10 Ways the Left is Vulnerable to Cancellation Campaigning and How We Might Overcome This Tendency

The US and many other countries stand on the brink of fascism, world war, and climate chaos.  Meanwhile, the US left is in a state of paralysis, or collapse, or something along those lines.  Most of the best organizers across the country face a deluge of online disinformation about them, amplified by both nefarious actors as well as by well-meaning, self-styled activists who are engaging in some version of speaking truth to power by publicly attacking the reputation of a local organizer every time they post something online because they are guilty of one transgression or another.

To put it more directly, most of the best organizers across the country have been canceled.  That is, they have largely been rendered ineffective due to the cloud of suspicion that surrounds them wherever they go, especially online.  I don’t probably need to explain why having a cloud of suspicion around you at all times makes it difficult for you to do good organizing, or to do a lot of other things.

When you have the cloud around you, you are toxic.  Any association with you will lead to the people associating with you having to spend time and energy defending their actions and looking into the allegations surrounding you.  Regardless of whether they think there’s anything legitimate about the accusations surrounding you, people will tend to avoid you, for their own safety, comfort, peace of mind, etc.  They may also tend to do so, in order to avoid any group they’re associated with getting bogged down in some kind of controversy no one has time for, that would distract from important work.

By their own admission, the US and many other countries have lots of intelligence agents doing provocative things online, stirring up trouble of all sorts, fomenting division between and within communities, movements and organizations, and spreading suspicion about individuals as well.  These are standard practices which are frequently exposed, when secret (see Cointelpro and many more recent examples).  Aside from being keenly aware of the existence of these programs and agents, there’s probably not a lot to be done about them.

But so much of this kind of divisive work is done, or is amplified, or initiated, by well-meaning people who would consider themselves to be activists and members of the left of one kind or another.

I don’t have any idea whether I have anything of value to say to those who are completely convinced that cancellation campaigning is a useful way to advance society or some segment thereof.  But to those who have doubt about the tactic, maybe I have some worthwhile thoughts.

Over the past two decades of being canceled and seeing this tactic going on on a large scale — in my world first in Germany, and then much later in the United States and to some extent elsewhere — I have observed that the tactic of spreading disinformation and trying to cancel events or stop them from happening in the first place is most effective in the more libertarian-minded sectors of the left milieu.

That is, the tactic seems to be most effective in exactly the section of the left that I have historically been most at home in and most associated with.

And it’s not hard to see why.  There are specific tendencies here that are easy to exploit, especially if we’re not aware of the fact that there are all kinds of efforts at exploitation of these tendencies going on.  In case it’s helpful to anyone, I thought I’d try enumerating some of these tendencies, and how I have seen them being weaponized.  Maybe if some folks are aware of the bait they’re taking, they can remove the hooks from their mouths.

Weaponizing Egalitarianism

The left, and the libertarian sections of it in particular, tends to cherish the notion of collective organizing and collective action.  The left also has had its own issues with cultish and dogmatic groups and leaders, and people are understandably wary of this sort of thing.  This makes it easy for someone to find support for the notion that someone needs to be criticized for being too individualistic, too overbearing in their organizing efforts, or exhibiting too much in the way of leadership qualities.  As with any of this stuff, the criticism may be overt, in the form of public comments on social media threads, or more in the form of whispered rumors.

Weaponizing Antiracism

One of the most central contradictions in this settler-colonial society is, of course, racism, and how it is continually used as a tool for keeping the population in a pliable state, easily manipulated, divided, and conquered.  But what we see time and time again are groups losing the plot with internal accusations and counter-accusations over microaggressions and demonstrations of implicit bias.  We’re talking in some cases about some of the most effective organizers and organizations doing things like fighting for rent control or a living wage being nearly destroyed over allegations that someone made an inappropriate joke — allegations which upon a little investigation turn out to be completely ridiculous.

Weaponizing Antifascism

The US is on the precipice of a potentially fascist future, with the rise of Donald Trump.  Similar leaders are on the rise in many other countries, for the same sorts of reasons.  Corporate media and social media platforms freely peddle lies and promote blatantly fascist ideas.  While this situation is an obvious, massive problem, social media platforms are loaded with people who, in the name of antifascism, are constantly attacking anyone with a few thousand followers on YouTube who interviews a rightwinger, accusing them of “platforming” and “collaborating.”  There are reasons the left develops a reputation for being against freedom of expression and inquiry.

Weaponizing Trans Liberation

Trans people, historically and currently, are disproportionately victims of discrimination and violence, and one of the theaters of struggle for the trans liberation movement has been around trans access to many different spaces in society.  Another group in society that is currently and historically victimized by discrimination and violence are women, generally.  Sometimes trans access to contested spaces in the society brings trans interests in conflict with women’s interests, depending on how a person or group looks at a given situation.  Because of this fact, trans liberation can — and often is — used as a vehicle to denounce many feminists as transphobic, and in turn, trans activists get denounced as misogynists.  More typically, someone is accused of a microaggression towards a trans person such as the use of the wrong pronoun, and thenceforce continually vilified wherever they appear online as transphobes.

Weaponizing Believe the Victim

After centuries of so many victims of violence not being heard or believed, such as women and children subjected to male violence, prominent cases of the most horrendous practices have come to the fore, with people like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein going to prison and dying mysterious deaths.  Meanwhile, particularly in the more libertarian sections of the left, the notion that the victim should always be believed, and even that they should never be re-traumatized by having to talk about how they were victimized, has become a more and more commonly-held belief among certain elements.  The fact that this approach makes it pretty easy for someone to make an unsubstantiated accusation that needn’t even be described is mentioned only in hushed tones, in these circles, lest the person mentioning this obvious problem be the next to fall victim to being called an oppressor, an accusation for which there is no defense, where the only acceptable punishment is constant denunciations and permanent exile of some undetermined kind.  What seems to happen more often than completely false allegations of bad behavior are allegations of something like an unwanted hand on someone’s back that somehow morph into some kind of rape.  The reality on the left is there are a lot of traumatized people making accusations about each other that should definitely not be believed at face value.  People need to take each other seriously, without falling prey to this absolutist nonsense.

Weaponizing Safe Space

As far as I know, the concept of safe space came out of the movements for women’s liberation and movements for the liberation of other marginalized groups in which there was a widespread feeling that separate space was necessary for people to communicate freely and not be subsumed by others within their movement, like men, or heterosexuals, or whatever the case may be.  This isn’t the way the term is understood by the cancellation campaigners going after people for violating some kind of safe space policy, whether spoken or unspoken.  In fact, if someone claims they feel unsafe around another person, that itself is all that’s needed for a person to be disinvited from an event or group, in some of the more dysfunctional segments of the libertarian left.

Weaponizing Speak Truth To Power

Finding ways to communicate the dire realities in the world to those with actual power in such a way that might stand to influence the situation has been known to work now and then.  Challenge authority and all that.  In the best cases, where it’s not just virtue-signaling, the eloquent speaking out against oppressive power can help build powerful movements for social change.  This idea has taken on a new form in the libertarian left, with public attacks against someone perceived to be holding a position of slight power within an organization seen to be righteous, because of the relatively slight power difference between the people within the group in question.  All this kind of public, online challenging of “power” tends to do is destroy organizations, one after another, under the weight of the resulting cancellation campaigning.

Weaponizing Dedication 

The kinds of practices that are regularly being engaged in by significant numbers of actual people involve the active shunning and isolation of former members of their communities, by spreading half-truths and lies, knowingly.  Maintaining this sort of dynamic is emotionally draining for both the attacked as well as their attackers.  Within the libertarian left circles, there is much talk about how hard it is to overcome the programming that taught some of us to be subservient to others of us, and how hard it is for those of us who grew up feeling entitled to be better members of a collective, to follow the leadership of marginalized people, etc.  So when you feel that you need to do something that is really uncomfortable — like publicly denounce a comrade and participate in destroying their career — you can justify your behavior, even though it doesn’t feel right.

Weaponizing Police and Prison Abolition

In libertarian left circles, particularly among people who talk about police and prison abolition, people also talk about accountability, and resolving conflicts within society without the use of police or prisons.  Of course, the vast majority of the world manages to have far less violent societies than ours, with far fewer police and far fewer people in prison.  But there is an element within the libertarian left in the US that would never report a crime to the police, because of their opposition to the US system of injustice.  What replaces the call to the police can sometimes be assumptions of guilt and cancellation campaigning against the person who might or might not have been accused of a crime, which is all openly justified under the guise of “accountability.”  We’re not supposed to call it a cancellation campaign, and certainly not vigilante justice.

Weaponizing Security Culture

Hit lists are real, there is real reason for organizers and others to be concerned about violence coming from the far right and from the state, and even more reason to be concerned about destructive trolling, hacking, surveillance, and so on.  It’s all real.  What this awareness tends to translate into in much of the libertarian left, especially online, is a complete mess of assumed identities that change all the time.  In so many instances there is no way to verify who anyone is, and the vulnerability to anyone wanting to throw a wrench in the works is obvious.  There are clear advantages to being anonymous, but that also applies to infiltrators, provocateurs, and undercover agents.  The idea seems to be increasingly acceptable in certain circles that we should respect the anonymity of anyone who feels the need to be anonymous, no matter what accusations about someone else they may be making.  This is obviously a very easy thing to abuse, and it is often abused.

I’ll stop there, though it would be easy to continue with other examples of the way solid left values get continually distorted and used as tools of division and destruction, whether wittingly or with the aid of social media algorithms and agents working for one state or another.

And lest the forest be lost for the trees, the overriding point I’m trying to make here is not that minor examples of bad behavior should be overlooked, or that we should reserve the tactic of cancellation campaigning for the major ones.  We should rise above the whole puritanical, witch trial mentality entirely.  We should have goals that necessitate building coalitions with people we don’t like, and then we should learn to work with those people for the common good.  We should cut the shit.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.