Grade school curriculums erase the rough edges and rotten cores of history. By the time you reach a point where any of these missing details are taught, or even accessible, the rewritten history is not easily dislodged.
I try to take this awareness into interactions with people who say ignorant things. I try to show the same patience and understanding shown to me over my many and vast ignorances. If my angle on something is better than yours, it’s only because I listened to people whose angle was better than mine.
Information is sparse even in our high-speed interconnected world. Perhaps more so because of all the noise. It’s easy to point to people in past times who Got It. Abolitionists existed, after all. They Got It. Or at least by some quirk of ideology believed the treatment of some people was wrong even if they didn’t fully recognize the humanity of those people. But the majority of people of a time fall victim to its popular narratives.
Some commentators in our modern time of social media, falling victim to the era’s narratives, will tell you that one mistake is enough to end your social existence. They call it cancel culture. I don’t believe it’s as big a deal as it’s often made out to be.
As a budding, insecure queer who didn’t understand their feelings or know anyone who might have guided me through it, I called every bad thing “gay” back when that was fashionable before a teacher explained why it was bad. “What if you were gay?” Lady, you had no idea. This was at the tail end of the plague that wiped out queer elders, so us ‘90s kids were on our own in a society that had mellowed out from the gaybashing ‘80s to the casually homophobic ‘90s. Watch “Paris Is Burning,” check IMDB, and see how many hands you need to count people in it who survived past the 2000s and how young they were. They should be alive and well, but most aren’t. Nobody beat me up, but being alone in a society that understood me as well as I understood it---poorly---left injuries that are still healing.
Does it seem dangerous to admit these things in a “cancel culture” environment? I’m sure there’s someone out there who would hold an adult responsible for a mistake made and learned from as a child, but I don’t plan to edit to suit them.
The logic of cancel culture worriers goes that one mistake is enough. I’ve made tons of mistakes and learned from them. Admitting this should be insta-pariah by the worry-logic. I think about the luck I had in having elders to pull me aside and treat me with the care an ignorant child needs. I think about how most people don’t have that, and end up making the same mistakes into adulthood where those mistakes have real consequences for others, especially those they have power over. I think about how much would have been different if I’d had even one queer person in my life who’d had any real life experience. The closest I had was a friend who I just thought was quirky, but turned out to be a trans woman when we met up again. Now I understand why her dad kept making her cut her long hair to something more masculine. He wasn’t just worried about her resemblance to Kurt Cobain.
I’ve made yet more mistakes as an adult and learned from them, often right out in public on social media. I fearlessly swing my foot around knowing it might end up in my mouth. Just like everyone who has or will practice patience with my ignorance, I understand I might be the first nonbinary or generally queer person someone has ever met.
“Cancel culture” isn’t some new phenomenon. It’s the latest growth from apocalyptic soil watered with a bloody history our institutions would prefer we forget. A hate mob on Twitter can quickly propel you to just enough temporary celebrity to bring out every kind of human, good and bad, all in one indecipherable cacophony. The character of individual messages ceases to matter because they don’t resolve as individual. But it’s not new. The din of a real mob with torches blends in with one person off to the side telling them to chill out. What’s new is that the historical targets of these mobs can now turn mob fury on others. It still doesn’t make anything better. I won’t lose any sleep over J.K. Rowling being run out of decent company for her ignorant comments on trans people, but the subculture of misinformation people like her find when confirmation shopping under the guise of research is still there. The false histories they share, the lies they cling to for dear life as they try to explain away other people’s existence.
People on the boot end of society aren’t fragile. We don’t wilt at mere ignorance given voice. We won’t “cancel” you because you said something wrong. To quote Uncle Frank in response to a family member’s kindly ignorance: “I understand that’s the best you can do.” I understand people say these things. I understand they mostly mean well. You have to pair it with something sinister before I get out the Pitchfork of Gentle Correction. I say I, not we. There are people who get out the pitchforks early. It’s usually on social media or in blog posts where there’s little threat of violence in response.
They’re mostly people whose elders, the people who might guide them to a fierce but strategic advocacy, were murdered by police or mob violence, thrown in prison for bullshit reasons, or allowed to die in a plague. People like me were left in the camps by the “good guys,” and things have only improved in little pockets of the world. And we seem to be headed toward a stark regression. If you can bring empathy for the guy who got fired from Google for circulating a paper that made his colleagues uncomfortable, you can bring it for people who are dealing with a strange world with no one to talk to who gets what they’re going through.
“History is written by the victors” doesn’t just mean the losers get to be ignorant of history. Everyone is ignorant of the truth. We didn’t know the “good guys” of World War II left people like me in the camps, or chemically castrated the gay guy whose work in cryptography helped end the war. We didn’t know the pile in that famous book burning photo was substantially from the era’s equivalent to a queer center. We didn’t know the good guys loved eugenics, then a world craze for years, and mostly disagreed with the Nazis on how to go about it. Mass murder was mostly off the table, but sterilization, forced reeducation, and stealing children was quite popular among former British colonies. Still is. Nazis took notes and inspiration from the people who wanted to punch them.
We sure didn’t know Texas didn’t get the memo on Emancipation until soldiers marched over the apocalyptic ruins of the Indian Removal Act to let them know slavery as it was practiced was over. Not that it was actually over.
Perhaps you were fortunate to have an education and experience that included these things, just as some people in that time long ago had an education and experience that led them to support abolishing slavery. This is not the norm.
All our queer elders were wiped out by malicious indifference during the AIDS crisis. Vast swaths of black elders were and still are sent off to prison in service of the so-called war on drugs, or just murdered in the street by cops and vigilantes taught to see them as Other. Indigenous peoples, who faced the worst of the victor’s attempt to rewrite history, try to piece together some kind of heritage as they forge ahead creating new culture even as people parade around in fake war bonnets whooping like idiots while braying about how they’re celebrating “The Culture.” They don’t know. They don’t listen when told, but it’s how they’ve been taught to handle conflicting histories by their elders. The people who cancelled history.
"Cancel culture" is the villain in an episode of Scooby Doo. Pull the mask off and it's just colonialism trying to steal and rewrite the history of yet more territory.
Tim Ferris on what happens when you get famous. As someone who’s been on the receiving end of an angry Twitter mob, so much of this is familiar.
Zack Airas on his racist upbringing. I grew up in more or less the same area a decade or so later and the situation wasn’t much better. A friend’s moms had a pride flag a street over, but the KKK recruiter was closer and more available. Elders steered me away from that one, too.
Netflix documentary on the 13th amendment. Free to watch.
The Case for Reparations. This is essentially an abridged chronicle of racism in the US, past and ongoing, with a gentle suggestion at the end for congress to study lingering effects of slavery.