The toxicity of cancel culture to the arts
Let’s talk about cancel culture and its inherent toxicity, and what it has done to the creative arts. I was there for its genesis, bore witness to its germination and evolution, and was ultimately a self-made victim of its madness to try and wake up the self-proclaimed woke. My efforts of using poetry as a means of protest got me shunned, bullied, blacklisted, and ultimately culminated this past year in getting me banned from attending the largest writer’s conference in America, AWP, without explanation. I can assume who was behind it, the same group of individuals I have battled on and off over what I believe to be a sacrosanct pillar of the arts, freedom of speech, through nothing more than online disagreement and poetry itself.
My first whirlwind experience with online shaming culture occurred in 2015, but I had already been embroiled in its movement and argued vehemently against it. When a group of poets petitioned successfully to deplatform their peer Vanessa Place (ironically also getting her removed from AWP), I argued against it, going so far as to write an essay defending her, for which I was roundly attacked and mocked. When these same individuals came after other poets for crossing imaginary lines of offense, I defended the offenders, be they Kenneth Goldsmith, Joseph Massey, J. Bradley, Bobby Parker, Timothy Green, etc. The accusations against these writers and editors amounted to differences in perception, a difference that determined their voices no longer suitable to be heard, and demanded their silence. This is a dangerous precedent to set for the arts, and it is not one that is wholly original, as it has been done many times before and has been warned against many times over. What sets this current trend apart from the previous ones is the ease through which these ideas are shared among like-thinkers on social media, cultivating large factions of cult-like followers that say “our opinions are the only correct opinions, and all others should be burned.”
From what I could determine in observing the trend of shaming in the literary community, it seems rooted in this idea of fourth wave feminism and identity theory, which has built itself up through MFA workshops and critical theory, into this impenetrable fortress of group-thought and tone-policing. Somewhere along the line, it became apparent to the followers of this line of thinking, that using identity as a mode of power indeed had a very viable currency, due to its manipulation of white guilt and the historical dominance of sexist and racist ideals. Basically, a culture formed wherein any disagreement could be nullified by invoking buzzwords of the movement such as “mansplaining, gaslighting, micro-aggression, appropriation, etc” along with accusations of sexism/racism because those accusations are of a type almost impossible to rebuke and disprove, and the nature of the accusations if they take hold in the public sphere have the power to irrevocably injure the accused by means of reputation and the court of pubic opinion. Basically, if you get enough people shouting that someone is racist/sexist/misogynist/whatever-ist, the general opinion will hold that accusation as true, despite a lack of evidence or veracity. Again, a very dangerous precedent, but one that comes from people who say things like “believe all women,” “kill all men,” etc, without a hint of irony to be found.
It was due to all this activity in the poetry world, that I wrote my first protest poem meant to provoke response from this faction of cultists. This poem was titled SCOWL, and was modeled upon the famous Allen Ginsberg poem Howl. During the time I wrote the piece, I was doing response pieces to poems by many of my favorite poets for a 30/30 challenge I was participating in for Tupelo Press. The poem was meant to highlight all of the hypocrisy in the identity movement’s call-out culture, the near religious cult status of it all, and then in its final stanza, it was meant to show how despite everyone’s different experiences holding an undercurrent of conflict, through empathy a common understanding could be reached. Although no one batted an eye about the poem when Tupelo Press had it up on their website, when the revised version was published by Revolution John in August, the literary world erupted in outrage, the usual suspects stirring up the most drama on Twitter and Facebook. The editor of the magazine had a bit of an anxiety attack over all the attention and the pressure from the online mob and writers calling for their work to be pulled, his colleagues removing their names from the journal, and he deleted his entire online magazine. Not to be silenced, I then published the poem in a chapbook on Amazon. The editor later re-established his website and re-published the poem as well.
The reaction to the poem was one I had expected, but honestly it was a bit overwhelming. The choice of this subject matter matched with the Howl model was purposeful and played out in an ironic fashion, resulting in much the same calls for its removal and calls for my utter decimation as a writer. There were threads online about the poem garnering hundreds of angry comments. Before comments were turned off on the poem itself, there were calls for me to commit suicide, calls for me to be beaten, threats that my career as a writer should be over. The general consensus was that I had offended the community in an unacceptable way, that I had stolen someone’s abuse narrative, that I hated women. All of this is of course nonsense. But because these opinions were shared widely, and seen by so many, the perceptions of those coming to find the work were already primed to find what they had been warned of. This is also a huge part of the problem with this online shaming trend. Once you are told an opinion on something that has garnered an outrage response, your reaction is inherently to seek out the culprit of the response, and to look for what you have been told to look for, and then to share in the outrage. This is part of the communal aspect of mob mentality. It’s thrilling to take part in the stoning. To see yourself as righteous. To add your own torch to the crowd.
The fallout from publishing that poem chased me no matter what I tried. Maybe it was in my head, as some friends advised me, and I should just keep pressing on with my work. But try as I might, I noticed a steep decline in the amount of work I was able to see published. From the previous year and the year in which Scowl was published, to the next, my published work dwindled down to hardly anything at all, and I wondered how the people who stirred up this outrage were capable of casting such a wide influence over independent literature. Through a fellow poet who had also suffered at the hands of the literary mob, I was given information about a secret online Facebook group called the Binders of Women and Non-Binary Poets. I was also given access to this group through a pseudonym account, and in there I saw a glimpse of the way their influence manifested. Names were shared to be targeted. Poems that were offensive to the group were shared and targeted for calls of boycott and pressure to the editors for removal of the work. One of the members started a Twitter account listing people to be considered problematic in indie publishing. My name was on it, along with several other people I had come to know. All a very disturbing and calculated play for power meant simply to boost the members of the group and to take down those who opposed them. As far as I know, the group still exists and operates, though in its general daily use, it functions as a fairly innocuous gathering of familiar voices seeking to support one another. The problem is, so many like-minded individuals can become a force of tyranny when used for operations of thought policing the online poetry scene. And this group is used for this purpose all-too-often.
I got frustrated with my inability to find publishing opportunities after the whole Scowl debacle. Wanting to move on from it, I self-published all the manuscripts I had accumulated of previous work, so that I may focus on trying to publish new work under a pseudonym. But I was not comfortable with this plan either. It seemed like I was letting the shame mob defeat me. Then, in 2017, another online disagreement resulted in me once again being labeled a misogynist by someone whom I had previously thought was my friend, and over something so petty I had a hard time rationalizing the argument. This disagreement resulted in some poetry that caused another fresh round of shaming. This snowballed into another series of poems from me, in which I attempted to protest the culture of cancellation, through writing the most offensive poems I could possibly imagine, tackling virtually every taboo subject I had seen others accused of and that I had been accused of with Scowl, only pushing the offense content up to a virtual 11. I called the poems the Misogynist poems.
For this collection, I was basically crucified by the shame mob. It seemed I was the only person who could fathom what I had done, and the blissful irony of the whole scenario. Except for a slim few people who stood by me, the outrage fallout from this was about as severe as possible. My name was shared widely online attached to terms like “abuser” and “harasser” and “predator.” One editor went so far as to call me “everyone’s favorite rapist” and then refused to retract her statement. Keep in mind, that I only ever expressed myself and my protests of the policing of poetry by writing the exact kinds of poetry these people stated a man was not allowed to write. I have never met any of them in person, never spoken to them in person, never even contacted them directly. All of the reaction was to the poetry. They even went so far as to spread a viral meme about me in Portland literary groups, warning the poets of Portland that I was planning to move there and that I was to be considered a “danger to the community.”
Seeing all of this shake out, it’s hard to not take it seriously and consider that the effects of such spreading of harmful information about me did indeed have an impact on my prospects for publishing in the future. In fact, I’ve almost never been published since then. Most the writers I had connected with over the years through social media disassociated from me completely, and many refused to even mention my name for fear of backlash. The editor who had originally published Scowl, removed the poem from his journal and issued a statement condemning me. I was even removed from online poetry communities where I had been an active member for years, simply due to a fear of drama and outrage from others in the community. It was all pretty bleak and disheartening, but not unexpected. In effect, I was martyring myself for the principles of freedom of speech in the arts, making an example of myself of what can happen when thought policing rules over content. I accepted the notion that I would never be able to publish again under my own name. I did put out another poetry collection, a full length book about gun violence in America called Second Amendment Pastoral, that received a very positive review from Kirkus Reviews, but which has sold very few copies.
With everything that happened, my attitude toward the independent publishing community was one of resignation. It seemed the poetry police, or poetry gestapo as I call them, had won. Since I went through my ordeal, they have continued to find new targets for their reproach and their outrage. It seems there’s another new round of literary calls to action every other week. Most recently it has been happening in fiction, with authors getting their books pulled before they even make it to print. But poetry is still a hot spot of outrage as well, with poets like Rachel Custer, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Anders Carlson-Wee, and Frank Sherlock each having their own run-ins with the mob as of late. It seems the best tactic when these outrage spirals begin online is to ignore them. The people who generate the outrage thrive on it, because without it, there’s nothing to generate buzz around their online activism and presence. The outrage is their only claim to notoriety. Their work is tepid and flaccid at best, all derivative, all about trauma and identity and the body, all the same poem written a thousand variations of the same way. Without outrage to get them attention, no one would care.
The last straw with me happened this past March when I had planned on attending the AWP writer’s conference in Portland. A friend of mine and I had decided to rent a booth and sell our books there. We paid the outrageous fee of $650, but before we did we had contacted the organizers of the fair and warned them that people may protest if they found out I was attending. The organizers assured us through email that as long as we didn’t violate the terms of the fair’s code of conduct during the conference, we would be fine. All seemed great, until I received an email from the head of the AWP conference a mere week prior to the event, telling me my table fee had been refunded and that I was not going to be allowed to attend the event. Bear in mind, with this short notice and our previous communications with AWP supervisors, I was operating under the assumption that I would be allowed to attend the event without any drama. I had already ordered $300 worth of books to sell at my table, and had requested the prerequisite time off I would need for the event from my place of employment. And all that money and time would not return to me. I was even contacted by the Portland police and warned that if I tried to attend the event anyway, it would be considered trespassing and I could be arrested. I was never told why I was being barred from the event, though they issued a statement on Twitter stating that they were taking a hard-line stance against harassment at the conference. In the policy it stated that any investigations taking place into accusation of harassment, they would tell the accused of the results of the investigation and the evidence brought forward against them. These results were never given to me. With my knowledge of the group who has targeted me for my work and made accusations against me over said work, I can put 2 and 2 together as to who got me barred from the conference. It was their final way of exerting authority and control over me, their final smirking slap to my face for daring to provoke them and refute their moral superiority. And that is fine, but one has to wonder, when will it stop? I wasn’t the only poet who was attacked for wanting to attend AWP. Another poet, Michael Schmeltzer was removed from a panel over accusations of being “predatory” that had no real context or truth behind them, by the same group of accusers who have hounded me.
How long will the literary community allow this small faction of literary tyrants to exert their narrow view of morality and thought policing over what is and isn’t allowed to be published? How long will they be allowed to be the puppeteers pulling the strings behind the shadows of independent publishing, silently working their way up the ladders into more mainstream publishing houses? What is the answer to these threats of censorship by community? I don’t have the answer, but I think maybe they have provided the template through which to evoke a counter movement within the framework of their own movement. As much as they would have artists blacklisted and ignored into oblivion for writing offensive material or having disagreeable ideas, perhaps they should be shunned and ignored into oblivion for wanting to control art and police artists. I am happy to see some poets who have been formerly “cancelled” coming back strong with new work and successes. Joseph Massey has gained some positive attention recently and wrote a poem called “Poem against cancellation” that has made some waves, while Rachel Custer was a recipient of an NEA grant. These are definitely steps in the right direction, but it is time for the supporters of free thought and freedom of speech to take a stand against tactics of online shaming and reputation extortion. It is time to take a stand against the notion that art can exist in perfect and safe spaces away from trauma and personhood, to stand against the idea that artists in today’s world have to be perfect in order to be heard. It is time to put humanity back in the humanities. When these instances of outrage crop back up, and they will, just give it time, we need to have more voices defending the artists for their freedom to express themselves in any way they desire. We need to allow room for the views with which we disagree, to allow nuance to exist within disagreement, to allow the fundamental differences in perception to exist and grant art its multi-faceted interpretations that give it its life and power. Without these differences what do we have, a world where everyone is trying to say the exact same things, the things that are allowed and approved, and are therefore as boring as dirt. Let’s not allow ourselves to become boring, lost in an endless tide of homogeneity. Stand up for art, stand up for freedom, stand up for the true era of diversity, a diversity of ideas.