Cancel Hierarchy

Cancel Culture is an agent provocateur who has infiltrated the Left.

I first made this statement in a classroom setting, only to watch the instructor immediately turn pale and give an awkward preamble that, “We are here to critique each other’s arguments, not each other’s positions. And if anyone disagrees with, or becomes offended by Alexandria’s presentation, they should try to express their offense at the argument, not at her”. It was a valiant and well-stated preparation for my brash opening of Pandora’s Box. My heart went out to her palpable moment of panic, for I do not envy any teacher their nerve wracking position of vulnerability atop the classroom hierarchy.

Don’t worry – no humans were cancelled during the making of this article.

It’s time to escape the circular firing squads and clean up our house. It’s time to perceive and admit that the oppressions we aim to fight in the world are actually systemic within our movements, embedded in the structures of even some of the most progressive organizations. Isn’t it also time to recognize and understand that it is a grave mistake when we are ruthless to individuals, and blind to systems?

Loretta Ross is absolutely correct in her assertion that we should call in, as opposed to call out. This means we can still address what is viewed as a transgression, but do so in a constructive way that places the issue or oppressive behavior in the cross hairs, not necessarily the individual. We can try to engage with the issues, change the system that produced the oppressive behavior, and maybe even liberate both the transgressor and the transgressed via communication, turning a potential cancellation into solidarity, into mutual aid. Lemons into lemonade.

Which will it be? Calling in or calling out? That depends greatly on a usually ignored, but highly invasive structural feature within progressive movements – hierarchy. Not only does calling in take more effort, guts, and community support, but add that to occupying a lower rung on a hierarchical system, and the scales tend to tip steeply towards calling out. Obviously, it would be better if the objective was not simply to denounce a perceived oppression, but to elevate the positive value being defended. Engage with the issue, as opposed to turning it into a zero sum game where one wins a cheap shot, the other loses potentially everything, and we all collectively lose sight of where we want to go as a movement, as well as losing numbers, confidence, solidarity, and heart. But hierarchical relations are not conducive to the type of work required to call in. In fact, they make it near impossible.

Cancel Culture has infiltrated the left as an extension of our hierarchical society, where in order to rise, we must trample. Cancel Culture is a function of hierarchy, of systems of power and domination. Within our movements, as in society, it is structurally possible, accepted, and even celebrated to grab influence, to take power. Cancelling someone is a way to do this simply by calling them out and casting them down.

It is true, Cancel Culture is a complex issue with multi-faceted entanglements and sources, and there are people whose behavior is so egregious that it does warrant being called out and they, in some way, canceled. But the culture of cancelling is, at its core, yet another destructive function of hierarchy. It decimates solidarity while breeding short-sighted, fear based, winner take all behavior.

What is to be done? How can we stop Cancel Culture infiltrating our movements? It turns out that the same strategy that is effective against traditional infiltration, is also an effective antidote to Cancel Culture. The logic is simple: if an organization has no structural mechanisms for grabbing influence and dominating, if there is no centralization of information and power, and no homogenous, cookie cutter activist persona to imitate, then the organization is not vulnerable to infiltration by any person or antithetical phenomenon. There are no means of dominating, no secrets to expose, and no unthinking mold to fill.

This strategy has recently been championed by an activist network called Real Utopia: Foundation for a Participatory Society. Rooted in liberating values, the “Parsoc” vision also encourages a strategic focus on praxis, building organizations and movements that reflect the vision’s stated values internally. For example, think of a familiar scenario – you join a movement that espouses liberation, yet you encounter the same old systemic oppressions inside the movement. If I go to a meeting of a group who calls for feminism, yet I see men overwhelmingly chairing meetings, making speeches, and women overwhelmingly organizing the chairs and taking notes, I am either not likely to return, or I will need to speak up and try to change things. In the context of hierarchical structures, the challenge to overcome is automatically framed: “How can I rise from my low position?”. If we’re honest, the clearest and most well trodden path is to take down someone above me – the higher the better.

What if I did not need to take someone down, or even to rise, to be heard? This is what Real Utopia and other participatory organizations aim to facilitate, not by avoiding honest debate and open communication, but by eliminating the hierarchical setting. Participatory systems and institutions structurally encourage and reward the behavior of calling in, as opposed to calling out. Calling in becomes the automatic response, instead of the most difficult route. These structures both protect internally against the oppression we seek to eliminate from society, while also eliminating the possibility to expropriate the fight against oppression itself, in order to grab influence or power. If you are not content being oppressed while fighting oppression, I recommend it.

The same participatory principles can be applied beyond the organization to the level of wider movements. For what is a movement anyways? Are we the grand sum of all our progressive components, including a diversity of thought and practice, yet sharing solidaric, liberating values, and behaving as a strategic bloc? Or, as is too often the case, are we an ever more fragmented and shrinking coalition, a lowest common denominator movement, that can only get behind the remaining crumb that we all still agree on? When we fail to eliminate, or even notice, hierarchies from our internal organizing, crumbs are inevitably all that survive the clashes and cancellations. This difference may seem nuanced, but it is the difference between revolution and a revolving door.

We must answer the question of what is to be done, in actionable terms, about Cancel Culture and the Left’s overall susceptibility to infiltration by forces that cause us to tear ourselves apart. Simply put, movements need to operate in ways that reflect values that establish vision. We need to clean up our house, practice what we preach. Through participatory, non-hierarchical organizing, where all participants are agents of revolution, empowered to continuously engage with and develop ideas and practices in non-dogmatic ways, the Left as a movement will escape from the clutches of Cancel Culture and other agents provocateurs.

We will again inspire, grow, and get back to the business of liberation.

Alexandria Shaner is a sailor, writer, organizer, and activist. Based in the southern Caribbean, she is an instructor at the School for Social and Cultural Change, a contributor to Znet, and active with The Climate Reality Project and