Making Sense of 'Cancel Culture'
Brooke Gladstone: Last month, amid the ongoing social and racial reckoning in American institutions, Harper's Magazine ran an open letter titled, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. The letter decried what it claimed was a chilling effect that the range of public discourse is being narrowed for fear that writers may face retaliation for expressing unpopular views. This week's pod extra is not about the nuances of the letter, but rather the two words left out that were, undoubtedly, on many people's minds, cancel culture.
Back in January, I asked Natalie Wynn, left-wing YouTube sensation and creator of the channel ContraPoints about that fraught phrase. She herself has been canceled, or if you prefer, excoriated, threatened, bullied off Twitter by people who were once her supporters and allies, including members of the trans and gender-nonconforming community.
She herself is a trans woman, and it's left her a lot of time to reflect on the limits of how we usually talk about it.
Natalie Wynn: There's a version of this conversation that's already been heard to dead and it goes like this, on the one side are a bunch of male comedians who constantly bitch about how cancel culture is out of control. You can't joke about anything anymore without these millennial jackals trying to get you in trouble. The other side is mostly progressive think piece authors who argue that there's no such thing as cancel culture. It's just that powerful people are finally being held accountable for their actions, and they can't fucking handle it so they go around bitching about cancel culture.
Brooke: That's when in her video called Canceling, a well-argued entertaining anatomy of cancel culture tracking its evolution and impact. What you're about to hear is an extended version of our conversation in which Wynn outlines a set of principles around cancel culture. The first principle, presumption of guilt.
Natalie: Yes, so I think a lot of this discourse comes from originally an attempt to deal with what's called rape culture, like using social media to call out these sexually abusive men in power. Many of us have experiences with men like that in workplaces, all kinds of situations, where there, basically, is no internal way to hold these people accountable, HR departments protect the company instead of protecting employees, or celebrities have so much power that basically anyone who wants to bring accountability to them gets shut down. Social media was used as a way to-
Brooke: -level the power dynamic?
Natalie: Exactly, vigilante justice. It's a way of getting around those power structures and getting back at someone who can't be held accountable in any other way. Early examples, like there's social media campaigns against R Kelly, against Bill Cosby, Loius CK. What I think has happened is now we're using this believe victims mentality, not just as a way offering support to victims or as accepting victim stories when talking to them, but also as this sole pretext for basically assuming that anyone who was accused is guilty. That's going to be a real problem, and has already become a real problem.
Brooke: Why would people use an accusation as an excuse to tear someone down?
Natalie: Well, I think there can be all kinds of motivations. It also depends on what accusation we're talking about. In my video, the kinds of accusations I'm dealing with are not things like sexual assault. We're talking about things like linguistic carelessness when speaking about trans people, for example. The accusation that you're a bigot can be motivated by a genuine place of criticism, or it can be motivated from instinctive hurt or feeling of rejection or betrayal by a public figure, or it can be motivated by something much pettier like jealousy, vindictiveness, revenge.
Brooke: Moving on to the next principle, which is helped hugely along by Twitter, abstraction. You peel off the specifics of the offending statements, they're usually statements, you decontextualize them and replace them with a description like racist comments, transphobic ideas, fascist bootlicking.
Natalie: Abstraction, this is what happens when people on social media take an accusation and they summarize it. An example I used in the video is the YouTuber, James Charles, a beauty YouTuber.
James Charles: The first thing that I'm going to do for this makeup book is to add on some faux freckles. I'm just going to take your tiny little-
Natalie: -who, I guess, was accused by Tati Westbrook, one of his colleagues of-
Brooke: -and competitors.
Natalie: Competitors, yes, and also strangely mentors. Anyway, she said that he was trying to trick straight men into thinking they're gay, which is an accusation that, on its own, I find bewildering since that doesn't [unintelligible 00:04:54] an issue that straight men have been confused and thinking they're gay for a moment. We can talk about why Tati may have made the accusation in the first place, but once it was out there, this gets summarized as, "Oh, James Charles is toxic and manipulative. James Charles is engaging in sexually predatory behavior." That sounds like a whole different accusation than simply the more confusing and hard to believe the specific accusation that he's trying to trick straight men.
Brooke: A lot of people in the cancellation chorus don't go much further than predatory behavior.
Natalie: Or they go even further than that and say that he's a sexual predator, which we're calling essentialism.
Brooke: Essentialism, another principle. That's the criticism that's born on the wings of obstruction that moves from condemning a person's words and actions to condemning the people themselves. You've said a bad thing, now you are a bad person.
Natalie: That's right. Someone says something insensitive then you summarize that as saying, "Oh, they're a racist. They're a misogynist. They're a homophobe." This takes that one moment and then uses that to define an essential feature of their personality say, "This is what this person is."
Brooke: All of this analysis you did is hard-earned. You've been canceled a few times. Can we talk about your offenses?
Natalie: There's almost too many to list at this point, but I suppose the big one that I deal with in this video, because it's the most recent, is that I made a video where I had a voice actor, Buck Angel, who is a trans man who's an adult performer. I cast him to read a line from John Waters' book. Here it is the 10-second voiceover clip that ruined a month of my life.
Buck Angel: One must remember there is such a thing as good-bad taste and bad-bad taste. To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste.
Natalie: I just thought he sounded like John Waters, and I thought it was kind of a cool and quirky casting decision. Buck Angel turns out to have a bad reputation on social media. Buck Angel, uses a lot of rhetoric talking about calling himself a transsexual, which is supposed to be different from transgender, and doing this kind of distancing thing where he wants to make a big point of the fact that he has been through the medical female-to-male procedure, basically. A lot of trans people who either don't pursue medical interventions or trans people who neither identify as male or female who are called non-binary people, they find this language to be off-putting and to be exclusionary.
Brooke: He did that and that was abstracted.
Natalie: Yes, so these kinds of comments, which I still look at as sort of ambiguous, that's not how cancel culture works. People see that and they say, "Okay, Buck Angel hates non-binary people. He's trying to destroy us. He's trying to erase us." Buck Angel becomes a transphobic and a bigot by that logic.
Brooke: I guess this would lead us to the transitive property of cancellation since you cast him for a single line in one of your programs, you have his cancellation by association?
Natalie: That's right. I use it no more than 10 seconds of his voiceover in a 48-minute video, but that's enough for people to associate him with me, so that I'm guilty of his sins in a way unless I publicly condemn every bad thing he's ever tweeted. This is the most frustrating thing to me because it really limits the number of people that you can associate with or work with. It has a kind of isolating effect when you can't even hire someone, not even hire someone, just have them on as a voice actor for 10 seconds, just because he's tweeted problematic things at some point.
Brooke: You laid out, in your program, the chain of guilt by association, that it was so long and twisted you could barely follow it from Buck to you and then to your friends and then to friends of friends and so on.
Natalie: That's right, once you accept the logic that someone who has a minor association with someone else is accountable for everything that person has done, you can build these kinds of chains of guilt by association, which gets, honestly, like comical when they get long enough. The example I used was a trans woman on Twitter named Mia Mulder, who I've never even met, tweeted a heart at my friend, Ali, who had, I guess, failed to condemn me for me failing to condemn Buck Angel. At this point, your head starts to spin because you can't even keep track of who's guilty of what and why.
Brooke: Your association with Buck didn't trigger your only cancellation.
Natalie: Oh, no. Yes, there's been many other occasions.
Brooke: Some of it has to do with a series of tweets you did about pronouns in progressive circles.
Natalie: That's right. This was back in September, I think. I did a three-tweet thread on Twitter where, basically, I started out by complaining that I was frustrated with having, cis people, people who are not trans-
Brooke: Nice lefty women announcing superfluously what their pronoun is so you can too.
Natalie: Exactly. In this thread, I don't know, by the end of it, I had said my piece and was like, "Okay, I guess it's not so bad." I said, "I think at the end of the thread, I guess, it's good for people who use they them pronouns and who actually do need to introduce their pronouns at every occasion where they want them to be used." I think that it becomes this minor inconvenience of trans people like me, I suppose.
It wasn't the most well-thought-out thread. I was just expressing a feeling that I had and the feeling even changed over the course of those three little tweets, but people just took this as me saying that the whole practice of asking people what their pronouns are is wrong, and that no one should do it, and that I'm being discriminatory towards trans people who don't pass, or towards trans people who use non-binary pronouns. Once people start quote tweeting you and recontextualizing tweets from the middle of your thread in the most uncharitable possible ways, there's nothing you can say to stop it.
Brooke: The medium of Twitter when things are decontextualized are really bad for passing along sarcasm. At one point, you were poking fun at your own impatience with these nice women that you were with. You said, "I guess, it's good for people who use they/them only in one totally gender-neutral language, but it comes at the minor expense of semi passable transits like me." That's super effing hard for us. You're saying weep for me, hahaha.
Natalie: Yes, exactly. Like the world's tiniest violin it's super effing hard for me. Mocking my first world problems my Twitter complaining, but that got interpreted totally literally. As if I was actually saying, "Oh, it's really hard for me that I have to say my pronouns. I'm a trans."
Brooke: Let's move on to the next principle, pseudo-moralism or pseudo-intellectualism. You say that counselors use moral or intellectualism to provide a phony pretext for the call out. You can pretend you just want an apology, you can pretend you're just a concerned citizen who wants the person to improve, you can pretend you're simply offering criticism, when what you're really doing is attacking a person's career reputation out of spite, envy, revenge. You sounded pretty angry in your program there and hurt.
Natalie: I was angry and hurt. If you play some of those clips of me reading the tweets sent at me. Hey, if any of you still support ContraPoints after her bigging up and collaborating with notable TERF favorite and true scum Buck Angel, you're no friend to gender non-conforming, non-passing, and non-binary trans people. Fuck her and fuck her fucking rift. I am absolutely furious right now. Weird how I'm 30 and trans and made it not to be a true scum. Maybe I'm just some anomaly or maybe ContraPoint is a conniving [unintelligible 00:13:11] who could do with a fully rounded backhand to the mouth. Since I'm out of Twitter jail now, I just want to say fuck ContraPoints for sycophantic stance and all her [unintelligible 00:13:20] who closed ranks to protect her after she throws the rest of the trans community under the bus for profit.
Natalie Wynn is a fucking rifter. ContraPoints videos are now just style over substance. That explains why she took the TERF ideology so well. ContraPoints working with [unintelligible 00:13:35] and now it definitively proves that pretty much everyone defending ContraPoints just hates [unintelligible 00:13:41]--
The language that people are using in tweets like that, it's not really the language of intellectual critique or moral criticism. It's the language of rage, and anger, and spite. It feels like a hate mob.
Brooke: It reads like one.
Natalie: Yes, because it is one much of the time. You're supposed to sit there at the center of this hate mob and respond to it like you're responding to, I don't know, some academic criticism.
Brooke: Within all of this, you see demands for the immediate apology and the perception that if you apologize immediately that means you're sincere but if you wait, you don't. Anyway, the apology is never really good enough.
Natalie: Yes. Once I'm being canceled, there's hundreds of people coming at me on Twitter. My instinct is to shut down. I go off Twitter. I go away for a few days. I still think it's the best thing I can do because on the occasions when I have attempted to immediately start tweeting, again, to engage with the criticism, I find it usually just makes things worse because when you're in the heat of the moment, lots of people are coming at you with lots of accusations, the tendency is to be defensive. You want to defend yourself. Sometimes that leads to lashing out at the people who are attacking you. The things that are said in that mood and at that moment, tend to be not the most carefully thought out things you'll ever say. In my opinion, it's much better to wait, but then people use your silence as evidence that you don't care, that you're a coward, that you're running away. There really is no winning.
Brooke: When you talk about no winning, I'm thinking about the difficulty of the position that you've found yourself in by being a public figure with devoted fans on the internet who want to watch you because you are authentic, but who also demand that you simultaneously be, all the time, morally correct.
Natalie: You're supposed to be an authentic relatable human being, and somehow, at the same time, meet everyone's individual definition of moral perfection.
Brooke: We did a piece on Twitch, and we were talking to someone who was trying to be a success in that arena. What he found is that he was being owned by the people who contributed to him, essentially. You said something that reminded me of that because you said, "However, they may value the authenticity," and this was something you said with a great deal of passion and no irony at all, "They feel that they own you as a brand. They have a right to shape you and to determine what your opinions are."
Natalie: There's a frustrating contradiction, where the reason that you become popular in the first place is that people are drawn to your opinions and people are drawn to your individual approach to topics and drawn to your way of thinking. Then what tends to happen is that audiences form an idea of what kind of person you are, what you're like, what you believe, what you ought to believe, what they imagine that you're going to say about other topics that you've never talked about. Then if you violate their construction of who you are, as a person, as someone they're a fan of, they feel betrayed by that.
Of course, the only way to continue doing this, being this public commentator, whatever you want to call it, is to keep saying what I really think because that's what got me where I am in the first place. At the same time, there's an increasing number of people who every word I say is going to be a disappointment to them because it's not what they thought I was going to say.
Brooke: You also observed that the pseudo moralist, at least in your experience, tries to accumulate evidence of super-villainy by trawling through the records of everything the offender has ever said or done online, which is bound to yield fruit eventually, given the kinds of footprints even a non-public person leaves.
Natalie: The people who defend canceling will often say that like, "Well, how else are we going to criticize people? How else are we going to hold people accountable?" Well, we better think of something because I absolutely agree, it's very important to take criticism. I have a master's degree in philosophy that I got before I became a YouTuber. Philosophies are generally pretty useless, but one of the things it does do for you is you learn how to take criticism of your ideas because that's what happens in those classes and seminars.
You write a paper about some topic and ethics, for example, and then the professor and the other students criticize what you said, and you're expected to sit there defending your ideas or correcting your ideas. I actually love to listen to people who criticize me politely because I'm not a dogmatist. I want to learn. I want to believe the right thing. I'm sure that there's information I don't have and mistakes that I've made. The problem is, it becomes clear when someone's doing is just compiling a list of every bad thing you've ever done for years. They don't want you to change. They want you to be taken down.
Brooke: Another principle, no forgiveness. There might be forgiveness temporarily, but in the end, any bad thing you've ever said or done is part of a permanent record of your badness.
Natalie: Yes. There doesn't seem to be any expiration date on past transgressions when it comes to this. Even if you have apologized, people will just come back to the same old things and bring them up like you've never apologized for them before. In fact, after this video has come out, there have been a bunch of people who brought out a bunch of problematic things or accusing me of having done like three years ago, one of which was make a joke about lizard people running the world.
People say that this is antisemitic because, apparently, lizard people is an antisemitic conspiracy theory. Well, I did a whole thread talking about that two and a half years ago saying-- I didn't mean that to be antisemitic. I was just thinking lizard people because I thought it was funny. People are now bringing this up as if I've never said anything about it, and as if it's straightforwardly antisemitic, which as far as I can tell, it isn't.
I could be wrong. Again, my point is not at all that I don't want to be criticized because if someone has a knockdown argument showing that there's a long history of reptilian conspiracy theories being used to further antisemitism, then I'll say, "Okay. You're right. I shouldn't have made that joke. I'm sorry." No one has really done that, and the sense I get is that the people who are bringing this up, aren't really acting in the most good faith. They're just reaching for something to show that I'm a bad person. I'm not inclined to respond to that with an apology since I don't think it comes from a sincere place to begin with.
Brooke: Then what actually is canceling if it's not criticism? You say it's more akin to trashing. You brought in a quote from the 1970s feminist Joe Freeman.
Natalie: It is not disagreement. It is not conflict. It is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually honestly and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination, which amounts to psychological rape, is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive.
It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all but it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy. Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one's integrity, a declaration of one's worthlessness, and an impugning of one's motives. In fact, what is attacked is not one's actions or one's ideas, but oneself.
It's complicated. There's always a mix of different people with different motivations and different strategies. There's some people who are criticizing me in good faith, but this overwhelming Twitter crowd that basically is just an attack on me. It's an attempt to convince an audience that I'm a bad person and must be shunned.
Brooke: This feeds into your last principle, dualism: all offenses are equal and everyone falls into the category of good or bad. Obviously, you don't want to be bad. You don't want to be banished. It's much harder when your community is smaller.
Natalie: Yes. A lot of the people who are most vulnerable to this stuff are people who belong to small, vulnerable communities because that makes you more dependent on those communities, and it's a lot easier to shun someone from them because those communities tend to be pretty tightly knit. Trans communities, or feminist communities, activist circles, these communities are supposed to be there to support people who need support.
Brooke: I wonder what happens when we put people into this irredeemable category. What kind of behavior does it encourage and what does it discourage?
Natalie: I think it encourages conformity. When the punishment for minor mistakes is permanent exile, I think that leads to a kind of environment where people just keep their mouth shut, and where dissent and disagreement are much more difficult, where people are willing to lead these kinds of crusades rather than become the victims of them. I just think it's really destructive to anyone who's trying to have good faith disagreement and good faith argument within these communities.
Brooke: I was thinking about that dualism when I was reading about Kobe Bryant, who obviously died among nine people in a helicopter crash outside of LA. He was a beloved icon of the Black community, of the sports community, of the city of Los Angeles. Back in 2003, he was very young, amid evidence of bruises, and blood, and so forth, he was credibly accused of rape, and he apologized, and he settled, and he faced no legal consequences.
The issue is, now that he's dead, there seems to be some disagreement about whether the assault is okay to mention. Part of this may be the principle of dualism. You can't be both good and bad at the same time. When someone good does something wrong, or maybe vice versa, in this equation, you have to underplay or ignore one half of it.
Natalie: I think it's a great example. I think also, it shows the way that the dualism can go both ways where if there's someone that you care about, or you care about some things they've done, or you think they're in some ways a good person, the tendency can be to ignore, to deny anything bad they've done because you're trying to keep them in the good category, instead of accepting the human reality that it's more complicated than just good and evil. People who make do many great things also are horrible people in certain respects. People who have incredible public accomplishments may be nasty people in private. It's just not as simple as some people are saints and some people are monsters.
Brooke: Now, let's talk about the pain of your own cancellation. You talked about how you'd endured vile hatred from Nazis on the internet and actual sexual assault, and yet somehow, cancellation was worse?
Natalie: Yes. When you're being horribly abused by someone like Nazis, or if you're, as I was, sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, these things are terribly painful to go through, of course, but what makes the canceling worse is that it's being done to you by people in your own community and you watch yourself be erased by, Joseph Freeman says, a parody evil version of you.
When you're being attacked by Nazis, okay, the things they're saying hurt, but at the end of the day, it's Nazis. You maintain your integrity as a person. You have this noble sense, I suppose, of your victimization at the hands of these terrible people, but when you're being trashed by people who are supposedly on your side, who are saying that you're a terrible person, it undercuts your self-worth at a very fundamental level. It's so profoundly isolating.
Brooke: Rebecca Traister told us that white men under attack claim to suffer far more pain than those they've marginalized. That to be called racist, is worse than being the victim of racism, that there is terrible anguish in that, in having the belief in yourself as a good person, say not a racist, challenged by people who might vote the same way you do.
Natalie: This is where it gets tricky. We respect a white man who think they're being called a racist is the worst thing in the world. There's something too. I do think that it is very painful to be told that you're a bigot, that you're associated with one of the worst tendencies that humans are capable of, but I also do think that a lot of times white people, for example, do tend to be very, very quick to get defensive.
I've seen people who are not being canceled, people whose actions are being criticized, react as if they're being called a racist, even when no one has said that, or sometimes I'll see white people respond to even a discussion about systemic racism as if they are being personally attacked. I guess I want to be careful with how I talk about this. The more common problem that I see is that white people are not very good at listening to conversations about racism, even when it's totally impersonal and systemic, and they tend to get inordinately defensive anytime the subject is brought up.
Brooke: A lot of people who join in on the cancellation argue that it's punching up. Most of the power and money in this country is accumulated in white hands and more in white male hands and female ones. They also said that they're punching up when they punch a YouTube celebrity.
Natalie: When the target is R Kelly, when the target is Ricky Gervais, who can really be professionally affected very much by Twitter, a lot of times this is punching up, where this becomes just totally false as I've seen canceling against much more minor figures. I'm thinking about the Jon Ronson book, so you've been publicly shamed. There's a couple of classic examples in there. One of them is Justine Sacco who made a very tasteless tweet about AIDS to her 170 Twitter followers, and then became the number one trending topic on Twitter. Well, that's not punching up. That's hundreds of thousands of people going after this one random woman. A gray-area case where it's like, "Yes. I am a public figure, but as a trans woman, I'm marginalized socially in a way where I am dependent on support from these kinds of communities and being canceled within, say, the trans community can actually really hurt my life."
Brooke: You quote Jon Ronson, again, who wrote that the snowflake doesn't need to feel responsible for the avalanche, but actually, the snowflake does.
Natalie: Yes. I think that's when you're just some person with a normal amount of followers, going after a person with many more followers, maybe a public figure, you feel like what you're doing couldn't possibly make that much of an impact because it's just your tweets, but when these things add up, they have a totally different effect. Even when you're not talking about abuse even when it's good faith criticism. What is the psychological effect of being told 500 negative things a day? I don't know. Well, I do know on some level, it's a very negative effect.
Brooke: You can't leave Twitter, right? A lot of the progressive critiques that say there's really no such thing as canceled culture, it's just people criticizing you. If you don't like it, then leave the platform.
Natalie: Well, there's something to that, and I have left the platform, in fact. I left Twitter in November, I think, and I don't intend to go back because I think it is just too vicious and I just can't stand it. My response to those people is to say, "Okay, that's technically true, but social media is also the public square of our age." If you remove yourself from Twitter, you're taking yourself out of the conversation. I think it definitely hurts my career somewhat not to be on Twitter. I think it would be better if we didn't force people to do that just to escape harassment.
Brooke: Except we can also return to the reasons cancellation exists in the first place because there is this tendency not to believe the victims because whisper networks do save lives because it is, in fact, helpful to know if someone is actively spreading really destructive harmful beliefs. Where do we go from there?
Natalie: This is a thing I've thought about a lot because I criticize people on my channel all the time. When I approach criticism of someone, even someone who's said pretty bigotted things, oftentimes I'm not really trying to reach them, but I'm trying to each their followers or people who like them. For example, I've talked about people like Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro, these right-wing political commentators with big followings online. When I'm wording my arguments out, I try to leave the door open, I don't say, "If you follow these people, if you agree with these people, then you're bigots. Get out." That doesn't work. I try to say, "Look, I understand why these people's ideas might be appealing. I can see things from your point of view, but here's my criticism. Here's why I think they're wrong." At the end, I try to give them somewhere to go. I leave them not with a condemnation but with an extended hand, like a chance for them to take me up on this offer for them to see things my way.
Brooke: Natalie, thank you very much.
Natalie: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
Brooke: Natalie Wynn is a YouTuber and creator of the channel ContraPoints. For more OTM, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or sign up for our newsletter.
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