Cancel Culture Made Me Cancel Myself
It’s been half a year since I shared a Medium post, the longest stretch I’ve taken without writing something.
In truth, I’ve tried many times to write again, approaching various topics from recent life events and personal matters to pandemic-related things like WFH fatigue, my growing TikTok obsession, and venturing out into the world again.
But if I’m honest, I’ve had trouble writing anything of substance lately. More precisely, I’ve had trouble writing anything I deem worthy or important enough to share (with the 10 people who read this lol, but still).
I used to write with a kind of uninhibited freedom and abundance. Pouring random thoughts on Medium whenever a new idea popped in my brain and feeling like the possibilities of subjects and topics were always endless. But with everything that happened in 2020 and this year, I grew increasingly self-conscious.
Were my words important? Were they meaningful? Did they serve a purpose?
There was an acute awareness inside me that I shouldn’t take up any more space. I shouldn’t distract from important things, important conversations. The world went through so much shit last year, it didn’t need more crap coming out of my mouth. Let other people talk.
Cancel culture also continued to rear its ugly head, more relentless than ever before. People constantly tore each other apart on Twitter and Instagram. Celebrities fell out of favor left and right. Former President Barack Obama even warned against cancel culture, framing the phenomenon as people “be[ing] as judgmental as possible about other people.” In other words, not real activism.
At a recent panel called “Coming Together or Breaking Apart: The Case Against Cancel Culture,” former ACLU president Nadine Strossen explained how cancel culture has even impacted non celebrities. “I constantly encounter students who are so fearful of being subjected to the Twitter mob that they are engaging in self-censorship,” she said.
In the past, I wrote a good amount on my social media platforms, sharing random opinions, thoughts, and hot takes (well, mostly film hot takes) without a blink of an eye. But lately, everything I have in my mind gets filtered through a lens of self-criticism and doubt. This IG story might be too performative, that one could be read as overly indulgent. Seriously, who even cares what I thought about the new Anthony Bourdain documentary?
But the problem with this kind of socially inflicted self-consciousness is it stifles creativity, independent thinking, and productive discourse. It leads to zero ad hoc conversations or open discussion. To engage in great debate, we need differing opinions. How can we even have meaningful dialogue if we are too afraid to share what we think?
The ‘Notes’ folder in my iPhone that used to be filled with ideas, inspirations, and musings hasn’t been updated since March of this year. I scroll through the rows of text I once filled up with light bulb moments, and I’m utterly amazed by how my mind used to work — mountains of words, racing thoughts, a mile a minute.
Even at work, I find myself holding back sometimes, fearing I might say the wrong thing or offend someone. All this time, I told myself the reasons I stopped sharing my thoughts on Medium/in meetings were because I had writer’s block or I was still adjusting to my new job, but the reality is, I’ve taped my own mouth shut. I’ve self-censored. I built a barricade to protect myself from any outside judgment, and in the process, I lost myself.
Cancel culture, as a concept, feels inescapable and all-encompassing.
In the world we live in today, it’s even more difficult to escape the past because of technology. Every word we’ve written online can be resurfaced. If there’s a digital receipt of something you said a decade ago, chances are it can come back to haunt you.
Loretta Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College and self-identified Black feminist, once wrote that “most public shaming is horizontal” — that is, it’s not done to justifiably criticize people who are seriously dangerous (with real power), but to get a leg up against people who meant no harm.
If that’s the case, is it worth it to launch a witch hunt against someone who genuinely didn’t know better? Will mob mentality really drive them to correct their wrongs, or is peer pressure the only reason they’ll post an apology video/carefully worded PR statement?
Here is my (kind of) hot take:
We can hold most people accountable without cancel culture. Yes, call-outs are justified to challenge those who deliberately hurt others or for powerful people beyond our reach, but for peers who made an honest mistake, it’s more productive to call them in. Calling out assumes the worst, but calling in involves words and actions of healing, teaching, and restoration. It means conversation, compassion, context.
And in most cases, I’ll bet it can lead to more real, impactful change.