Another day, another discussion I am anxious to post. Today I wanted to talk about something that I feel like we, the book community, need to work on: cancel culture. Please bear with me and hear me out throughout this discussion, and remember that these are my opinions and you can agree or disagree with me. This discussion will be a little aimed at Twitter and book Twitter, because I feel like that is where a lot of this conversation happens.
But strap in, friends! This is the longest post I’ve ever written, and I have a lot to say.
Cancel culture and the book community
What is cancel culture?
First and foremost: what is cancel culture?
Wikipedia defines it as “the phenomenon of ‘cancelling’ or no longer morally, financially and/or digitally supporting people, usually celebrities, or things that many have deemed unacceptable or problematic“. Basically, it’s where a community decides to stop supporting someone for being “problematic”.
I hate cancel culture for several reasons, but the biggest is it often doesn’t account for the fact that people can learn and grow. So often we “cancel” celebrities for something they did or said and don’t allow them to learn from their mistakes. We all make mistakes. We all have things to learn. Sometimes people are uneducated on a certain topic and don’t realise that what they’re saying is problematic.
And I should say that I don’t entirely disagree with “cancelling” people. Truly problematic people should not be supported. People who sexually assault others, people who are continually racist or sexist or ableist, people who don’t or refuse to learn and grow. Those people should be cancelled, absolutely.
But someone who makes one mistake? Someone who is perhaps uneducated about something, or who writes something they don’t realise is problematic because they’re uneducated? Someone who uses everyday language that is problematic but doesn’t know it’s problematic? Shouldn’t we be trying to teach these people why the things they’re saying and writing are problematic rather than completely dropping them, where it’s almost certain they won’t learn anything from their mistake?
Cancel culture in the book community
Before we get into these examples and my gripes with them, I just wanted to say: I am not here to talk about the content of these situations. That can be for another post. We’re talking about the situations in general and how the situations were handled.
The book community is no stranger to cancel culture. It’s done all the time. Sometimes, I think it’s reasonable. The shit that happened with Kathleen Hale, for example. Stalking a reviewer is never okay, and as a grown woman, Hale should know that. That isn’t something that she should have to learn.
It’s happened more recently, though, and it makes me slightly uncomfortable. I saw recently some fellow reviewers struggling with whether to read an authors book because of some comments she made on Twitter. The author made a statement that was interpreted, rightly so, as ableist. She likely didn’t think that the statement was problematic, but there was a lot of ableism in it.
HOWEVER when people brought up these arguments, the author conceded. Not completely, but she did understand most of the arguments. She stated that her viewpoint is from that of the culture she grew up in. She wasn’t completely understanding, but she was trying.
After this, people were questioning whether to read her books, and the books of another author who made a supportive comment. Should we really completely cancel someone because of one comment they made that they likely didn’t initially realise was ableist, especially when they tried to understand the other perspective? Shouldn’t we allow people the opportunity to learn?
Another example: an author recently decided not to publish her book because of the concerns of some reviewers. And before everyone comes at me: I support and respect her decision. I love that she is taking the concerns raised seriously. I also respect the concerns raised and am not diminishing them. I believe they are valid concerns.
Should we cancel this book? In it’s current form, yes, if it’s what the author wants. But should we cancel this author? Honestly, I don’t think so. It feels like she genuinely wants to learn from this and grow. I’ve seen so many people add this author to their “nope” or “never read” or “cancelled” bookshelves on Goodreads, and it just makes me sad. What if this author does learn and grow? Shouldn’t we support them then? Shouldn’t we support their growth?
Further, with that specific instance, I don’t think the author was in the wrong initially. She was writing from her perspective and her culture’s history. Yes, from our Western perspective, what she wrote was off-base. But from her culture and her perspective, it wasn’t. She was trying to provide another perspective, a non-Western perspective. We shouldn’t cancel her just because she didn’t consider something from our perspective.
One of my friends said it really well when we were talking about this, and I wanted to put what she said here because she articulated it better than I could.
“OK THE THING THAT PISSED ME OFF ABOUT THAT was that the author is Chinese and everyone was attacking her from a strictly western lens??? Like ‘this book is unacceptable to my delicate white feminist sensibilities’ like uh ok we claim we want diverse lit and then we get this book that DRAWS HEAVILY FROM CHINESE HISTORY AND CULTURE and rather than using that to understand why the author portrayed race the way she did, we just dismiss the whole fucking book because it doesn’t dovetail with our American standards???”
Even more recently: an author made a misinformed comment about trigger warnings. Essentially, she was conflating triggering scenarios with upsetting scenarios. For those of you who perhaps do not have this inherent knowledge, here’s the general difference, as it was explained to her on Twitter:
This nuance is just that, nuanced. It’s not something that’s always immediately obvious. Nuances like this are not always well explained or easily understood from “just googling”. You might get some round-about answer, or may not find an answer at all. It can be difficult to understand, especially if it isn’t explained well. ESPECIALLY in today’s society when the word “triggered” is thrown around by everyone.
Was it her followers’ job to inform this author about why what she was saying was wrong? No. However, if they offer and if they don’t mind, that’s great! She clearly wanted to understand the difference, and someone was clearly willing and knowledgeable enough to explain it.
The author in this case was trying to learn. If you continue reading her thread, she says that she’s okay with reviewers pointing out trigger warnings for her books. And it was clear that she didn’t understand the difference between triggering and upsetting. BUT when someone pointed this out, she asked them to explain the difference, thanked them for explaining it, and said that she would think about that. That type of scenario is exactly what we want to happen
(because the internet never fails to surprise me), someone was complaining about the author asking for the difference to be explained to her.
No!!!!! The author trying to learn the difference is exactly what we want in this scenario! The author tweeted about what she thought she understood and when she realised she didn’t understand, she tried to understand the difference. This situation was the best! possible! outcome!!!! And people were bitching about her trying to learn?? How is she supposed to learn without asking someone to explain the difference??????
(to note: when I asked this person what more they wanted, they admitted that using such a situation to learn is the best scenario and deleted their tweet (the screenshot above). So I’m taking that as they realised what they tweeted was wrong.)
Additionally with this situation, the author’s original tweet was taken out of it’s entire context. Yes, when I first read it, I was like “wtf that’s not an okay thing to say”. BUT THEN I read the whole thread. I read that she was misinformed. I read that she didn’t say trigger warnings shouldn’t be used, just that she didn’t use them. I read that she was trying to learn and take other perspectives into consideration. It was literally! the best! possible! scenario!
I think I explained it pretty well on Twitter (if I do say so myself), so here are my tweets in response to the person above:
How does that situation warrant cancelling someone’s career? Should we be “cancelling” someone for making one misinformed statement when they tried to rectify it and tried to learn why it was wrong?
The book community is an echo chamber
All these situations really just emphasize one thing: the book community is often an echo chamber. One person raises a (sometimes valid, sometimes not valid) point, and everyone just runs with it. People lack the critical thinking to think for themselves and just go with what everyone else is saying. People want to appear #woke so they say what everyone else is saying. People don’t want to be cancelled themselves so they say what everyone else says. People cannot openly question or criticize the first person for fear of being cancelled themselves.
Someone: says an unpopular opinion
Every SJW within a 500 mile radius: IT IS MY TIME TO SHINE by phrasing a popular opinion as though I am being actively persecuted for my beliefs
People also often forget that it’s not their duty in life to educate everyone else on what is “right” and “wrong”. You can actually ignore discourse. You can stay out of conversations. You can ignore what’s happening and not provide your opinion. You don’t have to give that “hot take” or “unpopular opinion”. Sometimes, it can be kept to yourself.
Additionally, you don’t get to decide what’s “right” and “wrong”. Of course, there are things that are socially acceptable, but there are other things that are more nuanced. And people have different standards. People hold other people to different standards, and should be allowed to do so.
You also don’t know everything. Sometimes you’re just wrong. You can be as educated and well-read, and will still not understand every perspective. And that’s okay! That’s what growth is about! But you need to make sure you are listening when other people are speaking. Don’t be so quick to jump to the defense. If you feel defensive, ask yourself why.
“one person reads an ARC and declares it to be *problematic* and then Twitter just turns into an echo chamber going off some rando’s tweet which doesn’t even give any context???”
More issues that I didn’t elaborate on because it would make this post 50,000 words but I think are still important to mention
People often conflate depiction in fiction as endorsement. An author making a character racist to demonstrate the harms of racism is not endorsing racism.
People often get mad when a book relating to LGBTQ+ issues is written by an author they think is straight. We don’t know that the author is straight and we shouldn’t be making that assumption. Authors shouldn’t have to out themselves to have their books taken seriously. There are any number of reasons an author might not be out, and we should respect that.
Often, people have issues with the way a book is marketed and attempt to cancel the author. Newsflash, but authors don’t control the marketing of their book. They often don’t write the blurb. They don’t always choose the title or cover. They don’t get to decide how and to whom a publisher markets the book. So we shouldn’t attack authors for something they literally have no control over.
So what can we do?
Glad you asked! I made a list.
Most importantly: don’t cancel someone because of one thing they said without giving them the opportunity to learn and grow, and without doing your own reading into the situation.
Second most important thing: think critically and think for yourself. Leave the discourse for a while. Get off Twitter and Goodreads and come back tomorrow. Reassess the situation. Try to read all perspectives. Don’t get sucked into the echo chamber that is the book community.
- Is one person dominating the conversation? Why? Is what they’re saying valid? Importantly, are they, themselves, listening to the other perspectives or are they getting defensive?
- Am I viewing things from my own, limited perspective? Am I listening to other people? Am I actually listening to what they’re saying or am I just getting mad?
- Do I know everything that is happening?
- Are quotes being taken out of context?
- How problematic is the situation? Is an author questioning why people don’t shower every day, or are they accused of sexually assaulting someone? Has an author written something from a perspective we don’t understand, or are they harassing reviewers? There’s a spectrum of bad, and some things on the lower end are not worth cancelling over.
Other important things to keep in mind:
- You don’t have to agree with everyone, even your friends. You can disagree with your friends. You can (and should!!!) call out your friends, especially when they’re saying or doing problematic things. You don’t have to cancel someone just because they do. You can think independently of your friends.
- Not everyone is trying to mean, sometimes people are just uneducated.
- Not everyone who does something “problematic” is actually a shitty person, sometimes people are just uneducated.
- Listen to your gut feeling! If something doesn’t sit right with you, there’s probably a reason for that.
- You don’t have to voice your opinion!!! You ARE actually allowed to stay out of discourse!! It’s not your purpose in life to educate everyone!!!
- Not every “woke” perspective is actually right, some people are wrong. And some people are just saying what they think is right.
- Keep in mind: depiction ≠ endorsement.
Finally, ask yourself why you’re tweeting this. Is it to be #woke or liked? Are you only tweeting to get someone’s attention? Don’t tweet. Does your voice need to be heard? Will it add something of value to the conversation that has been missed? If not, don’t tweet. Are you only saying something to be controversial? Don’t tweet.
And, again: don’t cancel someone because of one thing they said without giving them the opportunity to learn and grow.
Ultimately, I just have a lot of feelings about cancel culture. I think it’s so off-base for a lot of people. Idk but a lot of it makes me uncomfortable.
Again, quoting my friend here:
“[…] the LACK OF CRITICAL THINKING from a group of individuals who like to read in their free time is like. staggering. And then there’s just the whole element of performative wokeness, cancelling a book because you want to publicly be on the right side of the discourse even when you have no personal stake in the material or any inside info that has helped inform your opinion. And the worst thing is you can’t even talk about any of this openly and advocate for more constructive dialogue about these books because you’ll be cancelled for being problematic […] it’s like really bad performance art at this point.”
But what about you? What are your thoughts on cancel culture, particularly in the book community? Are there any instances where you thought it was unwarranted? Please let me know below!