From cancel culture... to collective accountability
The transformative potential of Nonviolent Communication
Nobody likes “cancel culture.” Why, then, do we participate in it?
It can be tempting to dismiss “cancel culture” as a fringe phenomenon limited to activist college students or right-wing trolls, a trend in digital discourse that will pass. I believe this is a mistake. Like so many of our most vitriolic debates, this one speaks to deep undercurrents that we must take seriously, and contend with.
In my view, the debate over cancel culture is about power… and belonging. It is the latest manifestation of an age-old question, one that stands at the heart of the divisions currently rending America and the world: who belongs? Who decides?
Trump intuitively understands this: where he campaigned in 2016 against a culture of “political correctness,” increasingly he is making “cancel culture” the centerpiece of his 2020 campaign (once again invoking his “silent majority.”) Moira Weigel had the best take on this, writing in 2016 of the wave of authoritarian populist leaders:
They were wielding anti-political-correctness as a weapon, using it to forge a new political landscape and a frightening future.
I want to use this post to explore what I think lurks behind this debate, and to explore some tools to shift how we engage… with the discourse, and with each other.
TL;DR: There is a deep yearning in all of us to be fully seen, and heard. Most of us do not have the tools or skills to express our deepest needs, so we often turn to judging and shaming others. By practicing different ways of relating to each other — and by practicing Nonviolent Communication in particular — we can begin to transform our relationships, and move from a society defined by exclusion and punishment (canceling) to one defined by belonging and healing (indispensability).
Cancel culture, political correctness, and identity politics
I don’t want to devote a ton of space to defining terms here… entire books are written on these subjects, and the terms are so misused as to lose significance. Suffice it to say that for the purposes of this post I find the core aspiration of identity politics (understood in the way it was initially defined in the Combahee River Collective Statement) to be necessary and positive. There are certainly strands within progressive movements and politics that take this in an unhealthy direction; Julia Serano’s description of the phenomenon of “reverse discourse” is outstanding and for me deeply clarifying (I wrote more about that here).
I see the weaponization of “political correctness” and “cancel culture” as efforts to caricature and undermine the core contribution of identity politics. They speak to a deeper debate over who has the right to be heard, and represented: it is a contest for power, for who matters, for who has the ability to shape norms. As Nilofer Merchant observes: “Those who are valued get to create value.”
I think all of these surface debates mask and obfuscate a much deeper set of phenomena that cut to the heart of the current moment. It is these undercurrents that I wish to explore in this post.
“Judgment requires punishment”
On a river trip last week I was talking with my sister about accountability, and she shared this mind-bending line from a recent Brene Brown podcast featuring David Kessler.
It clicked: so much of our discourse perpetuates the cycle of violence that is our punishment-focused culture. This is where cancel culture begins: with an expression of judgment. That judgment usually takes the form of “you did/said something wrong” but the punishment takes the form of “you don’t belong” (in our organization, in your job, in polite society).
Recognizing language as a site of violence is one of the core contributions of the discourse dismissed as political correctness (the concept of “microaggressions,” e.g.) One possible antidote, therefore, is Nonviolent Communication (NVC): a form of interaction that explicitly seeks to avoid the violence inherent in dominant culture use of language. I was first introduced to NVC through the work of Miki Kashtan, whose writing is always so vulnerable, clear, beautiful, and inviting. It traces its lineage to Marshall Rosenberg; this post from Erik Torenberg is a great introduction to the core principles.
One key aspect here: we are always the first target of our own violence (so often it is our own self-talk that is judgmental, that is demanding penance). Kessler notes: “Either you punish someone else or yourself.” Torenberg names the truism here:
We judge/criticize in others that which we most fear in ourselves.
It’s the easier way out: shaming others to avoid looking too closely at our own shame (this came to mind listening to Zeesham Aleem’s case study of cancel culture for the NY Times Daily podcast).
Trans activist Kai Cheng Thom had a beautiful piece on this, written in the aftermath of the 2016 election, calling for a move from “disposability culture” (the cancel culture they identified within progressive activist circles) to “indispensability culture”: it recognizes that we are all complicit because we are all both victimized by and unwittingly perpetuate oppressive systems. From individual (unhealed people hurt people) to societal (Resmaa Menakem’s provocative notion that unhealed trauma becomes culture).
“All judgments are tragic expressions of unmet needs”
This was Rosenberg’s core insight, and it’s stunning if you take it in. He notes (h/t to Lucy Leu for this gorgeous framing):
The basis of violence is when people are in pain and don’t know how to say that clearly. Violence… at its base is people not knowing how to get in touch with what is inside.
Just take a moment to sit with that.
A number of threads come together here for me, all revolving around how difficult — and essential — it is to hold empathy for everyone. Not only those who are harmed, though that is the best place to start. But also those who cause harm. There are several reasons for this, all of which touch on cancel culture.
1) Moral. As Mariame Kaba put it: “No one enters into violence for the first time by committing it.” In other words, there is no neat oppressor/oppressed or perpetrator/victim binary: we are all products of oppressive systems. We owe it to each other’s humanity to seek to understand.
2) Strategic. It was this impulse that prompted me to experiment with Building Belonging: our current approaches simply aren’t working. It’s not an accident that the people rising to power and leading the authoritarian turn toward far-right nationalism around the world are embodiments of toxic masculinity. I loved this interview with Gabor Mate (aptly titled “Damaged Leaders Rule The World”) exploring why… we need to understand if we hope to address it. Charles Eisenstein had a great line here:
To condemn what we see as selfish, greedy, egoic, or evil behavior and to seek to suppress it by force without addressing the underlying wound is futile: the pain will always find another expression.
3) Integrity: I’m not sure what the right one-word bold heading is here, but for me it’s the only consistent/sustainable/coherent approach that I’ve found. I’m inspired by John Lewis’ notion of beloved community, the radical idea that the surest way to reach the promised land is to live each day as if we’re already there (was it Emerson or Aerosmith who said: “life’s a journey, not a destination”?) I’m interested in a world that works for everyone and everything (omni-considerate): Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ provocative notion of none of us without all of us.
A note here that this very much cuts both ways. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion that a bridge is built from both sides (credit to this beautiful interview with Makani Themba). I sometimes fear that the concept of “bridging” (attempting to extend empathy to the “other”) can feel twice-traumatizing, particularly for those who hold marginalized identities: first by the harm of being directly impacted by an oppressive system, then by the idea of having to do still more work to support the healing of those causing the harm. Archbishop Oscar Romero reminds us that we — particularly those of us with or adjacent to institutional power — need to also build a bridge, to hold empathy for those rebelling in the face of structural oppression:
When the church decries revolutionary violence, it cannot forget that institutionalized violence also exists, and that the desperate violence of oppressed persons is not overcome with one-sided laws, with weapons, or with superior force… The church does not approve or justify bloody revolution and cries of hatred. But neither can it condemn them while it sees no attempt to remove the causes that produce that ailment in our society.
The antidote to judgment is… acceptance?
This is something I’m still working through. Not “acceptance” in the sense of “I’m okay with,” but acceptance in the sense of “I see that this is the current reality”… without passing judgment. Here’s the paradox: accepting things as they are (letting go of the need to change) is the precondition to change (when my therapist first told me that my mind exploded).
I’d been processing that notion for several months when I came across BJ STAR’s interview with Lama Rod Owens… and it all suddenly made sense (the whole interview is great, but the section starting at 38:00 is just stunning). Lama Rod pairs “acceptance” with action: you accept something in order to change it… but without making your acceptance conditional on that change.
We have to be in relationship with reality as it is… Everything has to be accepted in order to really achieve liberation.
If people feel that you are trying to get them to change… they resist. No one likes being persuaded, or manipulated, or made to feel like they are somehow wrong. It prompts a defensive posture. Anyone who begins with “how do I get someone to understand/believe that…” is likely to fail. We don’t get anyone to do anything; we invite them. I wrote elsewhere that “the opposite of coercion is invitation.” This is the skill we are collectively struggling to practice… and it flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught.
And: this is first true with ourselves. We must first accept who we are before we can begin to change. Tara Brach’s beautiful line comes to mind here:
The path to healing begins with self-compassion.
Or if you prefer, Emily Nagoski has a great spin on this:
The antidote to shame is self-compassion.
“True accountability must be consensual”
Mia Mingus is my favorite writer/practitioner on the subject of accountability. This whole piece is breathtaking (hat tip to Beth Tener); here’s a taste:
What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation?... What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love?
Wouldn’t that be nice? She offers concrete suggestions for how we get from “cancel culture” to a world of mutual accountability. The key shift:
We need to move away from “holding people accountable” and instead work to support people to proactively take accountability for themselves. (emphasis in original)
The single best exploration of this subject I’ve found comes from adrienne maree brown and a host of other practitioners of transformative justice (including Mia!), in this incredible video compilation from the Barnard Center for Research on Women:
“We need accountability that celebrates change”
I take this line from Krista Tippett in a beautiful exchange with Resmaa Menakem for OnBeing. Yes. That feels right. Here’s Mia Mingus again:
True accountability, by its very nature, should push us to grow and change, to transform.
One of the aspects of nonviolent communication that I find most attractive is its insistence on dynamic rather than static language: it’s a subtle but powerful shift from nouns to verbs, from character to behavior. This is one of the key differentiators between shame and guilt (as discussed in my last post): the shift from “I am bad” to “I did something I regret.” It creates space for agency, and introduces the possibility of change. Erik Torenberg again on the use of nonviolent communication:
You not only want behavior to change, you want their underlying motivations to change.
Indeed, I see the process of accountability as fundamental to transformation; I’m not sure we can make much progress without it. Stephanie Lepp’s research on “how do people change” found that transformative experiences consistently had one thing in common:
They reveal to us the difference between who we think we are and who we actually are, or the difference between the impact we think we're having on the world and the impact we are actually having on the world.
This is what accountability, properly practiced, can do: illuminate a blind spot (the gap between intent and impact), and provide a supportive environment for transformation. Doug Hattaway also reached this conclusion in his case studies of successful large-scale social movements:
Connecting your cause to people’s authentic aspirations is the key that can open the door to durable attitude change. It moves your audience beyond empathy to self-reflection.
But it’s not enough to perceive the gap: we have to believe that change is possible. Sarah Peyton calls this a “positive disconfirming experience”: it is the unexpected delight of experiencing our brain’s neuroplasticity… our own capacity to change.
Toward mutual responsibility
Speaking to one microcosm of cancel culture (the discourse over white fragility and anti-racism), George Yancey offered a powerful call for “mutual responsibility.” He concludes:
How do we find a solution that serves everyone, and not just our chosen group? It is both simple and devastatingly difficult; my solution is that we all have the responsibility to communicate and listen to one another.
This echoes Rosenberg’s core conclusion at the heart of nonviolent communication:
No matter how big the issue, there will be peace if each party trusts that their needs matter to the other. On the other hand, no matter how small the issue, there will be war if one or both parties believe that the other party does not care about their needs.
There are two challenges here: first the work to actually be open to considering the needs of everyone… and second to convey that openness in a way that is understood. In a disembodied online world, language is our primary tool for communication. And language matters. Torenberg again:
Language shapes perception. Literally, the words we use determine how we view the world.
I’m really interested in the transformative potential of language, and specifically what Sarah Peyton calls “the power of language for relational connection.” Peter Block said it simply: “all transformation is linguistic.” How can we use language to build relationships, community, and belonging? I think Nonviolent Communication is one powerful set of tools, in part because they’re specifically designed from the perspective of beloved community: they are a toolkit for how we engage with each other in the liberated world we all yearn for… and thus a useful roadmap for how we get there.
But with due respect to Mr. Block, it’s not all language: it’s about how language translates what’s happening in our bodies… which requires us to understand what is happening in our bodies. This is the work of somatics, of embodiment… and subject of my next post.
I want to close with this incredible passage from Shane Claiborne’s Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals:
Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is a deliberate act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evil-doer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight, but the careful arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
As I was musing aloud about my struggle to narrow the scope of this post (cancel culture! nonviolent communication! transformative justice! politics and power! the universal need to belong!) my wife said “all your posts are saying the same thing from a different lens.” Hmm. Probably guilty as charged. I like Ken Wilber’s notion of the value of theory: a good theory serves to get you to a better one.
As always, I know it’s time to wrap when I’m no longer able to tell if I’m doing justice to the profundity of the concepts that I’m trying to write about… ah, the limits of language. I welcome thoughts and reactions.
not to oversimplify a complex topic (the need for brevity can force complexity to seem simplified when more lies underneath), but: there are important distinctions to be made between the commitment to humanize all beings (to refuse to dehumanize), and being willing to validate positions that may stem from conditioning into power, rather than contain those positions and challenge them to grow, while focussing care and empathy on those who as you’re grappling with are routinely not centred.
Beginning in a relational way that insists on standards and forming a fabric - a circle of belonging - with people who have both the ability and the desire to share standards of care and ethical behaviour - then fostering the requirement to be at those basic standards as a condition of belonging - is I think the one way we can get to communities that foster genuine safety for those who are in them. Open armed exclusion can both honour the autonomy of people who cause harm and simultaneously build meaningful safety that does not get watered down by the false middle.
for example, a small nucleus of high empathy, highly ethical humans normalizes ‘here are the standards of the group’: high degree of empathy, balancing care of self, family, community, culture, and earth, commitment to grow in self-awareness, receptivity to the feelings and concerns of self and others, therefore committment to turn towards and hear when we have hurt someone and genuinely change, without evasion or manipulation or stonewalling), and then when those baselines are not met, the limbic norm becomes ‘well of course this is expected, come on, this is how we do things, we’ll do it with you,’ and in the percentage of cases where that cannot happen, that person has to leave. They can change and belong again but the necessary paradox is that the one condition of belonging that makes true belonging possible, is the willingness to excise those who genuinely do not care about others or are unwilling to challenge their own conditioning into dominance. They cannot be centred in ways that break the entire fabric, but they can be told to go in ways that humanize (and that allow return when genuine change has happened, but not without that). This is absolutely necessary because without this boundary, shunning - one of the most powerful forms of social control humans possess, very very underestimated in an individualist culture - is primarily and most often used as a tool to maintain systems of oppression.
It's no coincidence that there are answers, and great ones like you bring to light here Brian, that undermine their goals in their very thoughtfulness. Few are in a position (BB and other notable exceptions aside) to realistically do cross-cultural accountability work at a mass scale. In my opinion, it's not something that can or should be put upon the shoulders of individuals. That paradox is an underlying feature of the bind you point out between PC and cancel culture.
The only answer can be in a system shift. We've been lulled by stories generated by hyper-individualist and quasi-nihilistic cultures about Source (the System) that say Source is unknowable. With this, we create a loop of pressure back on ourselves, by giving ourselves the responsibility for creating knowledge out of the unknowable. Ego-wise, we've engendered a sense of self-importance within the pressure we have created as humans to be a stand-in Source of Knowledge and Understanding. This puts us in conflict with real Source. That conflict is second only to death avoidance for the depth to which it afflicts our ability to navigate reality and our places in it -- individually, but especially collectively.