I’ve come to the uneasy realization that “cancel culture” is seductive. It’s easy to get caught up in it. Although I consider myself to be highly empathetic and a hyper-liberal social justice crusader, for the most part, I think that cancel culture has gone too far. There’s a difference between calling someone out for their unacceptable acts or opinions versus getting high on the power that you can destroy someone’s career by zealously defending someone who might not take the level of offense that you take.
I recently read two science fiction stories that triggered my liberal sensibilities and found me taking offense on behalf of a group of which I’m not a part. One of the things I dislike most about cancel culture is this false offense. While it’s okay to speak out and support minorities or other people who are the targets of unacceptable speech and behavior, there are times when you have to realize, “This isn’t my fight.” It belittles the target of the offense implying that they need me to come to their rescue.
Here is a brief synopsis of the two stories that offended my liberal sensitivities. Spoilers abound.
The first of the two stories appeared in the July/August 2021 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The short story titled “Perdition” by Rowan Wren is the story of a daughter of Satan who is sent to earth on a mission and falls in love with a woman. That woman who is essentially a decent person sells her soul to be reunited with her demon lover. According to the introduction to the story, the author wrote the story “… as a rejection of the need for perceived goodness/purity as it relates to queer love.” It certainly achieves its goal. But why would you want to do such a thing? The world is full of people who believe that anyone who isn’t pure straight heterosexual deserves to be in hell. A story such as this would only confirm their prejudice.
The second story appeared in the following September/November 2021 issue of F&SF. “The Abomination” by Nuzo Onoh is a supernatural fantasy story set in an African village. The title character is an intersex woman. Although she appears mostly female and identifies as such, she has a penis in addition to her female organs. Nearly murdered by her father at birth she is instead entrusted to the care of a widow who lost her husband and children to a plague. Her entire life she is ostracized by the entire community and eventually opinion forms that a famine is her fault. While we sympathize with the character who is treated horribly by the community, at one point she engages in a bizarre reproductive act with a demon. The end result is that she lays 40 eggs. On the night of a blood moon, she is led to believe that the village has decided to accept her after some ritual of purification. In fact, is a ruse to lure her into a trap where they intend to kill her in a ritual sacrifice to appease the gods. At that moment, her 40 eggs hatch into huge winged beasts which reign death and destruction on the village.
Presumably, we should cheer that she got her revenge on those who mistreated her over her entire life. On the other hand from the perspective of the villagers, she fornicated with the devil and unleashed devastating destruction of a large portion of the village. Their only recourse was to worship her as a god in hopes that she would not again unleash her wrath upon them. In the end, she was as evil as they unjustifiably originally believed her to be.
From one perspective, the moral to the story is, intersex individuals are indeed abominations to be feared. The village would’ve been better off if they had killed her at birth. That’s not exactly the LGBT+ positive message that one presumes the author intended.
My level of offense at the stories doesn’t rise to the point where I want to organize a Twitter campaign to have these authors silenced or to boycott the magazine which published them in back-to-back issues. But I find it impossible to resist the need to comment that these stories have some serious issues. Either they really are intended to portray LGBT+ individuals as evil, or they seriously damage the reputation of such people giving fuel to those who see such people as abominations here in the real world.
In our legal system, we have the principle that one has to have legal standing in order to charge someone. You have to show that you somehow suffered damage or are in some way aggrieved by the offending actions or speech. However, in the court of public opinion, no such requirement exists. While it is incumbent upon us as good citizens to call out and object to abhorrent behavior and speech, there’s something disingenuous when the outrage of the hyper empathetic otherwise uninvolved third parties exceeds the outrage of the target of the offensive acts.
As a straight, cisgender, white male… I don’t have legal standing to be offended by these stories. Far be it from me to impose my opinion on the LGBT+ community what they should or should not be offended by.
This article from The Atlantic opens with the paragraph…
Pity the fiction writers trying to make art in the era of social-media mobs. Start with one in particular, “a nonbinary human … who loves to dream and create.” Last week, this young writer asked on Twitter, “You know how there are sensitivity readers, courses, and guidelines for writing outside your own experience? Can there be courses and advice for writing one’s own experience?” This young writer used to believe that “writing about my marginalizations and my own personal experience will be okay”—no more. “I have learned that is not the case!” this young person observed, fretting that, without meaning to do harm, “I might be writing my gender wrong.”
I totally get this point. What do you do when some third-party thought police who is not a member of your own group takes more offense at something than you do yourself? Such activity can cause you to wonder, “Why am I not as offended as I ought to be?” Am I not being loyal to my own people when others are outraged over something that doesn’t necessarily bother me?” In some instances, what is labeled abhorrent by these third-party advocates is in no way offensive to the groups which they claim to be defending.
I see this most in debates over what is or is not “ableism”. I’ve lived my life of 66 years with Spinal Muscular Atrophy — a severe genetic neuromuscular disease. I’ve never walked. I’ve used a wheelchair since my parents purchased the first one when I was age five. While I’ve never been someone who wallows in self-pity and I certainly have never sought pity from others, the stark reality is living with a lifelong disability is for the most part an undesirable situation. If I could push a magic button and eliminate my disability I would do so in a heartbeat. On the other hand, there are those who claim that any desire to be free of the disability or to cast disability in ANY negative light is “ableism”.
The desire to be free of my disability doesn’t mean I see my life as worthless or in fact worth any less than able-bodied people. I don’t hate my life. But to suggest that there is anything negative about my situation could brand me as a traitor to my own people.
Thus, my feeling is that while empathetic third parties can and should support those who are the targets of unacceptable speech and behavior, that outrage, that need to cancel the offender, needs to be in proportion to the actual offense to the offended parties. The hyper-liberal hypersensitive devotees of cancellation need to take their cues from those who actually have a stake in the situation and not set themselves up as the arbitrators not only of what is or is not acceptable but the extent to which such unacceptable opinions and acts deserve to be canceled.
Thought I’ve Something More to Say
While I’m on the topic of cancel culture, I might as well speak out about other reasons that I dislike the phenomena even though it’s a bit off-topic from the reason I was inspired to write this blog post in the first place.
When I speak out in opposition to canceling people, I’m not talking about the people who deserve to be canceled like Weinstein or Cosby. No one is arguing that there should not be consequences for people who abuse their positions of authority on who exploit anyone for personal pleasure or gain. They deserve not only to be tried in the court of public opinion, but they’ve also faced criminal charges, and rightly so.
Even if the offensive acts or positions don’t rise to the level of criminality, there are individuals whose behavior is sufficiently unacceptable that public outrage and withdrawal of support for them as artists or politicians is clearly appropriate.
It’s one thing to speak out against people who act inappropriately and who hold inappropriate positions such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. however not everyone who has acted inappropriately or expressed unacceptable views deserves to have their lives or careers ruined by an overzealous court of public opinion.
Cancel culture doesn’t allow for people to evolve. It doesn’t allow for forgiveness. It doesn’t accept apologies. In many instances, the trolls dig deep into a person’s past and attempt to crucify them for positions or behavior which at the time were not necessarily contrary to what was acceptable at the time.
Just because you enjoyed watching “The Dukes of Hazard of doesn’t make you racist because they had a Confederate flag atop a vehicle named Gen. Lee. Nor does being a white actor who at one point did a comedy routine in blackface make you racist. Public standards about what is or is not acceptable have evolved as they should. Cancel culture doesn’t seem to account for this and it holds people to standards that did not exist at the time of the alleged offense.
Consider the case involving legendary sportscaster Bob Lamey and race driver Derek Daly. In 2018, Lamey suddenly announced his retirement as a broadcaster for the Indianapolis Colts Radio Network. Soon after it was revealed that he had used the N-word in front of an African-American woman in a discussion about his history as a broadcaster. Lamey did not use the word to describe anyone or a group of people rather, he was telling the story of Irish race driver Derek Daly who once on a live radio interview early in his career also dropped the N-word. Daly claims that not being from America he had no idea how offensive the word was. He had not called someone by that name rather he used a euphemism that included the word. More details about what Daly actually said can be found in this article from the Indianapolis Star. The event had happened nearly 40 years ago. When his faux pas was pointed out to him by race journalist Robin Miller, Daly was appalled and ashamed at his own ignorance and apologized.
As a result of the controversy, Daly was fired as a race analyst for Indianapolis TV station WISH-TV and his son Connor Daly a race driver in his own right, lost his sponsorship. Derek Daly denies any accusation of racism citing the fact that he had championed the cause of driver Willy T. Ribbs the first African-American to compete in the Indianapolis 500. Ribbs defended Daly citing their years of friendship and saying he would not have invited a racist to be part of his wedding party when he was married.
While one can argue that Lamey’s use of the N-word off the air in what he believed to be was a private conversation was inappropriate despite the fact he was not using the word himself but merely quoting someone else, it might’ve been more judicious to use “N-word” rather than substitute the actual word itself while recounting the incident. Did Lamey deserve to be retired over the incident? Was it that horrific?
Daly on the other hand had long ago apologized for his ignorance. Certainly, cultural differences, a statute of limitations, and the possibility of redemption or forgiveness were not taken into account when Daly was fired. Furthermore, why are the sins of the father laid upon his son who is totally innocent of even unintentional offense?
Of course, my abhorrence of cancel culture, even in the face of such ridiculous extremes as the Lamey/Daly incident, will open me up to criticism. If I was anyone of importance, I could be canceled for opposing cancel culture.
I find myself having zero-tolerance for zero-tolerance policies. So cancel me.