Cancelling, Crybullies and Consequences
Being asked to care about other people isn't actually an attack on your human rights.
This is a story about social violence, and about shame, and why the world is choking on both. Before we get into it, I’m going to ask you to do something uncomfortable. I’ll do it, too.
Ready? Right, then -
I want you to think about a time when you hurt someone. A time when, looking back, you know you behaved badly. Don’t tell me what happened. There’s no need for explanations or excuses. Right now I just want you to remember how you felt, and how you handled it. Were you guilty? Embarrassed? Maybe a bit angry, too? It’s alright. This isn’t a test. Nobody likes to hear that they’ve hurt someone else.
Now, take that feeling, and stash it in a safe place. I promise it can’t hurt you. We’ll get back to it soon. Meanwhile, I said I’d do this one with you, so here goes:
It was a month ago. I pottering about in the kitchen, chatting to my partner on my headphones, and delivering some extremely useful, entirelh unsolicited advice about some aspect of his life that needed improving. That’s when I heard him go quiet. And I realised that what I’d thought were helpful suggestions was actually a barrage of unsolicited critique. I was right, of course, definitely, but right now I can’t remember what I was right about or why it mattered.
I do remember the excruciating moment of realising that, in the process of being right, I was also being a gender-non-specific dickhead. To my very favourite person. Who was very far away.
All of that happened in one awful second. What was worse was the minute or so afterwards, when I knew I was being petty and unkind but was too embarrassed to admit it, and the guilt had to go somewhere, so it went into reflexive, private rage. How dare he see me being my worst self? How dare he make me feel guilty? He hadn’t said a word, but my stomach sloshed with cold self-loathing, and that had to be his fault, didn’t it, because I couldn’t handle it being mine.
Moments like this feel like hanging on to the basket of a hot air balloon. Watching the moral high ground disappear below you. Knowing that every second you hold on, you’ll have further to fall.
Thankfully, I have read a lot of books about nurturance culture and the revolutionary notion of not being a wanker if you can help it. Because of that, I was quickly able to own what I’d been doing and say sorry, and land with minimal wobbling on the solid ground of being a flawed human trying to love another flawed human.
Whenever I hear people talk about crybullies, about playing the victim, about snowflakes and the woke police, I think of moments like that. Moments when you know you have done something wrong, but it still feels like you’re the one under attack.
I think about this whenever I see men confronted with their own sexism, or white people confronted with their own casual racism. When I see cis people, confronted with their own transphobia, rapid-snapping into wild justifications of why what they said wasn’t cruel or mean at alll, I come back to that feeling of being suspended between two selves. Dangling from the basket of your own defensive rage, watching dignity disappear below you, wondering if it’s still safe to let go.
So many people, right now, seem to be stuck in that same excruciating interval - swinging over the gap between learning that we might, through action or ignorance, be complicit in someone else’s suffering, and understanding that we can survive that shame and come back to integrity. It’s never nice to be confronted with evidence of your own cruelty, but we need to learn how, and quickly, because right now there’s a general crisis in how human beings cope with each other’s pain.
And the thing about other people’s pain is that there is so much of it, and it’s so loud.
Therapy doesn’t come for free.
Here’s how it is. Over the past decade, relentless socioeconomic injustice and environmental disasters have coincided with a permanent change in how human beings communicate and connect with each other,. The internet makes the suffering of strangers immediately visible. In her iconic essay ‘Regarding The Pain of Others’, Susan Sontag snaps a candid portrait of how cruelty was experienced as collective spectacle at the turn of this century - when mass communication was still largely a few-to-many medium. Images of depravity, of torture and horror, could reach us, but they did not address us as individuals, or speak to us directly, or demand a personal response.
That has changed. Now, professional journalists are no longer required to moderate how much of other people’s pain the public can or ought to tolerate. The people who are hurt can tell you themselves. And they often do. And they’re not always nice about it.
Intimate details of other people’s lives are now immediately, unstoppably, endlessly available in a way that, even a decade ago, most of us couldn’t imagine. We can really, truly, see and hear what other people’s lives are like, and why, and it turns out that some of us really don’t want to know. Some of us would rather not have to listen to other people’s pain, or look at other people’s suffering, especially if we feel we might be implicated.
It is now impossible to literally avoid knowing, for example, about the intimate pain and waste and suffering caused by systemic racism- and that can feel very confronting for white people. Who were previously, until very recently, allowed to plead ignorance. Too many grown adults can’t tell the difference between feeling bad because someone hurt them and feeling bad because they hurt someone else. They can’t handle it. They will do anything to evade that shame: deny, dismiss, destroy.
The root of the word ‘innocent’ is ‘ignorance’- the sort of ignorance that protects you from shame and excuses you from the hard work of repairing harm. And as any student of the Christian Bible can tell you, the opposite of innocence is not guilt, but knowledge. Without knowledge of right and wrong, you cannot feel shame. People with historical privilege are not wrong to feel that the internet has driven us from that Garden of innocence into a frightening new reality where we are expected to care about things our ancestors never had to bother with.
And when you’re accustomed to impunity, accountability can feel a lot like an attack.
For an idiotically long time, I believed that if people only knew how much pain they were causing, they’d change course. I couldn’t understand, even when I was small, why bullies didn’t stop when you were crying or clearly injured -why, instead, it just made them worse. It made them double down. The prospect of being seen doing something cruel sent them into a wild, weird defensive frenzy. But seeing adults behave the same way, as an adult myself, I’ve got a better idea of why that happens.
It’s about shame.
It’s all about shame. It’s the panicked, defensive reflex of children raised in cultures that talk loudly about sin and rarely about redemption and weaponise both to produce compliance.
People raised in cultures of shame don’t understand that you can do bad things without being a bad person. So if someone makes you feel like a bad person, you’ve got to go in hard, double down, destroy them.
Shame makes it impossible to challenge systemic harm by making it dangerous to confront people with harm they’ve done. If we lack a framework for holding people accountable without rejecting their humanity, if any call out can result in the violence of social ostracism, then being identified as a sinner is a legitimately terrifying prospect.
That’s why ‘cancel culture’ is scary.
Believe me, I know. I’ve been ‘cancelled’. I have friends who have been ‘cancelled’. The way it’s spoken about in the mainstream is wrongheaded and reductive, but there is, as my academic friends like to say, a there there. ‘Cancelling’ isn’t the most urgent social problem of the age, but try telling that to someone in a shame spiral.
Shame tells us that if we hurt another person, we haven’t just done a bad thing, we are a bad thing. Shame says that ‘good’ is a thing you are, not a thing you do, and a single mistake places us beyond redemption. Shame makes it impossible to name harm, let alone repair or prevent it.
This is a massive political problem, for many reasons. Firstly, because most of us were raised in shame cultures where there was never a possibility of being held and supported while we learned how to be responsible for our actions. That means that it is impossible to see other people through the prism of our own frantic self-loathing. I’ve met so many men who are fully aware that they have treated women badly, but who feel they ‘cannot’ stop- because they are in a defensive crouch, terrified to begin the work of change by looking at their own behavior. They know they have no framework for healthy remorse. They fear they would not psychologically survive the shame of it.
In exactly the same way, fully grown, educated white people can be reduced to panicked infants by the suggestion that whiteness is a structure of oppression, because what they hear is ‘my whiteness makes me a bad person. I should feel shame.’
It’s excruciating, that shame. To escape or evade it, we’ve all seen people deny, dismiss or go on the attack- contort themselves into exhausting logical positions to avoid a basic relational responsibility they’re just not ready to handle. It’s embarrassing, and it’s embarrassing to watch.
And with every petty second you spend clinging to your pride, the ground gets further away, thin air opening up between hard reality and what your ego thinks it needs to survive. And the harder you hold on to the conviction that you’ve never done anything wrong, the harder it gets to let go.
The idea that people who tell you your foot is on their neck do so for the sole purpose of making you feel bad is the core of the reactionary mode that calls itself ‘anti-woke’. It’s the load-bearing tentpole of the fuck-your-feelings, don’t-play-the-victim, free-speech-means-shut-up-about-race, masks-are-for-pussies-and-pronouns-are-rohypnol self-delusion circus.
Again and again, I have run into otherwise sensible people who truly believe that calling someone else racist, or sexist, or transphobic, is at least as harmful as calling someone else, say, the n-word. People who believe that naming oppression is itself an act of violence. They believe this because that’s how it feels to them. They believe this because nobody has ever sat them down and explained that feelings are not facts.
You cannot logic your way around an emotion. Feelings are real, and they are far from objective. I, for example, am much more worried about the potential consequences of accidentally saying something racist than I am about experiencing racial prejudice. Of course I am. I’m white. Which means I’m far more likely to have my ego wounded by an angry reaction to a thoughtless tweet than I am to be physically wounded by the police. That doesn’t mean that the former is objectively a lesser social danger, even though it feels that way to me. Because, and please bear with me, because this bears repeating- feelings are not facts.
A child could understand this. Too many adults can’t.
Too often, grown adults respond to new knowledge of systemic harm with frantic strategies of shame evasion. The injustice isn’t real, and anyway it isn’t our fault. These strangers banging on about structural violence are just playing the victim. They’re not sincere. They never mentioned it before, and if they did we didn’t hear it, and if we did we didn’t listen, and if we did we ignored it because change is hard, so where has all this anger come from?
If, for example, you find yourself slightly uncomfortable with the sudden visibility of trans people, or a new expectation to respect a person’s chosen pronouns, part of that discomfort might be reasonable fear of censure if you ‘get it wrong’- or resentment that you should have to try.
That’s okay. Discomfort is okay. We’re grown ups. We won’t die if we have to feel uncomfortable. What’s not okay is recasting discomfort as some diffuse, malignant external force: it’s not that you have a prejudice, it’s not that you find it difficult to deal with your emotions like a goddamn adult, it’s that other people are refusing your right to speak freely, or to ask questions. That feels better, doesn’t it? It’s a relief to know that you don’t need to change, that they are the censorious avatars of oppression, which makes you a brave truth teller standing up for truth and justice and the American Way. You’re one of the good guys. Thank goodness.
This soothing self-justification coils in on itself. It makes an ouroboros of moral cowardice. Fear of social change is reframed as freedom of expression, and people who challenge harmful behavior or even just factcheck lies are the wicked, neo-Stalinist woke Stasi. Hooray for you, boldly rebelling against the concept of relational responsibility. You’re more or less a folk hero. You should get a medal.
Behind all this rules-lawyering of the social contract is a childish refusal to live in the adult world. A petty rejection of the responsibility of living in an interdependent society, and the desire, instead, to live forever in that soft, innocent space where you are protected not just from harm but from consequences, too.
Nobody’s pretending that consequences are fun. I hate consequences. I also hate doing my taxes, and drinking water, because it tastes like drowning. But I have learned that if I don’t do those things, worse things happen.
Nor am I suggesting that social ostracism is harmless. It can be hugely painful. It‘s a form of violence, and it can devastate. It can kill.
That’s exactly why people in positions of power have used it for years to threaten and silence those who might otherwise demand to be treated differently.
To take just one example: in Hollywood, for many decades, actors and producers who dared to complain about abusive men in positions of power were routinely iced out of the industry as an example to others. But when those same men finally had to face consequences for their behavior, including the public shaming of the #Metoo movement, their pain was suddenly deafening. Their alleged victims, after years of being shamed into swallowing their suffering, found themselves accused of sadism. Ostracism and shaming might be social violence, but that violence is usually invisible, because it is usually practiced by those who have the monopoly on the legitimate use of all the other kinds of violence, too.
I’ve learned a lot about this from the writing of teachers like adrienne maree brown and Nora Samaran, who built the notion of nurturance culture out of long years of experience in anti-racist, anarchist organising in movement. They learned the mechanisms of shame by helping others work through the process of owning the harm they have done, working to repair it and coming back to community.
Samaran, Brown and others point out that social justice movements have used shame- including public shaming- with gratuitous savagery, even in the service of worthy ends. Those who live in fear of one day being ‘cancelled for a tweet’ aren’t wrong to be afraid of that, although they may need to adjust their priorities. Ostracising, humiliating, mercilessly rendering a wrongdoer socially untouchable- these are all social weapons that really are used by pretty much everyone right now. And technology has made it far easier for less powerful people to deploy them against individuals who have caused harm.
Those modalities are not confined to progressives, or to the ‘woke’. In fact, conservatives are experts at what they call cancelling, mob shaming and virtue signalling.
The outrage about ‘cancel culture’ is not about the weapon, it’s about who’s using it. Convention has it that working class people are not allowed to shame the wealthy by describing their depravity; that women make themselves monstrous merely by daring name male violence. Meanwhile, employers, managers, grant committees, commissioners, religious leaders, teachers, politicians and police officers routinely humiliate and ostracise and overlook and violate women and LGBTQ people and disabled people and people of color without the slightest suggestion that doing so is an unconscionable act of cancelling. Rich men can and do shame whoever they like, and if they happen to own a newspaper it can be pretty profitable - but somehow that’s never a cause for outrage. It’s just Tuesday.
The powerful have many other weapons they have other tools at their disposal to protect themselves and create change. They can use policymaking, and the prison system, and the police.But for progressives, many of whom have spent their entire adult lives watching the old and rich and mean dominate electoral politics, shaming and social ostracism have become some of the only effective ways to create meaningful change. And that’s a problem, because when shame is your only tool, everything looks like sin.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched people on the left justify treating one another with casual cruelty on the basis that we can’t afford to be kind, or someone will take advantage of us.
I understand where that comes from, and I’d have more time for the argument if more of that violence was directed at the identified enemy, or employed strategically, rather than, as it seems, as a collective act of cathartic self-harm. We lash out at each other when the future is frightening because lashing out makes us feel good when not much else does, and we find ways to justify that later.
It doesn’t help that a lot of people on the left come from marginalised communities, which often means that they have spent their entire lives being told that kindness meant putting up with injustice. That decency demanded that they protect their abusers from awareness of their own wrongdoing. It’s also true that demands for ‘kindness’ are highly gendered. When women and girls are told to ‘be kind’, they are too often taught by example that kindness means putting up with disrespect. Too many of us, especially women and men of colour, have spent our lives coddling and placating people we were afraid of, people who made it unsafe to show that fear. We have had to prioritise the comfort of others. We have had to be nice and accommodating, or else.
And we are sick of it. We don’t want to have to pay attention to other people’s feelings anymore, especially not total strangers who are rude to us on the internet. We are so, so sick of being nice.
But there’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Kindness doesn’t mean you have to like people, or even forgive them. Kindness does not require anyone to tolerate cruelty. It doesn’t mean politeness, or ignoring your own boundaries, or putting other people’s needs before your own.
Kindness is difficult, and challenging. It means acknowledging interdependence. It means coming up with a model for resolving conflict that isn’t about dominance, or conquest, or violence. It means learning to be wrong, and learning to repair, and making space for other people to do the same.
Think back to that time when you hurt someone. When you wandered away from integrity. How did you find your way back?Was there a bridge to cross back to a place of self-respect, and actual responsibility, and not having to feel angry and shitty about yourself the entire time?
If there was, if someone offered you that grace, if someone showed you that dignified bridge and made it clear why you ought to cross and what would happen otherwise, you’ll know how much it matters. You will probably also know that that process is a massive pain in the neck, which is why a lot of people can’t be bothered. Being a grown-up is exhausting and embarrassing, and staying innocent is safe and easy, and that’s how people end up committing atrocities to protect their own innocence.
Someday, historians will study the public politics of our time. When they do, the mass refusal of basic safety measures in the middle of a pandemic will go down as one of many strange and tragic secretions of toxic individualism. By then, we will have a better idea of just how many people had to watch their parents, their partner, or their child die a frightening, painful death because strangers decided freedom meant never having to care about other people. We will know many hundreds of thousands of human beings drowned on dry land because cowards made an entire movement out of refusing even the most minimal inconvenience that might save a stranger’s life.
What those future historians will ask, from the vantage point of a society that somehow saved itself from species collapse, will be: why? Why were we so marinated in shame that we decided the only freedom that mattered was the freedom not to care about other people?
I suspect it’s got something to do with the fact that there are almost eight billion of us and we’re all going to die, and that would be awful enough by itself without mad oligarchs marching us all over the cliff of climate collapse. Because it’s easier to scream at strangers on the internet than to do the hard work of adjusting to a world where human lives really need to have inherent value, even if the humans in question are mean and scared and stupid and annoying.
Because if other people’s lives are inherently valuable, that means that their pain matters, and if other people’s pain matters, that means we might have to do something about it, and we are already very tired. And we need each other, more than ever, and that’s the scariest, most annoying thing of all.
Because the human race isn’t something you can actually win. If our frantic, fucked-up excuse for a species is going to survive, we have to remember how to act like one.
We need each other, and that means we can’t only care about the people we love and have chosen to associate with and nobody else. We need to care about people we don’t know and might not even like very much, and I don’t like that any more than you do. If we didn’t need each other, if rugged individualism actually existed as anything more than a libertarian wet dream, nobody would care about being cancelled.
Shame works because of what all of us know in our bones. It works because nobody gets through this alone.