Committed? Controversy culture & our relationship to freedom

A black laptop and mouse, thick book and phone chained together.

Each day, the ‘war on woke’ continues; the debate rages on about so-called ‘cancel culture’ and the left’s supposed draconian attitude to freedom (particularly freedom of speech). It is mostly used as an excuse to silence people talking about their oppression, so I know it is dangerous to legitimise this discussion. Just to state my position plainly from the beginning: I think you’re unlikely to find much strong or relevant critique of the left or those generally accused of having a cancellation agenda in even the best discussions about ‘cancel culture’. I think most of what any rare good faith person who honestly believes in ‘cancel culture’ as a threat to freedom of speech is describing is a mixture of pernicious social media algorithms and run-of-the-mill controversy (which has existed as long as humans have, probably). But, like most people, I do find myself worrying about the kinds of social media interactions where people’s inconsistencies are pointed out and someone is dismissed as morally, socially and politically tainted as a result. I think some people, aside from the fear-mongers, trolls and those who argue in bad faith, are genuinely confused and believe cancel culture is people on the left needlessly ‘being too harsh!’ — and I’d like to honestly explore that for a moment. I remember back in the 2010s there were discussions about social media ‘call out culture’, but over time as the algorithms picked up on these trends, leftist issues that the public used to be mostly under-informed about turned into very visible hot topics for everyone to weigh in on, making them vulnerable to malicious disinformation campaigns designed to fracture and discredit the left, information saturation, removal of context, and sometimes massively disproportionate controversies. Also once our opinions, viewpoints and commitments to a cause are placed on the internet in the permanent ways that they often are (and therefore easily dredged back up), we appear inauthentic to go back on them in front of observers. It also occurs to me that there are seemingly very few meaningful differences between the modern punitive act of ‘cancellation’ and the age-old concept of being caught up in a scandal. So in the social media age, some people engage in combative online exchanges where they are reluctant to shift on things they have once committed to, meaning they aren’t willing to be persuaded or discuss them in good faith — and this is due to the platform being one where algorithms make your controversies very visible and remove context, people’s identification with being seen as consistent, and our long existing controversy culture — it’s clear how ‘wokeness’ is irrelevant and no political group has the monopoly on this phenomenon. With all of this being said, the more I have gotten involved in progressive work, the more I have felt anxious about my own risk of being called out for ‘hypocrisy’. I believe that committing to things even when there’s a possibility of getting them wrong is a courageous and necessary step in order to make progress. I am committed to many things in my life, but my commitment to the sets of complex ideas and principles about something as elaborate as social progress is one that can feel treacherous. It’s undeniably easier to feel good in a commitment without the risk of the ‘terrible person’ stamp going on your permanent record if you go back on it.

With this post, I’m much more interested in talking about the state of being human than generally pathetic and problematic ‘cancel culture’ arguments. In discussing the fact that, in this controversy culture and a political world so bound up with social media, we need ways to overcome the reflexive processes by which someone’s inconsistency often turns into assumed inauthenticity. We’re all human and we need ways to honour our commitments to ‘doing the right thing’ whilst balancing the need to sometimes change our minds, regroup, or disengage when necessary. As many have said before me, we have to honour our bodies’ needs to recover from the constant cortisol that is sent rushing through our systems when confronting these systemic issues. We have to be able to move out of fight, flight or freeze into states of regulation and healing — meaning we can’t always engage and we have to let go of the excessive pressure around what we do and don’t say. After all, as people with less power in society, what we are so often denied is our autonomy, freedom and dignity, therefore we shouldn’t reinforce a coercive logic that denies us these things. Some caveats: Yes, for those most oppressed among us, struggling and resistance are our permanent states of being and therefore disengaging often isn’t a luxury we can participate in. For most of us, unless (and even if) we accept the status quo of neoliberalism, white supremacy etc, we will not escape the burden and weight of our marginalisation. Yes, any withdrawal also needs to be balanced with accountability, the need to ensure that there is adequate care factored in, not just dropping the responsibilities that one is holding. But perhaps it is a paradox, or perhaps it is about nuance and complexity — but I also believe that if we have no other conceivable choice but to always stay involved with a cause, we’ll always be unsure whether the participation is truly free and authentic. Perhaps this throws light on the subjectivity of and need for careful thought about our relationships to freedom and authenticity. On the existence of times and circumstances where we don’t have the privilege of being able to factor authenticity into our decision making, and the need to be able to discern. Perhaps this calls into question the ability to always feel like we’re engaging freely and authentically in a world where many of our freedoms are effectively removed or constantly at threat. Perhaps this illuminates a requirement to think more critically about what freedoms we tend to focus on, other contexts where we already tacitly accept the limitation of our authenticity and how regularly this takes place without interrogation. Perhaps this requires a more rigorous commitment to stretching ourselves to embody freedoms in different ways that might be available to us, and extending that possibility to others.

Some of the thinking about healing and liberation in this post is borrowed/learned from embodied justice practitioners and my team at Healing Justice Ldn, where we continue to have conversations about movements and the ways we need to reimagine and practice futures free from oppression.

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Writer and comms professional. Health and healing in the ends.

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