Cancel Culture Isn't About Winning An Argument
Countering the idea that you shouldn't shame others because it's a bad tactic
I have recently done a 180 on "Cancel Culture," or what I call "the politics of shame." I was once an avid supporter of the idea that you shouldn't shame others as a tenant of political organizing (see Unpacking the Deadly Politics of Shame), but recently I have changed my mind. Shame can sometimes have excellent results in the realm of politics (see Historically, Shame Has (Sometimes) Been A Good Thing), and we do ourselves a disserve in disavowing it.
(Note — I am not referring to disinformation campaigns or the harassment of powerless individuals. We are talking here about using shame to "punch up" at public and private officials in positions of authority who have stopped being accountable).
Some might counter that this tact is not helpful with the individuals we use it against and even damaging to both the target and the user (see Brene Brown's work I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't) to learn more about this perspective). Yet I am not convinced these are good enough reasons to abandon shame altogether. The rationale for why I favor this tactic has everything to do with two central questions:
- What audience are you trying to reach?
- And what is your goal?
Although shame is not the best tactic for deradicalization, it can be very effective when you abandon the idea that politics is a one-on-one argument where you are trying to change everyone's mind.
Some shameful definitions
First things first, what do we mean by the politics of shame? Shame as an emotion is the intense pain we feel at ourselves for violating a perceived social norm. Shame is focused on the moral standing of an individual rather than on their actions.
Shame is not to be confused with embarrassment, which is a more temporary feeling, or guilt, which involves the same process as shame but is centered on a specific action instead of our character. As Annette Kämmerer writes in Scientific American about the difference between the two: "…when we feel shame, we view ourselves in a negative light ("I did something terrible!"), whereas when we feel guilt, we view a particular action negatively ("I did something terrible!)."
And so, the politics of shame would be using this emotion to remove people from power by making them or their peers feel ashamed about their character — though organizers are not shy about weaponizing guilt or embarrassment. In this context, shame is ultimately a tool that leverages ostracization and self-flagellation in the hope of limiting someone's influence and power.
You may also know it as "canceling," "callout culture," or a thousand other things, but I will not be using these terms (other than in the title for SEO purposes) because they have become so misappropriated that they no longer have much utility. At this point, conservatives pretty much use canceling to describe anything they don't like (see The Victim Complex at the Heart of Conservative Cancel Culture).
I want to stress that shaming others doesn't always involve spreading rumors or disinformation. You can often shame someone by simply stating the truth that they have harmed yourself or others, and then rearticulating this harm over and over again. I want to be clear that the mass articulation of the truth, even if done dramatically, is often enough, in my opinion, to shame abusers.
Sometimes, you aren't trying to convince someone
Critics of shame will usually argue that it is a terrible tactic for convincing someone that they are wrong. As I have argued: "Shame is not always the best motivator for pushing people to action. It can sometimes become toxic, leading to intense self-loathing that is internalized to the point that it alters our self-image."
A few critics go even further and claim that it is psychologically scarring. As Krystine I. Batcho, Ph.D., writes in Psychology Today: "Even in cases where shame successfully diminishes a behavior, one should ask, "at what price?" Shame can become internalized, and the shamed person begins to view him or herself in ways consistent with the disapproval."
Truthfully I don't disagree with these points. Shame undeniably makes people inward and withdrawn. It doesn't help with deradicalization (e.g., causing someone to abandon more extreme views), and if your goal is to get a person to change their mind, it's a terrible tactic to use.
Here is the thing, though, deradicalization often isn't the goal for many targets of shame. The goal is usually de-platforming (e.g., removing someone from power by pressuring their peers, patrons, and business partners to cut ties) or threatening social ostracization unless they stop a certain action. It has nothing to do with modifying someone's behavior and everything to do with limiting it instead. Shame is what you use when you've basically given up on the idea of having proper mediation.
For example, the goal of many "me too" campaigns wasn't to deradicalize men such as Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby but to remove abusers from power so they couldn't enact abuses on the women around them. We now know from reporting that these men were manipulating their power (and the law) to coerce women into silence. There was never going to be a reconciliation in that situation because these men were deadset on the truth behind their abuse never being revealed — and you can't mediate a dispute when one party has the determination and power to refuse the reality of the situation.
Likewise, the goal of de-platforming men such as Milo Yiannopoulos (i.e., the far-right troll who made a name for himself on Breitbart) wasn't to deradicalize him but about limiting his influence because it was determined to be toxic. He was using his platform to harass others. Milo infamously harassed a transgender student with way less power than him (the opposite of what I am calling for in this article). He actively manipulated the spectacle of conversation and debate to deflect responsibility and harm others. He was never going to treat a face-to-face discussion seriously. Although the preferred outcome would be for him to stop being a supremacist, at least now, his supremacy is limited (fingers crossed).
In the activist space, there is this tiring battle between whether deradicalization is the best tactic against supremacy and fascism or if the better tactic is de-platforming. On an individual level, these two tactics are mutually exclusive. You cannot both ostracize someone and deradicalize them at the same time. But on a movement level, these two tactics are not technically in conflict because they are both reaching for the same goal: the limitation of a supremacist ideology. It's just one side is doing that by removing the supremacist's platform and the other by changing their mind.
This dissonance is what I want people to internalize. It's okay to employ different tactics for different types of people. For some people, it's better to shoot for deradicalization, while de-platforming and ostracization are more realistic options for others. It would be wonderful if we had systems of accountability and repair that allowed us to reach a consensus with every conflict, but some people are so powerful, so unaccountable, and quite frankly so abusive that removal is the only option available (and even here, it's not always successful). Many "canceled" people go on to have very prosperous careers.
For example, we aren't able to have a mediated conversation with men like Donald Trump because he's not operating in good faith and will leverage any attempt to converse with him to deflect, harass, and manipulate. We know this because he has done it constantly throughout his history. Whenever a reporter or activist has brought up his record, he has not only denied easily-confirmable facts but has actively lied about them. People would mention something he had recently said or done, and he would instead claim that that thing never happened. And because he was and still is a powerful white man, he never had to modify his behavior. It's the height of arrogance to assume that history wouldn't repeat itself again.
Yet that's what many people who discourage the use of shame effectively do. Dissenters look at powerful, bad-faith actors and tell you that the best thing to do is to waste your time and energy on a conversation that will probably go nowhere. They give this advice despite a history showing that said actors will not engage with you in good faith. In fact, we can confidently say that these actors will instead use this opportunity to deny the reality of the situation and disseminate falsehoods.
That’s not a recipe for good politics. While we all want to live in a world where we can hash out our differences through conversation, the reality is that there are some people we must remove from power first before any talks of repair or deradicalization with them can take place.
A shameful conclusion
The real question becomes, "when do you decide to use punishment over reconciliation?"
For one, it's essential to know who to focus on. A lot of social media activism involves dumping on nobodies with bad takes, and I do not think this is particularly helpful. Seasoned activists usually direct their ire at more significant targets, or they infiltrate groups designed to perpetuate supremacist ideology, such as when ANTIFA activists infiltrate hate groups online to stop their spread.
Another distinction comes in determining what academic Sarah Schulman would describe as the difference between "conflict" (i.e., a disagreement between two parties on the same footing) and "abuse." Abuse here is not defined as parties in dispute or even saying mean words to one another, but when someone takes advantage of a one-sided power dynamic. Classic examples include everything from an individual weaponizing finances against their partner, to a cop using their position of authority to hurt and kill the citizens they "protect," to a country using their military to bomb another one into the stone age. For Schulman, a power imbalance is a core feature of abuse, and I think it's an important framework for our conversation on when to use shame.
When do you shame someone? When that person is being abusive (i.e., they are exploiting a power imbalance against you). They are a politician passing a law taking away your rights or refusing to help you during a crisis. They are a CEO who strips away your benefits or crushes your company's union. These are great targets for the use of shame.
Now, as Schulman argues, sometimes, people will weaponize the language of abuse to avoid accountability (see the entire Groomer Debate). Real work must be done to determine the difference between conflict and abuse. We must first ask ourselves what responsibility we hold in the situation and if the power dynamic is indeed one-sided before we throw around powerful labels such as abuse.
Yet I disagree with Schulman (and others) when she claims that shunning is always wrong and unethical. Just because the potential exists to misappropriate this language doesn't mean we should avoid the tactic of shame altogether. Shame is the option we choose when the situation has become so abusive that repair is impossible without first removing or limiting the influence of officials in power. It is the step right before breaking out the Molotov cocktails. The thing you use when your government or community has abandoned you or is actively harming you.
And hopefully, it doesn't have to stop with shame. Once the person is removed from power (assuming that ever happens), you should be able to switch tactics and let them know how they can repair the damage they have done.
Because ultimately, isn't that the goal, to live in a world where even terrible people are given a path toward redemption?
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
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