On Learning, Understanding, and the Belief we Can Be Better

Last fall, I wrote an essay about how much I despise the discourse surrounding “cancel culture.” Not the act of cancellation, per se—autonomous collective sanction that transcends the ineffective, overly punitive, and utterly corrupt criminal justice system and is deliberated and delivered by the community can be a crucial part of social justice movements. I wanted to highlight how the Right’s claims of “cancel culture” pale in comparison to the all-out assault on public education, public history, and the safety and well-being of trans kids, Black students, and anyone the fascist right deems “Other.”

What I failed to do is offer a reflective self-indictment of liberal/progressive spaces’ complicity in creating this environment. Regardless of my attempts at clarity, I imagine I will inevitably be misinterpreted (or “(d)isinterpreted”). I am not saying that liberals and progressives are at fault for the movement spawned by the Far Right to expunge discussions about race, gender, and sex from classrooms. Whatever fault the liberal side of the aisle bears for this phenomenon cannot account for the mass devastation caused by these bans. However, I do think it is useful to interrogate that the carceral logic of social coercion—the ways in which we watch each other’s language and behavior, just waiting for a slip-up or error that we can loudly call out—is not a uniquely right-wing phenomenon. We have to be honest about the hand we’ve played in creating societal structures that are built around punishment, put-downs, and the fear of speaking up. 

I have this memory that I can’t shake of checking Sidechat one day last spring and happening upon a post that read something to the extent of “girl in my philosophy class was arguing in favor of eugenics today.” Accompanying this post was a comment thread of more than 75 guesses, asking “the girl with the red hair who usually sits in the second row?” “the girl who wears that green scarf?” “oh I KNOW you’re talking about the annoying one from New Jersey.” On and on the thread went, each anonymous user eager to identify and indict the philosophy student and accused eugenicist. You may notice that the words she used were never offered as evidence, nor was the class section identified, but nonetheless, everyone wanted to identify Eugenics Girl and clearly demonstrate that they disapprove of her words (whatever they were) and do not associate with her (whoever she is). 

This is the natural progression of the digital panopticon we’ve built for ourselves through social media—judgment, exclusion, demonstrated moral authority, and cultural congruence are social capital. The internet is effectively ubiquitous, decentralized, and permanent. Anything you say—or anything someone says about you—lives forever on the World Wide Web. Not that the formal criminal justice system is remotely functional, but in the online world punishment is essentially completely unregulated—there are no trials, no juries of peers, no court of appeals, no record expungement or redemption or reintegration; there is just sanction, and it is eternal and unmitigated. As I’ve started to reflect on these instances of online public shaming—unique from cancel culture because of its predisposition to affect the non-elite, the everyman—I’ve started to wonder if this tactic has any place in leftist politics and organizing. Is indefinitely branding people as unfixable and therefore not even worth engaging with how we build a coalition, a movement that endures, a cultural shift?

Let me be very clear: I am not saying it is anyone’s responsibility to be more understanding of bigotry, and I am especially not saying that marginalized and minoritized people should feel empathy towards individuals that engage in harmful, violent, vindictive behavior. However, I think there are many among us—particularly in our Tufts community, and primarily white people—who are not directly harmed by acts of symbolic violence and perhaps should feel compelled to engage in preventative or transformative conversations with harm-doers who act unintentionally or out of ignorance. This is a burden that rests on the shoulders of the collective community, not the individual targets of individual acts.   

Now that I have begun research on digital frameworks of sanction and online public shaming, I notice this behavior everywhere. At dinner with my friends, I hear about the girl who was racist to another girl backstage at a campus performance; no one can recall the exact remark, but doesn’t she totally seem like the type who would do that? What we don’t hear is whether there was an attempt to find clarity with this girl. Did she know what she said was problematic? Did she understand how it impacted the people around her? Did anyone attempt to intervene and make the situation safer for the individual harmed and help the transgressor learn? Sitting at The Sink between classes, I’m told about the International Relations bro who was rude to my friend, and when his name is repeated, three more stories pop up about his casual misogyny. Are they thinking about the same guy? Are there multiple IR bros who have stumbled over multiple comments, in a major decidedly dominated by a patriarchal logic that surely influences their behavior in class? 

I’m guilty of it too: I tell my friends about a boy I met at a party who made an inadvertently antisemitic comment to me, and how when I confronted him about it in an attempt to explain why that type of remark is harmful, he grew red-faced and defensive. My friends respond with stories they’ve heard, from friends of friends, about the same person (maybe) being kicked out of parties or playing devil’s advocate one too many times in class. In ten minutes, we’ve all successfully branded him among our social circle as an antisemitic, misogynistic asshole. I’d like to imagine that we could have chosen a different path. I’d like to believe that this boy who I share this campus with is not beyond repair, and that, had I been more intentional about operationalizing my personal values of transformative justice, we could have reached a different conclusion.

There must be a reasonable limit to forgiveness and understanding, and some acts of hatred truly are black-and-white, but I do think we have a culture of overcorrection that is facilitated by how social media governs our interactions with each other. Digital interactions breed opacity; there is little room for nuance, for critical intervention, or for clarity. We read things online and we decide what they mean to us with a sense of finality that does not allow room for growth. 

What I’m worried about is this: as of right now, in half of this country, students do not speak in classrooms because they are afraid of sanction by the state, and in the other half of this country, students do not speak in classrooms because they are afraid of the permanization of their misjudgments by their peers. I’ve spent a lot of my time and energy fighting back against the state-sanction side; the peer retaliation is trickier. What is most frightening to me is that students will overcorrect and not ask questions when their brains are still forming. As they receive social cues and ideologies taught to them by their parents, the internet, and popular media, they will have no place to unpack questions they have and will harbor ideologies that they cannot voice, resentments they cannot name, and curiosities that will harden into fixations. Young people need to have a proactive and collaborative space to unlearn white supremacy, hetero-patriarchal logic, transphobia, ableism, and all of the other societal ills that are woven into the fabric of American culture.

What’s taught me most about the unnecessary and overly indulgent cruelty of online public shaming as it pertains to educational settings has, in fact, been teaching. For the past month, I have served as an adjunct faculty member of the Women’s Studies department at the University of New Hampshire teaching an underclassmen course on reproductive justice. My students are mainly femme-identifying sophomores: kind, bright, young people who are wonderfully enthusiastic about the course materials and eager to learn how to be better activists and accomplices in the fight for reproductive justice in their communities. They are also students at a public university in New Hampshire, one of the 20 or so states currently operating under a ban on teaching critical race theory. They have been underserved by an underfunded public university in a constant battle with the state. They grew up in conservative towns and were dragged to Sunday school by their parents, and they are eager to unlearn the white supremacist, patriarchal ideas force-fed to them for the duration of their childhood, but they cannot unlearn it all overnight. They make mistakes. 

On the first day of class, I told them my number one rule for this course, and it is this: I do not allow recordings of my class discussions, and if I see any student post about a comment made by a classmate online, I will remove them from the course. I welcome students to record my lectures and take handwritten or typed notes on their classmates’ contributions, so long as they do not distribute these materials. The classroom space is for learning and unlearning. The classroom space is the perfect place to make mistakes, where students are able to come to resolution and understanding without the elevated stakes of adult life. The classroom space is where students should misstep, challenge themselves, be bravely curious, and speak more, not less. In order for that to occur, we all need to recommit ourselves to the belief that people are more than their actions and words and that everyone deserves the chance to apologize, redress harm, and redeem themselves for wrongdoings. 

Sarah Schulman wrote in Conflict is Not Abuse, “[A] heightened rhetoric of threat that confuses doing nothing, normative conflict, and resistance with actual abuse, has produced a wide practice of overstating harm. And that this overstatement of harm is often expressed in ‘shunning,’ a literal refusal to speak in person with another human being, or group of people.” We have become so concerned with branding wrongdoers and extrapolating missteps to be indicative of a person’s whole character that we have enabled an all-out assault on public education in this country. We demand perfection of everyone, and sanction anyone who fails to meet that bar. Perhaps we can meet this moment with more grace, more understanding, and a belief that we are all capable of being better, with the necessary support.