September 20, 2019

A Few Thoughts on Cancel Culture

        Over the years I have featured the work of many “problematic” creators, from Nazi-sympathizing artists to sexist poets, but the rising tide now is “cancel culture,” which is the idea of boycotting the work and shunning the people whose personal behavior or opinions are considered unacceptable.  This can be a powerful way to stand up to injustice.  It can give those who feel victimized a sense of reclaiming power and agency.  It can bring larger social awareness to issues of prejudice or oppression, and to the specific crimes of specific celebrities.  It can cut down financial support for a hateful agenda.  It can  educate society about things that people find hurtful.  This is all Good.  But there are situations in which cancel culture is itself problematic.
        My first question is what we do about the work of those who are long gone?  Our cancelling of their work can’t teach them a lesson.  And what if the work itself is untainted by the sins of the creator?  With literature one might argue that it’s impossible for the writer’s prejudices not to contaminate the work (although I’m not convinced that this is in all cases true), but with visual art or, say, classical music, it’s much easier to feel that a work is beautiful, moving, and sublime, without there being any evidence of the artist or composer’s less admirable traits.  Is the art less beautiful if the artist has sins?  Does it lose its power when you remember that a mere flawed human created it?
        Then to focus in on these flawed humans (dead or living) and their less admirable traits… How bad do they have to be to be cancelled?  My belief is that there has only ever been one perfect Creator, and of course many people don’t believe even that.  So if no one is perfect, how bad is too bad?  Things may be clear at the extremes - that living artists directly profiting from their atrocities should be boycotted, while artists who simply failed to get along with their step-parents can probably still be accepted - but human behavior is a continuum, not a step function.  Do we cancel every single creator in Western Culture before, say, 1960?  Was there ever a single one who was not sexist and/or racist and/or anti-semitic and/or Islamophobic and/or homophobic and/or…?  Where do we draw the line?  And who gets to draw the line?
        And now let’s think about change.  Sometimes people change.  Sometimes people do actually learn and grow.  Cancel culture, with its instant firestorm outrage, leaves no room for this.  People are cancelled for past errors, whether or not they have since changed, and they are cancelled for present errors large and small, without the possibility of repentance.  Cancel culture’s purpose is punishment rather than rehabilitation, and scandal rather than education.  Something that can have so many positive possibilities in fighting society’s ills is all too often more of a sledge hammer than a scalpel.
        This can end up counterproductive, leaving people afraid to engage in dialogue or address thorny issues, damping creativity, and leading to a toxic environment where cancel culture is used as a justification to attack and demean anyone with whom there is disagreement.  Of course this is not how hearts and attitudes are changed.  Speaking for myself, I am quite certain that I have have not managed to get through the past almost-fifty years of speaking and writing without making statements that are offensive or hurtful to someone.  I promise you that whatever it was, unkindness and bigotry were not my intention, but I am ignorant about many things, and sometimes thoughtless, and often flippant.  If I do something wrong I would like my error to be explained to me so that I can try to avoid making the same mistake again.  I know education takes time and energy, and people get tired of having to educate ignorant idiots all the time.  I know that I don’t actually enjoy being criticized, and might be a little more prickly about criticism than I should.  But the question is simply: Which is more important to you, the grand rush of self-righteous outrage, or actually fixing the problem?
        Are there any ways to engage with problematic artists and art without either condoning the bad aspects or cancelling everything?  There’s a lot to think about, and this is just a short treatment of it.  I don’t claim to have covered all the issues or addressed all the concerns, or to be the first to have considered these questions.  If anyone has further thoughts, counterarguments, or reactions, I am open to hearing them.  I have merely laid out some of my own thoughts and reactions to this aspect of our current social environment, because it touches me closely.  Although I am small-time enough to fly under the radar of any huge backlash (I’ve never had a frontlash to begin with!) it is my job to lay myself open in many ways, and I do worry about making an inadvertent misstep, hurting someone’s feelings, and being branded as an irredeemably horrible human being.  (And a little more on making mistakes here.)

[Picture: Desbrozando (Clearing) wood block print by Mariano Paredes, undated (Image from  Docs Populi).]


SAC said...

I don't have a lot of answers, but I do have quite a few questions, since I am a fledgling, not-yet-published writer. I am hyper aware of what the Twitterati and other social media presences can do to those with whom they are displeased.

And yet-- there IS so much good that can come of excellent, or at the very least carefully crafted, writing, that I feel I must try. But it's terrifying. I keep having dreams that I'm naked, and finally today one of my friends who works in theater very sensibly pointed out that this is pretty reasonable considering that I'm embarking on a career in which the only real path to success is through at least a mild amount of public notoriety.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Quite a few of the greatest artists of all kinds - writers, composers, etc. - were not very nice people. We have to make up our own minds whether or not to continue with their work. Personally, I don’t listen to Wagner any more. Not only loud and vulgar, but he stuck his nastiness into his operas. At one time, I thought I didn’t mind The Mastersingers, but a recent performance made me decide that this, too, is not something I want to see or hear again.

But there are other problematic artists I still enjoy. Up to us!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Probably I should have made more of a distinction between artists who deliberately mistreat, demean, and marginalize certain groups (or individuals) vs those of us who don't intend to be hurtful but may end up hurting someone anyway. SAC, my hope for us is that people will be more tolerant of good intentions. I know there have been cases where people have been flayed for seemingly trivial errors, but I also know that in my experience there are many people who are willing to accept an honest apology. I also think that the danger is worst for those whose primary arena is more public than most writers'. At any rate, I wish you plenty of success, however that might be defined! Yes, I believe in the power of writing for good. Best of luck to you.
Sue, I can't help loving the vulgar, bombastic glory of "Ride of the Valkyries," but I never have been much of a fan of the rest of Wagner, though I admit I'm judging his music on its own merits (or lack thereof) rather than Wagner's bigoted agenda. You're certainly right about so many "greats" being unpleasant. Sadly, people who are always told what amazing geniuses they are tend to start acting as if the world exists to serve them. Honestly, if I had to reject the work of any artist who was a hideous jerk to wife or girlfriends, there wouldn't be much art left to look at. As for myself, I am not likely to run into that level of success, heh!