Canceling, summarized: An abridged run-through of ContraPoints’ excellent video
On January 2, 2020, ContraPoints, having been recently “canceled” on Twitter, published a video about canceling. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, and while I think it’s one of the most nuanced analyses of anything I’ve encountered in awhile, it’s the length of a feature film, is largely about her particular situation, and draws from examples that are central to certain subcultures of YouTube but not particularly accessible to those not in the loop.
So the ability of this video to actually spread this excellent analysis of Cancel Culture is… low. But it planted new thoughts in my head about Cancel Culture and my moral responsibilities to participate in or not participate in “canceling”, and for that reason, I’m attempting to summarize her insights here. I’ll list the seven “tropes” she identifies, and a few other ideas that have stuck with me.
If you’ve been following the Twitter drama with interest, you should absolutely watch the video. If you’ve never heard of ContraPoints before, skip it — you are not the target audience. (That said, I do highly recommend you check out some of her other videos, like on Incels, Beauty, or What’s Wrong with Capitalism.)
So let’s get started: what is “canceling”?
As a brief background on canceling, here’s ContraPoints’ definition:
“Canceling is online shaming, vilifying, and ostracizing of prominent members of a community by other members of the community. It started out as a vigilante strategy for bringing justice and accountability to powerful people who previously had been immune to any consequences for their actions. For example, the #metoo movement promised to use social media shaming to topple sexually abusive men in power who couldn’t be held accountable any other way. The promise of canceling was that it was going to give power back to people who had none, and bring justice to prominent abusers” (1:12).
ContraPoints goes on to explore 7 “tropes” of Cancel Culture. I’m assuming she means “tropes” as in recurring themes or motifs, especially in creative works. For common tropes, not all pieces of media in a genre have a particular trope, but they’re common enough to be identified and labeled. For example, a common trope in romantic comedy films is to have a “meet-cute”, where the two romantic leads encounter each other in some funny, memorable, and/or embarrassing way. Not every romantic comedy has a meet-cute, but it’s common enough to label and recognize in the genre. Similarly, not all instances of “canceling” will have all the tropes ContraPoints lists, but they are common enough that they’re worth identifying and labeling.
7 Tropes of Cancel Culture
Trope 1: Presumption of Guilt
In an instance of canceling, an allegation of wrongdoing usually winds up synonymous with actual wrongdoing. This is an attempt to correct a world in which victims (especially of sexual assault) are often not believed, but it can be dangerous if overused.
In ContraPoints’ words:
“There’s a traditional understanding of justice according to which, before you condemn or punish a person, you hear the accuser’s side of the story and the accused’s side of the story. You allow both sides to present evidence, and only after everyone involved has had a chance to make their case, do you pass sentence and punish the convict.
Now in the United States […] we legally have the presumption of innocence but canceling does not abide by the law. Canceling is a form of vigilante mob justice, and a lot of times an accusation is proof enough.
Now, that’s basically the point of the progressive slogan, ‘Believe victims.’ It’s a norm that was put into place in progressive spaces because out in the world at large, people generally don’t believe victims. But I think it’s pretty obvious how ‘believe victims’ is a norm that’s easy to abuse” (5:45).
Trope 2: Abstraction
Says ContraPoints: “Abstraction replaces the specific, concrete details of a claim with a more generic statement” (7:23).
She uses the example of an accusation of YouTuber James Charles allegedly “trying to trick straight men into thinking they’re gay” abstracted out on Twitter to his being “toxic and manipulative.”
In removing the specific details, the listener is left to imagine what this means, which oftentimes is far worse than the original accusation.
Additionally, the abstracted claim is easier to pass value judgement on, get outraged about, and re-tweet.
Trope 3: Essentialism
ContraPoints: “Essentialism is when we go from criticizing a person’s actions to criticizing the person themselves. We’re not just saying they did bad things; we’re saying they’re a bad person” (9:40).
In the same example, we go from “James Charles tried to trick straight men” to “James Charles is a sexual predator.”
ContraPoints points out a linguistic shift here:
“When the claim was ‘James Charles tried to trick straight men’, the verbs in the sentence were ‘try’ and ‘trick’. So what we’re criticizing here is James’s behavior. We’re criticizing things he did — allegedly. ‘Trying to trick straight men.’ But once the claim morphs into ‘James Charles is toxic and manipulative’, the verb in the sentence is ‘is’, ‘to be’. So these adjectives are characteristics of James and it’s now not his actions we’re criticizing, but his personality, his toxicity, his manipulativeness.
So here we’re targeting James himself, not just his actions, but the type of person he is: ‘A sexual predator.’ And this can happen extremely quickly on a medium like Twitter. Instantaneously, this shift can occur” (9:05).
Trope 4: Pseudo-moralism or pseudo-intellectualism.
In this trope, accusers and cancelers use “moralism 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 and reputation out of spite, envy, revenge — I mean, it could be any motivation” (12:24).
ContraPoints is speculating about cancelers’ motivations, and there’s room for interpretation here, but what she says is often in-line with the rhetoric on Twitter, which can be blunt, angry, and cruel. Check out her video from 58:00–64:00 — six full minutes of her reading blunt, angry, cruel tweets over the most recent incident — hand-picked as examples, but a perusal of the larger conversation on Twitter from October shows very few attempts at good-faith criticism and hope for improvement.
Trope 5: No forgiveness.
The premise here is that cancelers, by and large, rarely trust the canceled to genuinely reflect, learn, and apologize.
ContraPoints says of her own experience but also generally:
“Once you’re canceled, you can really do no right. If you apologize, the apology will be declared a manipulative attempt to save face. And in fact, it will be used as further evidence of what a Machiavellian psychopath you really are.
If you try to explain or defend yourself, first of all, you almost certainly dig yourself in deeper. But even if you’re articulate and correct, you’ll still be seen as unable to take criticism, and as ignoring the hurt of marginalized people.
And if you just go silent, you’ll be seen as a coward fleeing accountability, even though there’s lots of reasons why you might go silent. Maybe you’re taking a few days away from social media to try to cool down and think clearly. Or maybe you’re so overwhelmed by the harassment that you’ve just shut down” (1:23:04).
And good apologies take time:
“There’s this perception that a fast apology is more sincere than a delayed one, but in fact, the opposite is true: it takes longer than a couple hours to cool down, lower your defenses, listen, learn, grow, seriously reflect on what you may have done or said that was wrong that can take days or weeks or months” (1:21:27).
Trope 6: The transitive property of cancelation
“Cancelation is infectious: if you associate with a canceled person the cancelation rubs off” (24:12).
In ContraPoints’ case (and this is as far as I’ll go into her specific drama), the most recent Twitter outrage was due to her including, as part of a 40-minute video, a ten-second voiceover clip from an older trans man who has some opinions that much of the trans community doesn’t share and are generally understood to be bigoted and hurtful. For including him reading a quote, cancelers assumed that ContraPoints was endorsing his views, or even shared them, and labeled her with the same labels they use for the guest reader.
She shares a representative Tweet: “Any association with [the guest reader] must be seen as hostile to the trans community as a whole, let alone denial of non-binary existence. that’s the line in the sand, folx. where do you stand?” (1:01:40)
ContraPoints was canceled for second-degree transitivity, and shortly after, her friends were called out for failing to condemn her. Attempts to justify or explain were treated as ignoring the hurt of marginalized people (see Trope 5, No Forgiveness).
Trope 7: Dualism
I’ll let ContraPoints take this one entirely:
“Certain ancient religions teach their followers to understand the cosmos as a struggle between light and dark, good and evil. And Cancel Culture does it more or less the same thing.
It’s binary thinking: people are either good or they’re bad. And to add to that essentialism: if a person says or does a bad thing we should interpret that as the mask slipping, as a momentary glimpse of their essential wickedness. And anyone who wants to remain good had better be willing to publicly condemn anyone the community has decided is bad.
There really is something dystopian about this: you have to be willing to accuse other people to prove your own innocence. That’s the line in the sand, folx. Where do you stand?” (1:15:43)
A few corollaries
Given these seven tropes, there are a number of further insights ContraPoints makes. I’m calling them corollaries as they follow from the listed tropes:
The difference between canceling and criticism: a corollary of no forgiveness and pseudo-intellectualism
“Canceling is not criticism. It is not holding someone accountable. It is an attack on a human being. In this video I use the word canceling more or less synonymously with what feminist Jo Freeman, author of The “Bitch Manifesto”, calls “trashing”. [Her essay “Trashing: the Dark Side of Sisterhood”] was originally published in Ms. Magazine in 1976 but it is a perfect description of what goes on on trans Twitter today:
‘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. It 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.’
- Jo Freeman, AKA Joreen, Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood” (1:12:46)
The overstatement of harm used as a justification for escalating conflict: a corollary of psuedo-moralism
“I recently read a book by Sarah Schulman called Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair.
Basically Shulman’s argument is that in various contexts from romantic relationships to community infighting to international politics. The overstatement of harm is used as a justification for cruelty and for escalating conflict.
The same kind of logic is used to justify abusive behavior within the trans community — the dualistic thinking, the essentialism, the pseudo-moralism all of this allows people on Twitter to treat me in an obviously abusive way all the while feeling like they’re doing the right thing because they’re attacking the enemy and I realize that some people will say that I’m the one who’s overstating harm to evade criticism.
The tweets, the furious demands for me to be exiled, the doxing and threatening and ordering a round of my colleagues the attempts to isolate me from a community the attacks not on my actions, but on who I am as a person. There’s not really anything ambiguous about this. It’s just abuse, but I don’t think it feels like abuse to the people who are doing it” (1:17:10).
Splitting communities that would be stronger together: a corollary of the transitive property of canceling
“As a community, trans people benefit from unity, not division. Like, if you have an employer who discriminates against trans people, they’re not gonna care if you’re transsexual, transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. They’re gonna discriminate against you regardless. So we’re all in this together and there’s a lot of disagreements among us and we often don’t get along so well. But politically I think we should work together as much as possible instead of splitting into little factions, because we share most of the same interests and I think the best way to do that is to build bridges instead of burning them” (31:00).
Through the transitive property of canceling, it’s easy to see how communities can be split through an instance of canceling: you’re either with ContraPoints, or against her (dualism plays a role here, too). But ContraPoints rejects this, an further, she uses this as a reason to collaborate with people with whom she doesn’t agree one-hundred-percent in order to strengthen and grow her own marginalized community.
Canceling and Marginalized Communities
ContraPoints is a trans woman, and as such, she has found considerable solace throughout her transition in her online community:
“Early in my transition, back in 2017, I relied very heavily on the online leftist trans community for all kinds of emotional support. You know, when you’re early in transition, I mean, it just sucks. You feel like the whole world is against you. And I talk about this a little bit in my last video, you know, feeling like a freak show walking down the street. And even if you’re lucky enough to have a supportive family, like, usually it still is gonna take them a while to come around at first. They don’t get it. They say things to you like, “Aren’t you worried you’ll regret this?” And, like, they struggle with your name and pronouns, which is understandable, but at the same time it makes you feel like you’re not being seen for who you are. So you need a kind of second family that understands how you’re feeling and acts happy about your transition and validates your gender. And for the first couple months of my transition, I found that in this world of online transgender leftism” (1:27:25).
For people in marginalized populations, their online communities may be the majority of, if not all of, their support network.
ContraPoints again quotes Jo Freeman’s “Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood” essay, in which she says:
“I had survived my youth because I had never given anyone or any group the right to judge me. That right I had reserved to myself. But the Movement seduced me by its sweet promise of sisterhood. It claimed to provide a haven from the ravages of a sexist society; a place where one would be understood. It was my very need for feminism and feminists that made me vulnerable. I gave the movement the right to judge me because I trusted it. and when it judged me worthless, I accepted that judgment.”
- Jo Freeman AKA Joreen, Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood (quoted at 1:30:01)
ContraPoints tells the story of an adult entertainment star, who, after tweeting something judged by her community as homophobic and experiencing the vigilante justice that followed, hanged herself.
“And I know it’s never as simple as ‘Twitter made her kill herself’; there’s always other things going on in the background. But the point I’m making is, canceling is more dangerous to marginalized people because marginalized people generally have more things going on in the background. [An investigative podcast reports] she was sexually abused as a child, abandoned by her father. She was living with a boyfriend she was kind of emotionally detached from. And a few weeks earlier, she’d filmed a scene with a guy who was unnecessarily rough and mean and who mistreated her, so she was kind of traumatized by that and so she was kind of on edge and really defensive about who she worked with when she was tweeting. Then the backlash happened and since she had no other support network, she probably felt like the only community she had turned against her, and that’s a really painful feeling” (1:33:00).
So ContraPoints issues a particular warning for online vigilante justice of people in marginalized communities, who may be relying on their online communities more than most, and may have more than usual going on beneath the surface.
“The people who are most vulnerable to cancel culture are not white guy comedians. They’re not James Charles. They’re not me. They are marginalized people who feel like they have nowhere else to go when they’re rejected by their community. That means: struggling trans people with a few hundred Twitter followers. It means a lot of sex workers. It means people who totally rely on activist circles for emotional and material support” (1:29:36).
The Collective Power of the Twitter Mob (and the removal of the canceled’s humanity)
“The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”
ContraPoints quotes (at 1:19:22) from Jon Ronson’s book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, to explain that while each individual likely does not feel like a Tweet they’ve made is individually harassment, on the other side, an individual receiving hundreds of tweets with the same message (often the same flawed message; see tropes 1–7) can absolutely feel harassed.
“They feel like they’re punching up, because I’m a celebrity with a platform and lots of Twitter followers. And it’s true that I do have more power than any of them individually, but as a collective they have a terrifying power that they don’t seem to be aware of as individuals” (1:18:50).
ContraPoints also struggles with hearing from the raw humanity of hundreds of uncensored tweets but not feeling like she too can respond uncensored:
“And a lot of the people who are attacking me, they’re not pausing to self-reflect, they’re not holding themselves accountable for the consequences of their actions — they’re just venting their unfiltered rage. But in response to these attacks, I, as a powerful person with a platform, I’m not allowed to react like a human being. I’m not allowed to get angry. I’m not allowed to show pain. I’m not allowed to get defensive. I’m not allowed to lash out.
All I’m allowed to do is go totally numb on the inside as I try to frantically calculate the ideal public relations response that pays due deference to the valid concerns of these poor marginalized people, all the while ignoring the tsunami of verbal abuse that’s crashing over me.
You know, people on Twitter, they don’t try to persuade me like I’m a human being. They order me around, they tell me what to believe, they demand that I say exactly what they want me to say, or else. It’s extremely objectifying. They don’t treat me like a person with my own opinions and feelings. They treat me as this brand of moral commodity to be consumed or denounced. And this is all terribly ironic because of the conflicting demand that creators be authentic all the time” (80:05).
Going back to the canceled Beauty YouTuber:
“What was the point of canceling James Charles? Did we want to teach him a lesson? Did we want him to learn from his mistakes and grow as a person? Imagine actually wanting someone to learn; imagine actually caring” (11:04).
ContraPoints describes; she does not prescribe. I, too, will leave explicit calls-to-action as an exercise to the reader. I’ll leave you with one last scene from the video:
“I find I have trouble convincing people of the severity of the pain that being canceled causes because I think it’s just hard to imagine if you haven’t been through it yourself.
And I don’t know a more succinct way to convey it to you than by telling you that in the last few years: I’ve been harassed by Nazis. I’ve been harassed by TERFs. I’ve been stalked. I’ve been doxxed. I’ve been threatened. I’ve been sexually assaulted. And the pain of being canceled, of being totally trashed by other trans people online for years, has been more difficult for me to cope with than all the rest of it combined.
Jo Freeman actually describes how I feel better than I think I can describe it myself:
‘I was one of the first in the country, perhaps the first in Chicago, to have my character, my commitment, and my very self attacked in such a way by Movement women that have left me torn and little pieces and unable to function. It took me years to recover and even today the wounds have not entirely healed.
This attack is accomplished by making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing to exist. These feelings are reinforced when you are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with you is similarly inimical to the movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them. Eventually all your colleagues join in in a chorus of condemnation which cannot be silenced and you are reduced to a mere parody of your previous self.’
- Jo Freeman, AKA Joreen, Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood” (1:25:46)
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