CANCEL EVERYTHING: Why rejecting ‘cancel culture’ perpetuates interpersonal violence in social justice spaces
From 2017–2019 I was a member of the International Socialist Organization. The organization had its (many) flaws, but helped me find a home for my activism and my political education unlike anything I had previously experienced as a young person with a lot of hope for making the world a better place. Through the ISO, I met others who were committed to issues like prison abolition and reproductive justice, while also being some of the kindest and most down-to-earth people I had ever met. Like many, I was left confused and heartbroken when the organization dissolved in 2019 as a direct result of the ISO’s leadership covering up a sexual assault that occurred many years prior, when a senior, male member of the organization groomed and ultimately assaulted a younger, newer, female member of the organization. For many members of the organization (myself included) the cover-up destroyed trust, and proved that even an ideologically-driven group is susceptible to the toxicity of sexism and rape culture.
That said, imagine my surprise when I logged onto Facebook one day to find a former ISO comrade, one who has openly mourned the loss of his “home” in the ISO, sharing their absolute tittilation with the work of Clementine Morrigan. In particular, this comrade shared one of Morrigan’s easy-to-identify Instagram posts, in which she states “Accuser and accused is not the same as survivor and abuser,” among other platitudes. Even more surprising than the comrade sharing these posts were the many others in the comments, practically jizzing with excitement at Morrigan’s perspective. Others drew a connection between Morrigan’s work and the 2016 book “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair” by writer and activist Sarah Schulman.
In “Conflict,” Schulman works to articulate a theory that overstated/exaggerated accusations equate to an avoidance of accountability. Additionally, those who have experienced abuse are more prone to dramatize minor conflicts and create black-and-white narratives that revolve around painting themselves as the “all-knowing victim” who will not rest until the target of their accusations is seen by all as a target of hate. It seems clear that Schulman is attempting to bring some nuance to a conversation about psychological trauma, but as Aviva Stahl pointedly observed in their review of the book: “Schulman avoids the more crucial question of how communities deal with it without dehumanizing the one who committed harm.” Yes, these questions are complex and difficult to grapple with on an individual, rather than community level, but it feels equally counterintuitive to continue to focus on how victims twist themselves to meet an un-evolved society.
This is my primary problem the work of Morrigan and their ilk, as well, who would take the nuance found in Shulman’s work and extrapolate it to its worst end. Rather than promoting a vision of restorative justice or accountability, Morrigan and their followers seem more concerned with erasing the need for accountability entirely. “Fuck the police means we don’t act like cops to each other,” they said in a recent post, further explaining their belief that “the threat of mob harassment, punishment, and ostracization” damages our communities. They tie ideas of accountability and justice directly to the carceral system, and thus in one fell swoop are able to reject the need to hold abusers accountable from a “radical” place.
The phrase “kill the cop in your head” has been used in many contexts throughout history; perhaps most notably in a 1996 essay written by anarchist Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. For Kom’boa Ervin, the phrase was a plea to white leftists: open your minds and hearts to the teachings of Black radicals and to “re- examine your current practices and beliefs as part of your process of self-education; assuming that you all in fact practice self-education.”
Morrigan, and those who have latched onto their views, have essentially co-opted the phrase “kill the cop in your head,” and variations such as “we don’t police each other” in order to describe power dynamics in sexual relationships. By their standards, demanding restorative justice and accountability from abusers is a form of “policing” behavior, often derisively dubbed “cancel culture.” They clarified as much in a quote to Bitch Magazine: “[T]he movement to believe survivors, while coming from a good place, has actually caused a huge amount of harm. In social justice scenes [currently], accusations are to be believed without question, and the accused’s life can be totally upended. Even the criminal justice system offers more space for self-defense than that.”
Reading those words makes my skin crawl with the same feeling as a random man’s hand brushing up against my back in a crowded room. It’s precisely the kind of language that has historically been used to protect abusers and shame survivors; just because it’s coming from Montreal crust punk doesn’t make it sound any less like a talking point you would hear from the mouth of Tucker Carlson or Tomi Lahren. Yet at the same time, Morrigan claims on her Instagram that her heart is dedicated to victims of childhood abuse. It is physically impossible to hold those spaces (for the abused and abuser) at the same time without causing irreparable harm to the abused. As with Stahl’s observations of Schulman’s work: this conversation critically lacks any attempt at defining what restorative justice looks like. Of course the criminal justice system offers more space for rapists and abusers to defend themselves — the laws are written by abusers to protect abusers. It only makes sense that in precious “social justice scenes,” people would take restorative justice into their own hands.
Ah but wait, what about the “social justice scene” of the ISO? It feels like an alt-right talking point to say that leftist political organizations are crumbling because of some all-out warfare on abusive behavior, when those kinds of behaviors are literally condoned and covered up, by power-hungry, identity-politics-bashing leadership. The ISO is just but one of many examples. How many times in history have women and queer persons been pushed to the side of organizing due to the emotional abuse inflicted upon them? How much longer are survivors going to have to fight for scraps of recognition? How much longer until the Left’s latest social media darling it someone that actually centers the voices and narratives of survivors without having to feel the need to condone abuse and interpersonal violence as a “character flaw” and not a deeply-rooted societal issue — one that we could actually work towards by centering survivors rather than just telling them to stop overdramatizing their pain?
What Morrigan and many others actually seem to be concerning themselves with are purity politics that play out on social media, and their ability to spill ignorant pseudo-psychology all over their monetized platforms without having to own up to the many accusations of manipulative behavior by themselves and their partner (who they regularly feature on their platform), as well as accusations of ripping off content from POC creators and refusing to use their platform to uplift Black organizers. People can take these accusations how they will, but one thing is very clear: this is not actual organizing, not actual on-the-ground work, not anything that remotely concerns the welfare of someone who has endured the horrors of interpersonal violence, but the kinds of Twitter fights that will ultimately be lost to the ether while the organizers that Morrigan allegedly refuses to engage with will be out in the streets.
At this point, I shouldn’t feel shocked that it bears repeating: Believing survivors of abuse and fostering spaces where their emotions are centered is the only way forward out of a society where 20 people each minute are experiencing domestic violence, and 20% of American women have been raped in their lifetime. These rampant statistics are why we say that our culture is rape culture. We need to work against the conditions that allow this to thrive, not focus on the way victims are processing their trauma when they are at an imminent risk of simply being re-traumatized.
In her 2019 work, “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us,” author Rachel Louise Snyder calls domestic violence what it is: an epidemic directly fueled by toxic masculinity. Snyder spends time with abusers who are working through treatment programs to try and understand and dismantle their abusive tendencies. There are several “fly-on-the-wall” scenes in which Snyder was allowed to sit in on groups for men in recovery. These conversations often focus on reliving trauma that caused them to be an abuser in the first place, or discussing their own shame and humiliation at the violence they brought into their families. Notably, at no point, do these conversations ask “what could the victim have done differently?” or “How could the victim have engaged with me so as not to make me an abuser?” The men are willing to recognize it as an inherent characteristic, like a tendency towards alcoholism, that they have to put work into every day because, if they don’t, they are capable of backsliding into an abusive place.
Snyder also acknowledges another important element of domestic violence: if unresolved and unspoken, situations of interpersonal violence can, and often do, escalate to murder. The numbers of women (and yes, it is 99% women) that are killed in these kinds of incidents are difficult to track for a number of reasons: the abuser groomed those around the couple into disbelief, the incident was a murder-suicide or involved others, or those investigating the crime do not have the resources or care to report the incident as one of interpersonal violence (i.e. it was a heat-of-the-moment confrontation, not the culmination of years of increasingly violence incidents). A failure to believe and listen to survivors in the short-term can very well be a failure to foresee the imminent, yet completely preventable, end of a life.
Personally, I will be moving forward with my life and my work in social justice spaces deeply committed centering the narratives of survivors and actively rejecting conditions that allow abuse to thrive. I will never tell a human being to suck it up and get better at processing their trauma for the comfort of the violent and abusive among us. I am more than happy to create spaces where abusers do feel shame and feel unwelcome. They are already practically nonexistent as it is. They are not part of the communities and the future that I want to create, and I have no problem rejecting any alt-right, red-pilled joke of a Leftist that thinks an abuser’s “recovery” is more important than the gaping wounds that millions of us are forced to hide for our safety and your comfort.