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There is nothing more quintessentially 2019 than social justice shaming and cancellation. The poet Joseph Massey has written a beautiful poem about it. You see, Massey was cancelled as a result of untested grievances by ex-partners in what has become an all-too-familiar ritual throughout North American arts communities. Basically, it was alleged that he used his “power” and “influence” in the poetry world to verbally and psychologically harm other poets.
Of course, you can’t prove a negative, but the idea that poets wield any power is quite preposterous in and of itself. There’s a reason for the saying “drunk as a poet on payday.” But the allegations against Massey are so mind-blowingly stupid that they read like satire worthy of Titania McGrath. If Massey is indeed guilty of “severe name calling,” well then, who cares? Is this really the standard? Instead of going away, Massey decided to continue his relationship with poetry and simply walk away from the poets. He said no to being cancelled.
This is a brazen move, and one that takes courage and fortitude. Standing up to a community, an arts community especially, who band together, point fingers, and scream about your flaws, faults, and supposed misdeeds until you bend and break is painful and scary. When insinuations are hurled, and demands are made that you step away from the heat of the circle, the most natural thing in the world is to hang your head and go. Massey didn’t do that. He just kept writing.
The poem was a hit online and was shared by Massey’s hero Deepak Chopra. This should give all of us hope that when work is strong, it will find a place.
It’s a lovely piece of writing. It asks us to “vow to see / what isn’t immediately seen,” in a stunning, urgent call to action. He asks us to look beyond the headlines, the tweets, and the snark that have turned us against each other. In the world of social media shaming, we tend to focus on the accusations, the righteous finger-pointers. When the accused stand up and speak for themselves, they are discredited, their bodies of work dismembered.
But the truth is we only just have the one life. We can do what others want us to do, what they expect of us, or we can make our own decisions and determinations and live according to our choosing instead of others. No one should let themselves be cancelled without a fight.
The inconvenient truth about cancel culture is that it’s incoherent. We are all “abusers” and we are all “victims” by the ever-expanding definitions required to construct these kinds of cancellations. There is no formal proceeding, just insinuations and allegations. Words against words—not a viable means of justice. A criminal or civil proceeding has a structure, complete with exoneration or sentencing. A person can pay the price, serve their time, but mob justice has no process and no end.
Massey’s humanity and empathy are on full display in his poem. His verse asks us to think clearly and with open hearts. Online forums often insist that we do the opposite, to think the way we are told to, to close our hearts. The world of social media is where little fascists go to flourish. Twitter and Facebook are the digital killing fields of our culture.
Legacies are destroyed, work is discredited, all because the individuals themselves couldn’t live up to unclear standards. But these standards are shifting and mercurial, and cover a wide breadth of behaviours and attitudes.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is their latest cancellation. His relationships with women outside his marriage were already known about, and it does no one a service to rake them up and spill them across the internet. It is an effort to destroy the legacy of a man without whom race relations in the United States would not have moved forward. Instead of taking a cue from King, the social justice crowd follows the path of J. Edgar Hoover, snarking and snitching their way from conspiracy to conspiracy, from allegation to allegation. Doesn’t that just say it all?
Massey, with his poem, has shown them a path forward. The next artists targeted by the mob can look to “Poem Against Cancellation” and find hope for their creative futures. This is why the social justice crowd is starting to dig up our honored dead and cancel them instead. The dead can’t uncancel themselves.