Action, inaction and ‘cancel culture’

Published 2022-05-06 category: thoughts

The health and inclusiveness of a community can be affected by action, but also by inaction. In this post, I'll share some reflections on banning pretty much objectively bad content and on issues with the word ‘cancel culture’.

When a political party tries to attract voters with racism, sexism and homophobia, should all pages on their website be banned from a healthy, inclusive coder community? Last week I got into a discussion I didn't expect I would get into… it could be summarised as this question. (Spoiler alert: to me, the answer is yes).

In one of my communities, someone had shared a link to a blog post on the website of a controversial, far right political party that perpetuates all sorts of racism, sexism, homophobia and misinformation. Just like that, a link in the #general channel that all members join by default, for roughly 7000 people to see, who signed up to collaborate on and talk about code. The blog post itself didn't contain such things per se, but the party owns the website.

In short: I feel such a link should not be allowed on a healthy, inclusive coder community. Failing to moderate this content can make those marginalised by systemic racism, sexism and homophobia feel unwanted. It signals that this community has no specific problems with the link, at least not specific enough to ban it. It could unintendedly scare people away and send out a message about who belongs. Should a community prioritise people who want to share or say whatever they want or people who don't want to have racism, sexism or homophobia affect their daily lives?

My point is… healthy, inclusive communities do the work to make people, especially those who are marginalised, feel wanted. For so many reasons. Sure, banning the post and maybe even the poster could make the poster feel unwanted. That's not great. But… we've got to prioritise the marginalised over the marginalisers (after all, they did post the link).

Do I feel links to all political parties should be banned? No. What about the extreme left or the somewhat right, where does it end? I don't know, but in this case it was easy to tell as this was a party with years of controversies that reasonably go against community spirits. Community members and managers should speak out if they can, remove problematic content actively and reinforce principles. Because not doing that is a message too, and it reinforces something too.

‘Cancel culture’ is the wrong word

I ended up calling for moderation and got into some conversations after that. One person called my request an opinion. Challenging my inner pedant: non discrimination is part of human rights declarations that almost all of the world's countries have signed. A request to reduce discrimination isn't an opinion, it's an attempt to claim basic human rights that whole societies agree on. Except, maybe, in communities of human rights scepticists, but this wasn't one of those.

Others said moderation would be like ‘cancel culture’ or ‘censorship’. The book We need snowflakes by Hannah Jewell, which I happen to be currently reading, does a great job dissecting these frames and the people who use them. Very often, she explains, those who claim to be cancelled ostensibly still have their platforms, be it their job or their status.

The word ‘cancel culture’ is a red flag. When you hear it used, it's worthwile considering how it's employed to shift who the victim is. In The Netherlands, we recently had football club director Marc Overmars ‘cancelled’ for sending female staff photos of his genitals. The word ‘cancel culture’ suggests calling out wrongs is an activity people do for little more than their own entertainment, and that Overmars is now some kind of victim, rather than the women he had literal power over. He was hired in the same position by a Belgian football club weeks later and his Wikipedia page hardly mentions the event (it does have a list of honours). A more apt response would be to ask: how are the women doing?

I am getting carried away a bit, but let's also consider ‘censorship’. Again, paraphrasing Hannah Jewell's book: is one truly censored if no government put rules in place to limit their free speech? If one can still say whatever they want in plenty of other places? If they aren't arrested for what they did? The ‘censorship!1!’ exclaimers should compare what they're exclaiming about to actual censorship that sadly happens in various states around the world.

In healthy communities, asking someone to remove content is simply a request to stop their harm in a specific community. Because it happens to be a community that has a principle on whose feelings to prioritise. Because that matters.

Comments, likes & shares (18)

Anneke Sinnema, Patrick Sanwikarja, Laura Whitehead, Maëlig, Sarah Federman and Ville V. Vanninen liked this

Ville V. Vanninen reposted this

I guess a lot depends on the context in which the link was posted? Personally I bought some books written by the leaders of far-left and far-right parties to better understand why so many people are voting for extreme parties.
It's about the values in the linked party vs those of the community (eg I like my communities to be antisexist, antiracist and not homophohic, so links to parties that are not compatible are out regardless of context)
Trying to build an inclusive community is a noble goal. And if you want to build a community where guilt-by-association is the norm, you are entitled to do that in a liberal society. If the link didn't contain anything problematic, call it what it is: feelings based censorship.
a) precisely the point of the post… this is not about the poster or whether they are ‘guilty’ of anything, it's about marginalised people who quietly leave the community. b) it was a link to a problematic party, that's problematic in itself. c) Censorship is something else
I'm missing the precise context of course, but let me ask it differently: had the link to the blogpost been to a pastebin with the exact same content, would you have taken the same action?
I would not, pastebin is pretty neutral afaik (I'd consider most things pretty neutral…)
So if an article is published on a newspaper website, and that website is owned by someone who says things you disprove of, you wouldn’t link to it? I support your absolute freedom to do this outside of a government context, but calling that “not censorship” is a stretch.
there's lots of people who say things I (dis)approve of, that's not the point, I'm specifically talking about an organisation that has a long history of sexist, racist and homophobic incidents, and how that is problematic in a community that tries to be inclusive
I guess this is isn't as easy to generalise as I hoped 😬
Well, people have written 600 page books about this stuff and have been trying to figure it out for 2000 years. So nothing wrong with writing to try and figure out thoughts/actions 😃.
My bad. I meant: that you wouldn’t allow linking to it by someone in the community if the owner of the news website says things that make people in the community feel uncomfortable.