Chat first, cancel second


You’ve probably seen the posts: you’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, and a status or tweet pops up letting you know that so-and-so is “canceled.” More often than not, the statement is all you get; there isn’t any explanation as to why that person is canceled or what that might entail. Still, cancelations travel fast. In the wake of the #MeToo Movement, actors seen as problematic disappeared from Netflix shows. Comedians’ tours were postponed or scrapped altogether. In response to the R. Kelly scandal, Spotify even created a feature which allows listeners to “mute” specific artists (ensuring that they no longer appear in playlists, libraries or recommended mixes).

In short, cancel culture seems to have hit an all-time high.

On a basic level, canceling someone means refusing to engage with them. It means announcing, effectively, that someone’s beliefs and actions are beyond repair — and, as a consequence, you’re calling for their removal. This was the broader culture that came under fire recently from former President Obama, who, in an interview about youth activism, urged our generation to rethink how harshly we judge others. To clarify: in his interview, Obama criticized “call-outs” rather than “cancels,” which are a little different. “Calling out” connotes drawing attention to problematic beliefs or statements without providing a course of action for moving forward. Often, calling out is a step on the way to canceling (which, as it effectively removes any hope of moving forward, is decidedly more extreme). According to our former President, “calling out” isn’t activism.

We disagree. At least, partly. We endorse a more nuanced understanding of “calling out” and “canceling.” 

Calling out and canceling aren’t inherently bad. They also aren’t all that new — in many ways, the impulse underlying call-outs or cancels is the same one behind boycotts, strikes or walkouts. By not showing up, literally or figuratively, to make space or provide a platform for certain issues and figures, you send a message. In this way, canceling can be incredibly activating; it allows you to punch up, to reclaim lost agency in the face of enormous, dehumanizing corporations and celebrities worth billions of dollars. And, more often than not, the harshness or extremity behind those cancelation statements is what lends those upward punches their very power.  

Still, it’s worth interrogating the different, subtle ways that social media transforms the cancelation impulse. Online, canceling becomes all too easy: You can cancel someone or something in the time it takes to rattle off a couple of words and click “post.” The result is that, for many, canceling has become reflexive. And that reflex has extended beyond the internet and into the way that we interact with others in our day to day lives. Even in person, we’re quick to call people out. In a matter of seconds, we shut them down.

Canceling has become reflexive. And that reflex has extended beyond the internet and into the way that we interact with others in our day to day lives.”

Those shut-downs become a lot more complicated at a place like Middlebury. Here, we aren’t canceling far-removed, top-tier celebrities (who, as far as most of us are concerned, only exist in the form of tweets or television guest spots). If and when we cancel at Middlebury, we’re canceling our classmates, the people we belong to clubs with or pass on College Street.

That kind of cancelation calls for a little more thought.

The last few years have seen a rise in cancelation efforts at Middlebury. We regularly call out or cancel students, professors and staff members for comments made in class or actions taken around campus. Over the past couple of years, a number of controversial speakers have been — pardon the pun — quite literally canceled. And, in December 2018, a list of “Men to Avoid” was released on Facebook (a divisive, broad-reaching cancelation effort now simply referred to as “the list”).

We’re not saying you should or shouldn’t cancel at Middlebury. That’s your call. As we’ve said, sometimes canceling can be OK, even constructive. Canceling can constitute an important form of self-defense or an attempt to send a message when other institutions fail (the “list,” for instance, was largely released in response to the administration’s inadequate efforts to address sexual assault on campus). Other times, students’, professors’ and staff members’ repeated, obvious unwillingness to uphold values of tolerance and inclusivity leave us little choice but to cancel. At a place like Middlebury, where harassment, discrimination and abuse can go woefully unaddressed by the college, voicing cancelations often forms a vital, tangible tool for change.

Still, we’d caution you to think twice before transplanting virtual cancelation impulses into your immediate, everyday lives. At Middlebury, online or in-persons cancels can have immediate, even irrevocable impacts on the way that students inhabit the college’s very small, very real space. Sometimes, those cancelations seem unavoidable. Other times, they inhibit the kinds of growth we came to Middlebury to undergo in the first place.

Unfortunately, the nature and size of Middlebury’s social scene often encourages premature canceling. Rumors spread quickly, so that their subjects are sometimes canceled before they have a chance to defend themselves. Sometimes, entire groups of people (say, sports teams or Febs) are canceled by other groups on the basis of assumptions or predictions. Situations like those don’t demand cancels. Instead, they provide vital opportunities for others to learn, to ask questions and improve their own understandings of difficult and controversial topics. There are other times, however, when the burden of education cannot and should not fall on you. Then, canceling might be the best way to send a message. It might even be the only course of activism left.

It’s worth interrogating, too, the ways in which cancels are unevenly distributed among the student body. Just as white, male celebrities bounce back faster from social media cancels (see: Louis C.K.), so too are more privileged members of the Middlebury community often given the benefit of the doubt. We need to be careful that, in wielding our own cancelation tools, we don’t simply exacerbate the already profound power disparities which exist on campus. 

At the end of the day, it comes down to determining the most effective way to send a message. Ideally, that message can be sent through conversation. This is what we think Obama was getting at: Rather than simply judging, we should strive for constructive, progress-producing conversations. Ideally, those conversations precede cancelation, hopefully  rendering it unnecessary.