Content Writer for Positive Masculinity - Elsie Murell
Gender, Sexuality, Women’s Studies major at Temple University
Think about a time when you messed up. Maybe you made an offensive joke, maybe you misgendered someone and failed to correct your mistake. It could be big, it could be small, but think about it. How did people respond? Were you humiliated and asked to leave? Was it awkward for a second and then you learned from your mistake? Were you corrected or ignored? These are the questions we need to ask when starting our discussion about cancel culture. Let’s talk about it. We know it well, but if you don’t, here’s the breakdown. Cancel-culture is the undeniably popular practice of withdrawing support (canceling) from a public figure or company after they’ve said or done something objectively offensive. For example, Quaker Oats syrup brand, “Aunt Jemima”, was canceled because the marketing was centered around an incredibly offensive racial stereotype. J.K. Rowling was canceled for drowning our Twitter feeds in transphobic rhetoric. These examples show blatant discrimination and do not deserve support. But we also need to ask ourselves why cancel-culture exists. The goal is accountability. Isolating the ignorant is not accountability. While the actions of big corporations and public figures like those discussed above are often hateful and need correction, cancel culture has largely become about group shaming on social media. In terms of the evolution of healthy masculinity, cancel-culture is ultimately harmful.
Depending on your gender, there are often double standards that might discourage asking important questions. Maybe you have questions about someone’s gender identity. Maybe you’re lacking politically correct language. It’s hard, it really is. Our language is constantly changing. For feminine-identifying folks, there is not always the same one-strike-and-you’re-out policy. J.K. Rowling is never going to really be canceled. Harry Potter? Iconic childhood memory. Nobody’s about to stop investing in that franchise. But the level of accountability might be different if J.K. Rowling was a cis man. When the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial went public, the automatic assumption was that he was the perpetrator and her the victim. For a minute, it looked like Depp was going to be outcast from Hollywood. He claimed that “no one is safe” from cancel-culture (Reed 5). These are the sorts of double standards that create masculine folks that are afraid of conversation. If there’s no safe space for dialogue, there’s no room for learning. A lot of this stems from society’s refusal to acknowledge boys and men as vulnerable. Historically, only women have been allotted (or burdened with) that acknowledgment. Because masculinity typically equates to strength and toughness, we often fail to recognize that the solitude that cancel-culture often produces not only causes damage but also doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of the progressivism of teaching masculinity.
Instead of teaching masc folks empathy and vulnerability, we teach that in order to be heard and respected they must assert dominance. This is another reason why cancel-culture seems to be gendered. An example that comes to mind is the Will Smith Oscar slap. For those who live in a hole, this past year Chris Rock made a joke (in poor taste) about Jada-Pinkett Smith on stage at the Oscars, so Will decided to slap him across the face on live television. Rock threatened the family, so Smith used physical violence to assert his dominance. The media had a field day. Memes were circulating the internet for weeks, Smith was getting absolutely roasted. So, while acts of “chivalry” like this are harmful to the victim and the perpetrator, and rely on upholding gender roles (Smith as the protector and his wife as the damsel in need of protection) we, as a society, expect and even encourage aggressive acts like this. We teach that this is how you gain respect as a man, but riot when we see these acts come to fruition. The cancel-culture we see here is hypocritical and therefore counterproductive. If we don’t analyze these acts in terms of their social relevance, we aren’t able to appropriately hold accountability.
In the same breath that we talk about the producers of cancel-culture, we also have to talk about solutions. Part of the solution starts with teaching masc folks how to live and lead with their hearts. A good place to start is with empathy. For boys to learn empathy, they have to experience it themselves. This means treating kids with respect, and speaking to them like adults. Talking about feelings, their own and those of others. Validate the experiences of young people and they will learn to do the same. An important place to practice this is in school. When you’re young, you find most of your role models in your teachers. When gender roles are heavily present at school and enforced by your role models, that’s when kids grow up to become victims of cancel-culture.
Another component of living a heart-led life is knowing when to be silent and listen. When difficult topics are brought up, because we teach dominance over empathy, men have a tendency to respond with defensiveness. While I recognize that this is a product of a social issue, historically, those who identify as men were the only ones permitted to have a voice, and that remains part of our culture. Whether it be in the workplace, in the home, in relationships, or in the media, the opinions of man continue to be of higher value. In order to combat cancel-culture and instead preach accountability-culture, we have to listen to and center marginalized voices. You may need to look deep inside yourself to find where your defensiveness is coming from. You may need to make an active effort to unlearn internalized systems of patriarchy. Take deep breaths, and hold your tongue.
The last and arguably the most crucial puzzle piece is transformative justice. Transformative justice seeks to respond to violence (physical, emotional, verbal) without creating any more harm (Mingus 2). For example, perpetrators of sexual violence often experienced it themselves. Instead of incarceration, which results in isolation and often inadequate counseling, only creating more harm, we have to get to the root of the problem. This might mean teaching boys and men (the most common perpetrators of sexual violence) about respect, consent, and boundaries rather than teaching girls to cover up and watch their backs. In terms of cancel-culture, transformative justice starts with the solutions listed above. It means starting young. It means teaching empathy and emotional intelligence. It means knowing when to listen and be respectful of differing opinions. It means including the ignorant in difficult discussions, without shutting them down. It means thinking with your heart.
Mingus, Mia. “Transformative Justice: A Brief Description.” TransformHarm.org, https://transformharm.org/tj_resource/transformative-justice-a-brief-description/.
Reed, Jonathan. “How Do Boys Fit into Cancel Culture, Feminism and #Metoo?” Next Gen Men, Next Gen Men, 15 June 2022, https://www.nextgenmen.ca/blog/how-do-boys-fit-into-cancel-culture-feminism-and-metoo.