A Culture of Cancelling: How Ontario’s Post-Election Reactions Highlight What’s Wrong with Social Justice in our Society Today

Over the past few days, as the reality of the provincial election has set in, I’ve seen some rather distressing things on my social media feeds. However, here’s the catch: although I am in stark opposition to Doug Ford (for international readers, Ford can be likened to a Canadian version of Donald Trump) and his proposed campaign points, the most distressing items have nothing to do with anything he has done (although this may change in the future). Instead, I’m disheartened by the way some of us have chosen to take up the defeat of an NDP or Liberal government.

I’m not really understanding why posts along the lines of “If you voted PC, delete me off Facebook” or “leave my life if you are happy with the results of the election” have garnered so many likes and traction. For me, it feels regressive in terms of the thought process, to be completely honest. We see something we don’t like or agree with. So we shield ourselves from it. This recent wave of post-election sentiments are just the latest of many similar observations I’ve made over the years. I wanted to take this time to get these thoughts off my chest, as I’ve been sitting on them for a while now. I guess you could say that I’ve been deeply concerned with the way social issues are being tackled by ‘progressive’ communities. Due to the recency and magnitude of our provincial election, I will ground our conversation in this event, but do note that the ideas here can be transposed to other social issues as well.

Although this is a critique towards the reaction from NDP and Liberal voters, I must once again make clear, this does not mean that I am a supporter of the the PC Party or defending Doug Ford. I think it’s important even within our own communities of political alignment and knowledge to be self-reflexive of what we do and how we do it. During my time this year pursuing a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory, I’ve come into contact with a lot of interesting issues, many which deal with complicated intersections, nuances, and tension points. I know that this article will probably act as a tension point and make a lot of my contacts who are largely in the camp of “delete me now if you voted Ford” delete me, but I think it’s an important conversation worth having. Although I am strongly on the side of social justice — I’m sure anyone who has had a conversation with me before knows that I am a supporter of issues pertaining to LGBTQ, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities — I am also not blindly following a doctrine of social justice laid out before me. While I am by no means an expert, I am taking the time to think through what I see and experience on a daily basis. To this effect, I see many flaws with the way we are engaging with social justice in this current day and age, which is making our causes laughable and dismissible. Despite the generative work that some of us are doing for the aforementioned communities, these flaws in our approach and tactics of resistance may also be what will ultimately hinder our ability to create a new world where these issues are taken seriously and given the space that they are due.

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We talk a lot about a regressive conservatism — the neo-nazis and alt-right get plenty of flak as is, and for very good reasons. Their views work towards reinforcing systems and structures of violence that make it extremely difficult for those who are not affluent, white, or male to participate fully and meaningfully in society. However, while we have so much vitriol and distaste for their politics, I feel that our own views and practices often go unexamined. Ask yourself this: have you ever stopped to think about the ways in which you conduct yourself on the other side of the political spectrum can also be regressive and damaging to the social fabric, albeit in different ways than the Conservatives? Despite being a left-leaning thinker committed to social awareness and consciousness, I’ve done a lot of thinking this year on just how toxic the left can be and ways to dismantle some of the ideas and notions associated with the left’s — especially radical left — engagement with their politics.

I think one of the biggest flaws for me, especially when using the elections as a case study, has been what I am phrasing as a ‘culture of cancelling’. Especially among “progressive” circles, there is a tendency for individuals to immediately cut out anybody that does not align fully with their views. Perhaps those views came as a result of personal experiences of structural violence during one’s upbringing. Fair enough. I also know that it can be exhausting seeing someone post content that denies your very existence. I get all of that. However, more often than not, these views (and tactics) can be reinforced (or introduced for the first time) from things such as anti-oppression or sensitivity trainings done in university or corporate settings in order to make students or employees more conscious of the world around them. These can be great opportunities for some of us to decolonize our minds and unlearn certain ways of seeing and acting that might be further marginalizing the colleagues that amongst us. However, in my opinion — at least with my experiences with this type of training — this training is often too rigid, and thus many come out of those trainings with a rigid idea of social justice, following it as if it were some sort of royal decree — a formal code of sorts.

Yes, it’s important to unlearn and to be exposed to these uncomfortable ideas, but it’s equally important to take time to think critically through these issues yourself before you go out into the world and apply them. All too often, someone who is completely new to these types of conversations may ultimately treat the training as scripture, applying it awkwardly into their everyday lives. I am not afraid to admit that I was like this the first time I encountered some of these new ideas. It took a long time for me to come around and develop a more flexible understanding of social justice. For example, while I personally have phased out the words ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ from my personal vocabulary due to the ableist implications it may have on mad or differently-abled communities, I used to become extremely frustrated or unwilling to continue a conversation if people used this type of language. However over, time my thought process changed to this: while everyone knows not to say the ‘n-word’ or the ‘r-word’, other terms such as ‘crazy’ have become so entrenched in our heteronormative vocabularies that it will ultimately take time and patience to reverse. I realize that not everyone has the same opportunities as I do to sit through sensitivity training or be in an environment where this discussion is welcomed. But, to ‘cancel’ someone who is ignorant to the implications of certain words leaves them in the dark. We become complicit in their oblivion.

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Another questionable way that social justice has manifested is some individuals’ tendency to ‘cancel’ someone who may appear to have more visible privilege than themselves. I’ve quietly and uncomfortably sat through conversations where people have shit talked someone they hadn’t even met yet (either in a team setting or a work setting) due to the fact that they were male or white. Sure, enter into those relationships with your guard up, ready to resist or explain (if you have the emotional energy to do so), but to sit around before even meeting someone for the first time and say, “I think I’ll hate him, I haven’t even met him yet, but he’s a guy, he’s cancelled” or “Oh, this girl’s last name sounds white, I’m going not going to enjoy working with her; she’s going to take up so much space” based on their printed name on a page seems like a premature closure. We burn our materials for our side of the bridge before even giving ourselves a chance to build it together. As Donna Haraway notes, it matters what thoughts think thoughts — if we go into our engagements with a negative mindset, then our experience will undoubtedly be a reflection of it. Approach with caution if your life experiences inform you to do so, but also hold some optimism.

We must understand that none of us came out of the womb enlightened on all the social issues that exist. We’ve all made mistakes and will keep on making mistakes. We have had to learn the hard way, or have had to struggle to eliminate biases in our own lives. Even though I am writing this, I do not want to give the illusion that I am infallible — I am far from it. I too am working each day to learn and minimize the bias and hurt that I create in my interactions. However, all too often in my own life, I observe a certain type of arrogance within certain people who are newly awakened to sociopolitical matters. It seems that once they have acquired knowledge, they forget that there once was a time where they did not have the answers either. Having sat through about 10 sensitivity trainings over the years and really having the time to fully think through my own views, it becomes clear that the training that I, myself, once held as a blueprint that should be followed word-for-word is nothing more than an introductory dialogue into these issues which barely scrape the surface into deep existential nuances and intersections (they’re only 3-hours in length, not 10 months!). Though this is the case, I’ve seen a lot of peers go through these trainings only to use what they have learned to bully, intimidate, ridicule, and dare I say, ‘oppress’ those who might not be as socially conscious.

The same people who didn’t understand the concept of privilege 6 months ago are the same people grumbling about having a white partner in their group projects. The same people who dropped the n-word freely in high school are the same people who are embarrassing people publicly for not fully understanding a movement such as Black Lives Matter. The same people that asked questions the first time they were engaging with this material are the same people impatiently complaining that newcomers are taking up too much time and space with their inquiries. Need I go on? With this approach where knowledge becomes fashioned into intolerance and resentment instead of generative action, we ultimately end up pushing those who are left-leaning, but not as aggressive, or those who are ignorant, yet trying to learn and better themselves, away. This behaviour may indicate that the knowledge you possess is a performative prop merely meant to show how knowledgeable you are to your peers, rather than being utilized productively to help others develop the skills and vocabulary to join the cause of creating a brighter future. I’ve seen the way some people address others who are learning, and sometimes I think to myself, if that were me being talked down to like that, I would have left a long time ago. The knowledge we possess on social consciousness, especially if acquired within a training setting is a privilege. We must wield that privilege for the right reasons.

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Social justice in this era seems to be more concerned with dismantling individual people rather than the systems that exist that make oppression a reality in the first place. As Alexis Shotwell, a professor at Carleton University and a notable thinker notes, there is a distinction between true activism and the cheap facsimile of social justice warriors and conspiracy theorists. Although activists who are invested in creating brighter tomorrows may start “from the level of the epistemic”, they will ultimately find a way to transform and mobilize their knowledge into action. Conversely, Shotwell notes that conspiracy theorists — or in this case, the social justice warriors that inundate our social media feeds — “hold that the best defense is more and better knowledge” and are overly concerned with having the “correct language”. I’m sure we’ve all seen keyboard warriors spending hours online ripping an Internet user’s life to shreds,for using the ‘incorrect’ term for something while forgetting the real reason for why they are doing it. They see the tree, but have lost sight of the forest. I get it though, I really do, because I once flirted with going down this path. In a perverse type of way, I can understand that it feels extremely validating to withhold this type of knowledge — it immediately makes you feel like you’re on a moral high ground; you feel like you know more about these issues and can dominate the conversations when you see fit in the name of ‘justice’. Yes, your views may indeed be progressive, but it is the way you mobilize it that makes it regressive. By saying, ‘if you voted for Ford, you can delete me now’, you might also fall trap to similar pitfalls as slacktivism. Rather than tackling the issue at hand, you immediately recenter the spotlight on you. In this case, it is passable because Ford’s policies may directly affect your own day-to-day experiences, but by requesting people to delete you for being unable to see the world from your view, they lose the opportunity to even check their privileges because they won’t be able to see where you, as their friend, are coming from. Sure, it feels great when a few of your like-minded friends validate you with a few dozen likes, but it ultimately does little to move the needle forward since you’ve deleted everyone whose views oppose yours. You are preaching to the choir and have abruptly turned away those who may be considering conversion. By deleting those people, you deny them the opportunity to see how passionate you are about these social issues. You might be thinking that you are punishing them — that they somehow don’t deserve your time and energy, but in the long run, we might just be punishing ourselves. Plenty of articles point towards how the alt-right is adept in recruiting the lost, the vulnerable, and the scared. If we fail to create a home for learning, people may look elsewhere for answers.

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Before I conclude things I want to quickly touch on our tendency to avoid expressing how we truly feel (or even asking a simple question) for fear that someone in our life who has a reputation of being an arbiter of social justice will attack us online or give us a world of hurt, as it belongs in the same vein as the topics in this discussion. I know I cannot be the only one that has felt this way. In my own life, there are people within my social groups have always been identified as unspoken and unofficial gatekeepers of social justice, perhaps due to their track record of tearing people apart online (which is really right up there in terms of regressive tactics progressive people use — maybe I’ll address this in another article) or due to social justice-related roles that they hold on campus. However, rather than being open to discussion it seems that some whose reputations lie at the top of the social justice hierarchy hold the same ‘cancelling’ views. This, despite maybe not being their intent, can still make it an uncomfortable environment to learn and operate in. I would consider myself a considerably socially aware person. I think my commentary here is sound and comes from a place of care. However, I went through my entire undergrad (and even now) walking on eggshells. I have a constant fear with every waking hour that I would like something or say something that would turn a gatekeeper’s wrath upon me (who knows, maybe this will be it?).

It’s tough — it often feels like there’s a double standard that exists within communities dedicated to social justice. At least in my life, those at the top, whose reputations precede them, can ultimately set the tone on what is subjectively acceptable or unacceptable in their airspace, despite whether their views and practices align with what is objectively morally right or wrong. I’ve witnessed people in my own life (both in my real life and in online communities) make questionable statements before that have gone unchecked based on the sole fact that other people are too scared to call them on it, fearing that they have not analyzed every single angle and intersection that exists. To relate it back to our localized conversation on the provincial election, when it’s the same people that have those types of reputations saying “delete me off social media for x or y position you hold”, it may set a poor example for everyone that looks up to these individuals. What if they don’t fully agree with their approach? Do they say something or are they forced into a submissive silence due to the delicate social dynamics at play? And don’t get me wrong, I hold the people who engage with this type of work to a high regard — this discussion comes from a place of wanting to be better as a community, not as an intentional shot at anyone in particular. As I stated from the beginning, I’ve been ruminating on this for years now and I’ve had plenty of conversations (at least a few dozen) with people who have expressed similar sentiments but have always decided to remain in the shadows for fear of how a critique of social justice would immediately label them as alt-right, or hopelessly ignorant, by the self-imposed standards our own communities have set for us. However, I think the best thing you can do is to question everything and how certain practices, despite it being the choice maneuver for your social justice ‘idols’, may be not the most ideal approach. Although our hearts are in the right place, our ways of going about it may garner more ire than respect from the people who we want to resist against.

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As Shotwell, notes, the point is to change the world. While there are great instances of transformative activist work in our society today, it also feels to me that a lot of the culture surrounding social justice in our current moment is more of an individual performance of intellectualism, rather than a real concerted effort to alter the oppressive social conditions that we find ourselves entangled in. As displeased as I am with the results of the election, I think we’re approaching the situation all wrong. Yes, it’s okay to feel resentment towards those who voted a different way than you, especially if their viewpoints differ from yours on critical issues pertaining to your lived experiences and the communities that you are a part of. Yes it’s okay to take time for yourself to disconnect for a while before thinking about the next steps, but to delete someone based on their political position seems extreme.

As an individual who identifies as a person of colour, accesses mental health services, and have worked with vulnerable populations that might become more at-risk with Ford’s policies, I’m not thrilled to see a PC majority either. However, we have to remember that social justice and activism rose up as a way to create change and to spark dialogue. With Ford’s win, we have an opportunity to do exactly that — to speak up louder than we ever have before about why sex education and mental health services are so important, why carding and racial profiling is ineffective and furthers an overt form of racism that humiliates people of colour, and why Indigenous issues should be taught in school curriculums. This is why I was disheartened to see so many of my friends engage in the “that’s it, I’m out, find me in 4 years” rhetoric. I feel you — I really do. Feel angry, feel cheated, feel scared. Let those emotions wash over you and process them. But instead of deleting your conservative friends in spite, question the ways in which you can be an impetus for productive dialogue. Granted, I might have a more generous leash than some, but I do not believe that everyone who voted Conservative has a malicious agenda towards us. I’ve seen some posts decrying PC voters as people who are swimming in privilege, but there can be other possibilities as well. Some of those voters might even look just like us. I won’t get into it too much in this piece, but speaking with some of my POC friends, it would appear some of their friends and family members (immigrants) also voted PC, due to platform points that might resonate with their own cultural traditions and experiences. For example, a country that might place an emphasis on modesty or have taboo ideals on sex, might be attracted to the removal of sex-ed in the curriculum for completely different motivations than Ford’s intent. In this case a vote for Ford is not meant to actively disrupt vulnerable communities, but to protect their own cultural values.(Of course the irony here is that their vote might end up jeopardizing their lives in other ways, so it’s definitely complex).

There are good people in this world whose views just simply won’t be the same as ours due to their own personal experiences, but without people actively challenging these views on those conservative individual’s timelines, we simply create vacuums for ourselves where we hear only what we want to hear and see only what we want to see, and for them as well. Blocking people whose views differ from us will only serve to solidify their views, making fault lines and divides greater. I’m NOT asking us to dive into the emotional labour of having difficult conversations every single day (maybe that’s where allies come in), but even a simple sharing of a link for furthering LGBTQ, POC, etc. awareness can help someone from the other side see the world from our/a different point of view. This doesn’t even have to be in a conscious act of resistance where you say to yourself ‘I need to post this to make this statement’. If, for example, something you see really excites you about Pride Month, share it! Did something amazing happen in your ethnic community? Let it be known! Let people see how happy these events make you — for you to aggressively delete people signifies to those with more sinister agendas or solidified racist, transphobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, etc. views that they have already won, that they have broken us.

Yes, the way Trump and Ford engage with their politics are regressive and may move the needle on social issues back a few ticks, but don’t you think the tendency for some of us to quickly exile those that have different views than us (but are perhaps on the fence about their political alignment or are questioning) and tell them that they’re not welcome (to learn, to grow, to see differently) is equally regressive? The people we turn away today might be the ones that end up batting for the other team tomorrow.

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P.S. This wasn’t explicitly articulated in the body, BUT if there are select people who are constantly draining you through refusing to listen despite the emotional energy you’ve exerted in your conversations, harassing you in the DMs, or invalidating any part of your existence, then maybe that would be the time to block them or do whatever you need to do at your own discretion. I’m just suggesting you shouldn’t use a drastic one-size-fits-all approach for everyone right from the start.

P.P.S. I didn’t write this thinkpiece thinking that I’m going to be 100% right on the issues. Thinkpieces never should be. They’re meant to stimulate conversation and further learning, especially when people with different perspectives chime in. My ideas — hell, all of ours — are subject to transformation and refining. Writing this piece doesn’t mean that my philosophies are set in stone, but an impetus for dialogue and broadening of each other’s worldviews.