I worry every time my blog stats spike.
Over the last couple years, WordPress’ “Your blog is getting a lot of traffic” notification doesn’t mean I’ve written something compelling – it means my Problematic Authors page is getting flooded. If you catch me pulling out my phone, sighing, then cursing under my breath, you can bet someone is being cancelled on Twitter.
Twitter accountability has done good, but it’s often toxic. For some authors, there is a loyal army of users ready to dredge up their past every time they appear. I read through these threads frequently and while I always step back to do my own research, they weigh on me. There’s a lot of hate in these conversations. Hate for the authors, and hate for the individuals who don’t ‘fall in line’.
Today, I’d like to talk about my concerns about the methods in Book Twitter’s cancel culture.
The Beginnings of Cancel Culture
I think often on a New York Times article written by Liat Kaplan early last year. For those of you unfamiliar, Kaplan is the original author of the blog ‘Your Fave is Problematic’. For many, she’s seen as the founder of cancel culture. By calling out celebrities’ worst mistakes, a teenage Kaplan hoped to make the rich and famous face consequences. Five years after abandoning the blog, Kaplan writes:
In the years since, I’ve looked back on my blog with shame and regret — about my pettiness, my motivating rage, my hard-and-fast assumptions that people were either good or bad. Who was I to lump together known misogynists with people who got tattoos in languages they didn’t speak? I just wanted to see someone face consequences; no one who’d hurt me ever had.– Liat Kaplan, “I Was Your Fave Is Problematic”
I think ‘Your Fave is Problematic’ had the potential to do a lot of good, but that drive came from the wrong place. If you’ve been through my Problematic Authors page, you will see I reference her blog occasionally – there’s good research in some posts. Twitter has her same energy, but much of it for the same reasons Kaplan cites: “pettiness…motivating rage…hard-and-fast assumptions that people [are] either good or bad”. Folks are quick to pick up the chant, to pick sides, and condemn everyone who hasn’t conformed. Many fail to see the authors as human.
Joining the Mob
Swelling floods are often fed by ‘groupthink‘. This term, invented by George Orwell in his novel 1984 and then adopted in social psychology, means:
” [A] mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct, or optimal.”– Anna Schmidt, Encyclopedia Brittanica ‘groupthink‘.
The more people who say an author is problematic for reasons a, b, and c, the more others accept it because it is being adopted by the majority. In situations like this, few people look for resources or proof. If a resource is provided, the individual viewpoint or interpretation is translated as law. People are threatened, careers destroyed, and many are psychologically injured.
Sage, author of the The Hate U Give, received incredible support for her important debut novel. While much of the outcry was good, this turned out to be a problem in itself. There was so much pressure to enjoy the book and many of those who didn’t like the book were attacked and dragged as racists. If they didn’t like the writing, they were racist against Black authors. If they thought the characters were one-dimensional and/or stereotypical, they were racist against Black people in general. If you skim through one-star reviews on Goodreads, there are a concerning number of reviews citing the expectation of being attacked, or apologizing for not liking the book and noting they can see the importance. I’m not saying some reviews aren’t leaning racist or aren’t downright rude, but many are reasonable and the text shows the authors were attacked or afraid they would be.
This reveals a one-dimensional level of thinking: those who liked the book were allowed to exist, and those who didn’t were terrible people (almost definitely racists). It never came down to the mechanics of the book or concerns about some of the stereotypical character roles. The community never had the discussion that along with the important social justice message, Sage’s book perpetuates certain images of Black folks because we couldn’t safely have that discussion. The group prevented it, and you were attacked if you tried.
While the groupthink approach is effective in growing awareness, there’s no room for individual thought or contribution. You agree, or you’re out. This is not a productive way to have a conversation.
Very often, author accusation and cancellation revolves around assumptions and interpretation. This kind of misrepresentation is dangerous – it sets a precedent of biased presentation as truth. This kind of storytelling drives misinformation in history textbooks – the ‘white perspective’ comes from racism, homophobia, and ‘facts’ derived belief that ‘this is the way things are and my way is the only truth’ without bothering to understand the ‘things’ in the first place. For a bookish example, let’s talk about Sarah J. Maas.
There are a few different reasons Maas is on my Problematic Authors list, and I personally can’t handle her books. I didn’t hate Throne of Glass but couldn’t get past the first book. I barely started A Court of Thorns and Roses before a bunch of red flags went up. I don’t enjoy her work and I think there are a lot of legitimate things folks should be aware of if they want to choose books conscientiously (I respect not everyone wants to do this). None of these legitimate things include her being a zionist… because she’s not. Or, at least, there’s not enough information to support that interpretation.
Once every three months or so, Twitter blows up about Maas. Her fans really love her, and her haters really hate her. There’s a strong divide. The arguments, barebones, seem to be:
- For: We like her work and if it’s not to your tastes, oh well. Stop cancelling people!
- Against: There’s a lot of problematic stuff in her work and oh yeah she’s a zionist.
The ‘problematic stuff’ is rarely spelled out, but you can rely on the zionism thing to appear. It really bothers me, because it represents a complete lack of research and understanding of Israeli citizenship requirements, Judaism, and heritage. Outside of Twitter, there seems to be more thoughtful understanding, but every time someone incorrectly slaps the label on her, three more people take it as truth. For context:
- If someone visits the United States and is amazed by the Smithsonian, the Grand Canyon, or Disney World, does that make them a supporter of the country and problematic government?
- If someone’s grandparent supports the U.S. military and they still love their grandparent, does that make them a patriotic extremist?
- If someone fails to publicly denounce all the genocides caused by the United States, does that mean they support those genocides?
- If someone identifies as Christian and lives in the United States which (popularly, unofficially) considers itself a Christian nation, does their religion automatically mean they agree with the government?
These are the equivalents of what folks say makes Maas a zionist, based on the notorious articles from 6-7 years ago. All this to say – research matters. Knowing the history of a ‘thing’ matters. Knowing context matters. Going beyond social media buzz to get a true meaning is important to both best understand the situation and to assure you are not spreading toxic misinformation.
Treat Others the Way You Would Want to Be Treated
The internet makes it easy to be blunt. We pretend there isn’t another human on the other side of the connection. It’s a guilt-free way of being rude and forceful. It also means we are always on the defensive – without tones, we assume every statement is an attack. There’s a really interesting article about dissociation, harassment campaigns, and social media on WIRED that discusses behavior and cancel culture really well, so I will recommend that rather than going into too much detail here.
To summarize – you cannot publicly make make a mistake in today’s world. It will haunt you. It may even define you. We delude ourselves into thinking there are no complex individuals with flaws, emotion, or growth potential on the other side. Behavior indicates that there is only a monster who needs to be destroyed. And if you are on the wrong side of the conversation? Scramble to unlearn, re-educate, and be vocal… otherwise the end is nigh. If you blink, you may miss the opportunity to correct yourself to popular opinion before it’s too late.
Psychologically, these scrambles make sense. We shield ourselves from criticism when we highlight others, all while getting that dopamine kick from feeling we have done “the right thing”. In a greater socio-cultural environment, we’ve set a precedent that mistakes are not tolerated. We are not allowed to be human because we do not allow others to be human. We reject the moral philosophy of the “Golden Rule” for a self-centric one. Dissociation makes it easier to hate. It makes spaces unsafe. So we protect ourselves more, and the cycle continues.
Okay Hypocrite. Why Do You Keep a List?
I know after all this condemnation, the Problematic Authors page seems directly contrary. I think there is a really important difference between a social media attack and an information repository. With the Problematic Authors page, I try to create an objective source of information for those who find it useful. I do make efforts to update and link if those listed have addressed the problem at hand – it’s not for me to decide if they are forgiven, but it is important to show humanity.
I get emails thanking me for the list. More frequently, I get emails, comments, and social media DMs informing me how wrong I am and that I’m a terrible person for it. It’s about a 1:10 ratio. I like to think this makes me intimately familiar with the feeling I’m in the trenches of the cancel culture phenomenon. I’m not perfect and the hurtful comments hurt, but I work really hard to avoid the three pitfalls I’ve shared above.
- I don’t just take someone’s word that an author is problematic – I need to find out for myself.
- I avoid assuming my interpretation is correct. I really try to seek out and learn from those who were personally affected.
- Once I identify an issue, I scour the internet to pull up as many references as possible to assure it’s not an unfounded social media cancellation blitz.
- I remember people on both sides of the conversation are human – imperfect, possibly hurting, and complicated.
We all do our best. And it’s good to be held accountable! It’s good to try to be the best version of ourselves. I think if we can balance accountability with personal responsibility, contextual understanding, and empathy we have a seed that could blossom into cultural growth.
So far, we haven’t achieved that balance. But we should still strive for it in every interaction.