Cancel Culture: Where Does the Block Button Begin and End
Written By Myles E. Johnson
Technology is integrating with our lives at an intense rate whether we like it or not. This is both bad and good. Technology gives up convenience. Theoretically, it allows us to open up our lives now that we do not have to be concerned with tasks that can be done by computers or folks willing to make jobs out of what we no longer desire to do. Technology offers us the space to be human instead of taskmasters.
What technology cannot do is be human for us. There was a friendship that I held for almost a year until it turned toxic, and I wanted to distance myself from the person. I did so quickly and sharply. I even extended this to social media where I blocked the person from engaging with me on any social media platforms. Within months, it was almost as if the person was dead. I had begun to live my life without any memory that this former friend ever existed. Until I saw them underneath the dim lights of a club, and I realized the person was not dead. They were living, and I couldn’t block them in real life.
This is a dissonance that I live with in my daily life, but I also see echoed throughout my whole generation; our ability to swipe left on what we deem unattractive and we block people with ideas and arguments that we find less than suitable for our own lives. These dismissive navigational practices coupled with the anonymity of the internet often encourages a relentless toxicity described as "preferences," "personal politics," and "self-care.” However, my dissonance between where this can end and begin alarmed me and made me wonder if I was the only person experiencing an overlap between my social habits and expectations in the digital world and the material world.
The answer to my question was quickly answered. My friends began to put their trust in me about their concerns about what to do with canceled artist and public figures and where does the decision to disengage or engage a person leave them on the moral spectrum. I began to be fascinated with the fact that there seemed to be no space for my friends to hold the complicated feelings they had about a person because they felt an internal pressure to disengage, even if nobody would actually know if they decided to continue to or not.
When engaging toxicity on the internet, it is easy to quickly rectify a toxic behavior with disengagement, but what happens to those we choose to disengage with once we log off? Are we still safe and are there ever instances where this disengagement stifles us instead of creates a healthier environment for the majority?
When someone does something especially atrocious like sexual violence, disengagement is often considered the universal answer, in hope if not always in deed. However, is disengagement because a tone or idea someone expresses doesn’t align with your own feels antithetical to accomplishing any type of peaceful environment amongst a diverse group of people?
Holding this also allows me to acknowledge nobody is owed forgiveness, space, or platform. Yet, when thinking of conversations with my friends and my own experiences, I wondered if I owed a certain type of performance to disengagement. My feminist beliefs and my belief in restoration caused me to take qualm with how I previously interacted with people in my personal life, digital world, and media that made me comfortable. I felt that I had to be the example of the radical justice and healing that I often theorized about in spaces with people I perfectly aligned with.
I called my ex-friend and we spoke about what made me uncomfortable and I held their humanity in every sentiment. I even held their humanity during the moments that I harshly disagreed with them. I refused to push them into the binary that my emotional self desired to push them into, spaces that made them my own personal villain in the comic book of my life. The conversation concluded, I still disagreed, but I didn’t feel the need to block them in digital or material life. Instead, I felt pulled for us to coexist without interacting with one another like fish and birds— not because someone was evil, and someone was good— but because the elements we needed to survive happily did not exist in our interaction. And that was okay.
Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.