension went away, and with it the instinct to lock the door.

I apologise for going on so long, but this is a complex subject with a lot to unpack. There aren’t any quick, easy answers. We just need to keep questioning, thinking critically, and being open to discussion.

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