Takeaways from Natalie Wynn on Cancel Culture
WNYC’s On The Media sat down with the “Contrapoints” host to discuss cancel culture — and being cancelled.
I discovered Natalie Wynn through WNYC’s On the Media podcast in an episode titled “Making Sense of Cancel Culture.” Wynn, who is a trans woman, hosts the website/YouTube vlog Contrapoints. She’s a popular social commentator who has found herself cancelled more than a few times for infractions that, to an outsider, appear benign.
Like so much internet slang, this use of the word “canceling” started out on black Twitter where a few years ago people, well, mostly women, would tweet “cancel R. Kelly” and things like that. You know, it started out as this vigilante strategy for bringing justice and accountability to powerful people who previously had been immune to any consequences for their actions. For example, the Me Too movement promised to use social media shaming as a way to topple sexually abusive men in power who couldn’t be held accountable in any other way.
The promise of canceling was that it was going to give power back to people who had none, and bring justice to prominent abusers. It’s, in a way, the 21st century version of the guillotine-the bringer of justice, the people’s avenger. But, also like the guillotine, it can become a sadistic entertainment spectacle. And I wanna make the case that we do have, well, a teensy bit of a Reign of Terror situation on our hands, gorg.
Now there’s a version of this conversation that’s already been had to death, and it goes like this: On the one side are a bunch of male comedians who constantly bitch about how cancel culture is out of control, you can’t joke about anything anymore without these Millennial jackals trying to get you in trouble. And the other side is mostly progressive think-piece authors who argue that there’s no such thing as cancel culture, t’s just that powerful people are finally being held accountable for their actions and they can’t fucking handle it, so they go around bitching about cancel culture.
Now unfortunately, neither of those viewpoints is quite as correct as some people might hope. So, it’s a good thing I’m here to deliver The Truth.
The seven tropes of cancel culture
Wynn breaks “cancellation” into seven tropes:
- Presumption of Guilt: “Believe victims” translates into feelings of certainty about the guilt of the accused.
- Abstraction: People turn specific and concrete details into a more generic claim. In the absence of specifics, the generic claim takes on a new, often more iniquitous life.
- Essentialism: A move from criticizing actions to criticizing the person; a person no longer does bad things. They’re a bad person.
- Pseudo-Moralism: A situation in which moralism or intellectualism provide a phony pretext for the call-out. People may pretend to want an apology or pretend to be a person concerned for society when in fact they want to attack another person’s career and reputation out of spite, envy, revenge, or to accrue social credibilty.
- Absence of Grace (No Forgiveness): “Cancelers will often dismiss an apology as insincere, no matter how convincingly written or delivered. And of course, an insincere apology is further proof of what a Machiavellian psychopath you really are. Sometimes, a good apology will calm things down for a while. But the next time there’s a scandal, the original accusation will be raised again as if you never apologized.”
- Transitivity: If you associate with a cancelled person, you are enabling them and their toxic views, and their cancellation tarnishes you.
- Dualism: People are good or evil, light or dark. There is no spectrum or middle ground; only a line in the sand.
Two other interesting takeaways
Less emphasized in Natalie Wynn’s Contrapoints speech, and more in the WNYC interview, were three other points that stuck with me:
- Punching up: Most people who attack a person on social media feel it’s fair because they’re “punching up” — that they’re the little person attacking the powerful person who has the microphone/publishing contract/platform. The reality is more nuanced: Attacking Ricky Gervais, for example, differs from attacking an author with 500 followers and a debut novel people don’t like.
- The role of community: Marginalized people often have only small, tight-knit communities. For Wynn, it’s the trans community. For some authors it’s “lit Twitter.” The bigger a person’s network, the less meaningful a person finds cancellation. For example, a prominent businessman who writes on the side suffers less from the barbs of literary Twitter than a person who depends on their connections for survival. Cancellation hurts marginalized people and people with less privilege far worse than people with privilege.
- Academic debate vs. casual, pseudo-intellectual debate: Wynn holds a PhD in philosophy from Northwestern, so she’s no stranger to criticism and defense of philosophical viewpoints. Rigorous academic debate differs from social media debate, and we should not hold the two in equal weight or regard.
I won’t make any firm conclusions on cancel culture, but I find Natalie Wynn’s thinking and framing to be helpful and well-reasoned. I get why people hate her and her YouTube channel.