Calling Out Cancel Culture

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S1: This is a word, a new podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Have you ever been canceled using the wrong words, having the wrong ideas, being racist when you didn’t intend to be often viewed as a weapon of the local cancer culture is now being criticized by everybody from centrist Democrats to even some people who occasionally call progressive. If all you’re doing is casting stones,

S2: you

S1: know, you’re probably not going to get that far. So is cancer culture really out of hand or is it just privileged people angry about the fact that they’re suddenly being held accountable? That’s next on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a world podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. If you spend any time on social media, you’ve probably heard of cancer culture. That’s when a group of people, sometimes famous but often not call someone out, criticizing them for past actions or alleged actions or comments they find offensive. It’s a subject of outrage for many politicians, comedians and people do a little bit of both, like late night talk show host Bill Maher.

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S3: And finally, new rule. Liberals need a Stand Your Ground law for council culture so that when the WOAK mob comes after you for some ridiculous offense, you’ll stand your ground. Stop apologizing because I can’t keep up anymore with who’s on the shit list.

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S1: Is that mob justice or is it accountability? Loretta Ross has thought a lot about this issue. She teaches a class called White Supremacy Human Rights and calling in the calling out culture as a visiting associate professor at Smith College. And Professor Ross joins us now.

S2: Thanks for having me on your show.

S1: So the first question I want to ask is, what is calling in? What is calling out and what is cancellation like in your class? How do you define those things?

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S2: Well, a callout is when you publicly shame somebody, you know, throw shade on them, humiliate them for something you think they said they’ve done or the way that they look. It’s always done publicly, either with social media or in real life. But the point is to humiliate the person because you’re seeking accountability. But I say, is that the best way? All the time now calling it is the opposite. You’re seeking accountability, but you’re doing so usually privately and you’re doing it with love and respect. So calling in is a call out done with love. You have to act like you’re holding the other person’s heart in your hand and you don’t want to squeeze it too tight because you want somebody to treat your heart the same way to.

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S1: Part of what can happen, Professor Ross, is that if somebody is called out, the consequences of that is the potential that they get canceled. So what is it to be canceled?

S2: Well, people get canceled all the time. I mean, because they’ve done stupid things and I mean whether or not they deserve to be canceled. I mean, I asked the question of should we ever watch Bill Cosby anymore, even though he did things that were horrible and he’s in prison for them. But at the same time, I think if every time I watch the show, because there’s a whole ensemble cast members and stuff, but if he produced something new right now, probably not. We have to nuance these things because you have to be able to see that it’s complicated people to produce complicated art. And I don’t want mediocre people producing mediocre art because I’d be bored. And so nobody’s perfect. But when you are threatened with cancellation, actually there’s a recovery process you can engage in and that is worth acknowledging that you’ve done something wrong on your staff and then make reparations for the harm that you’ve done and then figure out a way not to do it again. So everybody makes a mistake. The people that I call out are the people who make mistakes and they won’t admit they made a mistake. In fact, they doubled down on it and then they do it again. But if you make a mistake and you want to do better and you admit you’ve done harm, then I’ve got to call you in.

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S1: Here’s what’s interesting about this. And I am a skeptic of cancer culture. I mean, to me, cancel the term, cancel it comes from television. It’s like, OK, this show is canceled. It’s never coming back. But if people can come back, are they ever really canceled or are they just facing consequences?

S2: Well, first of all, we don’t have pillories and stocks and duels anymore, so you can’t actually permanently cancel. Somebody like Alexander Hamilton got canceled, you know, but then there was a play made about him. So was he really canceled? The point I’m making is that powerful people who have a large platform rarely are going to suffer from being canceled because they’re still going to be rich. They’re still going to be powerful. They’re still going to have a platform, though I even question whether that’s a workable strategy for us who want to hold them accountable. But we can, in fact, engage with them. But the most people who get canceled are most vulnerable people because most of the punching in the counterculture is punching down, not putting up. And nobody actually complained about the cancer culture until the people who were previously being punched started catching up. And so it’s a real question of how we have. The nuance this, I think that though most people who make mistakes and that’s everybody is capable of revealing themselves if they choose to, but you have to be able to look your mistakes in the eye without shame so that you can say I can do better. And I’m one of those people that’s going to help you do better.

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S1: We’ve now reached this point where and I’m curious where you see on the origin of this, the people who primarily are concerned about council culture are powerful libertarian and or conservative white people. Right. You hear your Bill Maher is complaining about cancel culture. You hear your Milo Yiannopoulos is your your Jim Jordan’s. It’s almost as if they have co-opted concerns about Cancio culture as a way to defend themselves so they can continue to be hostile to people. How do we reclaim the damages of cancer culture to actually protect the people who are usually getting screwed over?

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S2: Well, first of all, you have to realize that people on the right are nothing but imitative. They don’t have anything. They try to co-opt civil rights. They try to co-opt women’s rights. They try to co-opt that the whole calling in, calling out things, they just steal stuff and they try to rebrand it as if they’re the primary victims of all this stuff. And I’m calling Bolena, first of all, because you ain’t that original. And in fact, the whole council culture comes from the right. I mean, do we remember them protesting The Passion of Christ or Harry Potter or even going back earlier saying that we couldn’t teach evolution in schools and going back even further? I mean, do you remember the witch trials? I mean, so get off my last nerve talking about now you’re the victims of a process called white supremacy that you put into motion. I don’t I don’t even give them any brief on that. But I do wish they’d be more regional and come up with their own strategies instead of elders saying ours.

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S1: If someone today is saying, I’m afraid I’m going to be canceled, I’m afraid that that, you know, if I if I wear a t shirt by this band and I’m on Instagram and we find out that that band did something wrong later, then I’m going to be canceled. What do you say to that person who lives in fear of cancellation?

S2: Well, I first thing I say is you need to worry more about the right thing because your reputation is what everybody thinks they know about you, but your integrity is what you know about yourself. And you have to sleep with yourself every night. So protect your own integrity, screw the reputation, wear what you want to wear, do what you want to do, stand in your truth, be kind to people, because that’s what you’re going to get in return when you’re kind to people. But if someone wants to call you out for wearing a t shirt or something like that and you don’t think that t shirt is is design or offensive to somebody, tell them to go get a life. Don’t try to pretend that you care about their trauma, trying to visit your story.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on cancer culture with Professor Loretta Roth and how it’s playing out in politics. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re talking about cancer culture with Professor Loretta Ross. So this is something that hits me personally. And I’ve read about you, hit you personally as well. People who have been direct victims or someone has tried to come after them and cancel them. We’ve seen Republican celebrities and power brokers sometimes attempt to call out individuals with bad faith outrage in order to cancel them. How do you deal with bad faith calling out?

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S2: Well, the first thing you have to do is let go of your short fuse. Don’t believe every call out. You have to do due process. You have to find out what somebody is being accused of is actually true. You can’t just jump on like an angry, you know, road rage mob and just start killing people just because somebody trust told you to. Now, back pay actors, they get on my last nerve. And that’s why you rarely see me appear on all these right wing talk shows. They keep inviting me because they do not want the truth. They want a gladiatorial combat thing. And, you know, I deprogram people in the white supremacist movement in the Klan and the militia movement. And it’s really important to make sure that you do your research on these people, find out who they are so that you can meet all of their lies with facts if you choose to engage. But I choose the platform. I won’t go on. This shows the last time I was on a right wing show, Laura Ingram kicked me off for calling her a racist. So I don’t do it anymore.

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S1: There’s a there’s a great sort of Internet anthropologist. You ever hear of a woman named Danah Boyd? No, I haven’t. So she she was like an early Internet anthropologist. She wrote about Facebook, she wrote about MySpace or whatever. She talked about the concept of drama, which she said is that drama means it’s performative conflict and the Internet sort of thrives off of performative conflict. People want to publicly disagree. Right, in order to seek validation to that attention. How do you deal with the fact that for many people they want to have public conflict because that is where their power comes from?

S2: Well, first of all, we’re all acting like the unpaid interns of Google and Facebook, because every time something reaches a million clicks or a million likes, they just made a half a million dollars. And so they’re going to keep cultivating this this road rage of the Internet kind of stuff because it makes them a lot of money. I feel sorry for people who apparently lack affirmation in their real lives that they seek it through strangers over the Internet. That, to me, is a psychological problem that isn’t just, you know, social media has a problem. First of all, these young people aren’t full of people like me. We get full, we’ll fall into a KUNR conspiracy theory. But the people I teach in college every day, they simply don’t believe 90 percent of what we see on the Internet. And we know people are lying. And so there’s a real perverse inverse kind of thing happening with the amount of engagement the people are demonstrating and how much they actually don’t believe. But we’re in. I hate to use this word, a neoliberal capitalist system that has an attention economy going and they are competing for people’s attention. And don’t nothing grab your attention like watching a train wreck. I really ask people all the time, how does walking around with a short fuse really work to bring you joy? Aren’t you just a permanent fight? Always looking for a place to happen that has to be a very miserable way to be in the world. And don’t you have somebody that could love you, who actually knows you and these strangers over the Internet whose attention is so fleeting that they’ll forget about you the minute the next controversy comes up? I mean, it’s a very sad place to be if that’s all the attention you can get.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’re going to talk more about cancer culture, what to do moving ahead with cancer culture and what it’s going to mean for American politics and in particular, young people going forward. That’s ahead on a word with Jason Johnson. Stay with us. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson, we’re talking about cancer culture and what might replace it with activist and Professor Loretta Ross. Professor Ross, to some people, focusing on cancer culture seems misguided. It sounds like asking people who experience discrimination and even violence because of their identities to be worried about whether privileged people will get their feelings hurt or not. You know, is even focusing on cancer culture a good idea? Are we are we like losing track of what’s important by focusing on kind of what’s a social phenomenon?

S2: I think we need to pay attention to the underlying instances of racism, sexism, white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia. We know the buzz word because those are the drivers of oppression. And the problem that I have is that in our human rights movement, which is Dobbyn, is to end oppression. We spend too much time treating it like it’s a public therapy space. And, you know, this is not what the human rights movement is supposed to be about. So, yes, it is a bit of a red herring to worry about the cancer culture, all the our culture. But the reason I’m concerned about it as a human rights activist is because it determines the effectiveness of us building power to fight fascism. And if we’re a circular firing squad turning on each other instead of to each other, this is going to limit our ability to take on the real opponent.

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S1: One of the things that’s really impressive about your background is you’re a human rights activist. You’ve been doing this work since the 1970s. You were you were mentored by C.T. Vivian. Tell us a little bit about your work with de radicalizing Nazis.

S2: In 1990, I took a job with what was formerly known as the National Anti Klan Network, which was renamed the Center for Democratic Renewal, and it was founded by Reverend C.T. Vivian. So for five years, he was my boss. And one of the things he used to tell us was that when you ask people to give a hate, then you need to be there for them when they do. And I didn’t understand what he meant. But then I started getting these phone calls from these people who have been in my movement. And let’s be clear, they have their epiphanies long before they reach out to the civil rights organization or you don’t actually flip Nazis and they flip themselves. And then if they find out that that those people they were hanging out with, they are not good people. And so that’s why they come to us. It’s not like we go inside and they don’t believe Hollywood. And so it’s wonderful work for Reverend Vivian. Set the pace for us because he said he started the national anti clan network after five Anticline protesters were killed in North Carolina in nineteen seventy nine. And he was very serious because he had been an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King and he was serious about passing that legacy on to younger people like me that I’m trying to now pass it on to young people like you, that there’s an effective way to beat back hate and that’s with law and that talk about radical love.

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S1: I’m curious what your thoughts are on this. You know, if there’s somebody who has a real fear of being canceled, it would be someone whose past was with a neo-Nazi movement. So what you’re saying is if that person can be radicalized, are you saying there’s there’s hope for Trump people that Kellyanne Conway, should we be embracing them with radical love or should we still be canceling them? Because I don’t want to see Kellyanne Conway on Dancing with the Stars. I think she should suffer consequences for working for Trump. But you seem to be suggesting that there might be something else we can do.

S2: Well, it, again, depends on how far they’re willing to own their stuff. If Kellyanne is going to double down and talk about her support for Trump and like it was a good thing that she did, she has a record to get. Right. Right. So it really depends on what they do. Now, of course, the 74 million people who all voted for Trump, they’re not all Nazis, they’re not all racist and not all sexist, but they were willing to be next to and support a racist, sexist dog. So that’s a whole lot about that. But again, are they willing to all that stuff? They’re willing to say, I made a mistake. I was fooled, I was manipulated. I did wrong. I caused harm. Then I’m going to be willing to have that conversation with you. But if you double down, then I’m going to use the same tactics that were used on you that, you know, you were in a hurry, because I understand they don’t all wear sheets. So I know what the opponent looks like. I spent five years intensely studying the white supremacist movement. That’s why I teach about it. Now I know what they look like. If you’re willing to repudiate them, then I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

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S1: And so progress might be in the form of sitting down. With former Trump supporters and saying, look, are you willing to have this conversation about how Donald Trump has damaged people? And if you can make that realization, then maybe we can sort of invite you back into the world of humanity. Are you saying we should have that sort of, you know, I don’t know, a truth and reconciliation committee with some of these people? You think that’s the way we should go?

S2: Well, truth and reconciliation doesn’t work without justice and accountability. It ain’t just forgive and forget. Right. It’s about being accountable for the harm that you’ve done and actively working to undo that harm.

S1: I want to I want to close with this because I think it’s really it’s important. I saw you do an interview where you said, look, we’re going to be in a class and some of y’all need to realize that you don’t have a right to not be offended. And I think the core sometimes of cancer culture is people saying, I’m offended that you have this opinion that I don’t like. And I think the mere existence of that opinion means that you should suffer a financial or political consequences one way or another. And I hear you sort of argue it’s like, look, no, we have to live in a world of difficult opinions. How do you get it into the minds of people who have been marginalized that, hey, look, just because that person is homophobic, just because that person is racist, just because that person is anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim or something else like that, it doesn’t mean they have to be canceled. How do you how do you find that space? Because these people have a legitimate complaint. But you also can’t live a life where you’re free from people who don’t like you.

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S2: Well, it’s not the job of people who are the victims of hate to see about the healing of the haters. But it’s lost their job. And no one job is to take care of themselves because when they’re constantly being stabbed in the same world, then there’s no healing possible. But I’m saying that there are those of us who can be bridge builders. There are those of us who can be truth tellers and witnesses. There’s a lot of different roles you can play in the calling, in calling out continuum. And the one that I think I need to bring into this conversation is a concept by Sonia Relais Taluk, where she talks about, I’m not calling you in, I’m not calling you out. In fact, I’m calling on you to be a better person. That’s an intermediate step. And my favorite calling on sentence is when somebody says something that I just don’t think they should be saying. I just looked me straight in the eye and say, I beg your pardon, and I just let it lay there while they review in their head what they just said and when it landed the way they wanted it to land. And so you don’t have to call in. You don’t have to got out of call on them. And and then if they want to double down, you walk away, you decide that that’s the person I’m at work around instead of the person I’m at work with.

S1: Loretta Ross is a long time activist and a visiting scholar at Smith College. Her upcoming book is titled Calling in the Call-out Culture. Thank you, Professor Ross.

S2: Thanks for having me on your show.

S1: And that’s a word for this week, the show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ayana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcast. It’s late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for work.