UPDATE: This post is not about the healthy aspects of cancel culture, i.e. marginalized voices speaking up against offensive content online. That is healthy and needed, and we ALL need to be speaking up when we see something harmful being done. What this blog hopes to address is the white-on-white public shaming/personal attacks that make learning, healing and improvement (which are sorely needed) more challenging.
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I made a recent post on Instagram about healthy shame vs. toxic shame, and someone asked me about the relationship between cancel culture and toxic shame. It's such an important topic that it warrants its own blog post. In the the following paragraphs, I will be discussing the relationship between cancel culture and toxic shame.
First I need to define cancel culture. Cancel culture, as I'm defining it, is the social phenomenon of withdrawing support for, and publicly shaming someone after they've done or said something considered to be offensive. This typically happens to celebrities and influencers, but similar things can also happen in peer groups. The nature of the shaming is often quite vicious, and being "cancelled" typically results in people unfollowing this person en masse on social media.
So what is toxic shame? To reiterate from the post, healthy shame is empathy for the person we harmed (e.g. "I feel bad for doing that"), and toxic shame is internalized shame and self-objectification (e.g. "I AM bad for doing that"). When I say self-objectification I mean seeing ourselves as an object that is only as valuable as our usefulness, appearance, wealth, etc. In other words, when we objectify ourselves, we don't feel as though we have inherent worth as a complex human being, we're only as good as what we do or have.
In my opinion, both cancel culture and toxic shame/objectification are a result of complex developmental trauma, which unfortunately most people have experienced to one degree or another. Complex developmental trauma is, simply put, complex trauma that interferes with our development. This can be very obvious, like abuse, or very subtle, like well-intentioned missattunement by our parents. (If you'd like to do a deeper dive on this, watch my free masterclass. I go into much more detail about both complex and developmental trauma, and it may be helpful for understanding this in a more meaningful way.)
When we're sitting with a lot of unprocessed trauma and toxic shame, it is very difficult to see the nuance of a good person doing a bad thing. We automatically demonize (objectify) the person, and label them as "bad." Similarly to self-objectification, we deny the complexity of their existence, and we turn them into a "bad" object. This kind of all-or-nothing, black-and-white, dualistic thinking is extremely common, and a symptom of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).
To illustrate this further, I will use racism as an example since we're seeing this a lot. Cancelling can start when a White person (we'll call her "Jane") says something racially insensitive on social media, and a person of color (we'll call her "Amanda") expresses in the comments that she's been harmed by what was said. Jane believes that she's not racist, and because Jane hasn't processed her own trauma and shame (and doesn't understand racism), she might get defensive and gaslight Amanda. This compounds the impact of the harm on Amanda, because on top of being harmed, now her experience is being invalidated. This is something Amanda has experienced a lot in her life, and this repeated experience is very traumatic. Amanda may shut down or take it back to avoid conflict (dorsal vagal complex/freeze), exit the situation, or attack Jane (sympathetic/fight/flight). All of these are valid responses to trauma. As bystanders witness this interaction, a shame pile-on often begins.
So what's happening for the bystanders? There are a number of possible things, and I'll explore two primary ones. For people of color, sometimes it's legitimate rage. If someone has been oppressed, victimized, gaslit, etc., seeing that happen to someone else can be re-traumatizing. That rage gets pointed at Jane (sympathetic/fight), who now represents both present and past bad objects. I have a lot of compassion for this response, and it makes sense to respond this way. I want to be very clear that it's not the responsibility of people of color to educate or manage Jane, and the response of anger/rage is valid. To say otherwise is tone-policing and victim blaming, which is additionally traumatic.
For white bystanders, it's quite different. What can happen is that when we believe deep down that we are bad, and we see someone do something bad, it triggers our own feelings of toxic shame (which is an aspect of White fragility). If we haven't done the work to process our terror and shame, it can be too painful to sit with, so we project the shame outward on to the other person. This is called projective identification. We're essentially protecting ourselves against our own feelings of badness by attacking/shaming someone else. Then when this public shaming starts to happen, it can trigger a fear for others of being ostracized if they don't join in on the attack, or be similarly labeled as "bad." If they're carrying toxic shame, it's very likely they'll join in.
It's worth mentioning that often times there doesn't even need to be an Amanda in this situation. Sometimes just imagining that someone like Amanda could be hurt is enough to trigger projective identification from another White person, which still leads to the pile-on. I actually see this happen more often. Regardless, when the shame pile-on begins, the results can be quite devastating. Many suicides and suicide attempts have taken place as a result of online shaming.
It gets worse. The public shaming aspect of cancel culture is one of many forces that helps keep racism alive. That’s a big statement, so here’s why I say this: the threat of public shaming discourages learning by keeping people frozen in fear and shame. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to learn how to do/be better when missteps result in mass public shaming.
I want to be clear: it’s very OK (and honestly a gift) to let someone know if they’ve said something harmful so they can learn to do better, and it's important for your experience to be acknowledged. What ends up being counterproductive is the mass shame pile-on, because it’s antithetical to healing and growth.
So if you're a White person being accused of being racially insensitive, what do you do? If I could wave a magic wand I'd get everyone on the planet into sessions with NARM therapists/practitioners, or other healers trained specifically in C-PTSD. In the meantime, these things can help:
First, if someone tells you that you've harmed them, listen. Don't jump to your own defense. Their experience is valid! Even if you meant well, your words can be harmful to others. This doesn't automatically mean you're a bad person, it just means that you harmed someone unintentionally.
Second, apologize! Even if you had good intentions and didn't mean to be hurtful, if you've hurt someone, apologize to them. This is an expression of empathy, and it validates the other person's experience. This validation is healing for them, and connecting to your empathy can actually be healing for you as well. Try to remind yourself that you're not an object. You're a complex human being, and that it's possible to do something bad without being a bad person.
Third, practice being curious about your own shame, and observe it. It's easy to act out (defend yourself or counter attack), or act in (beat yourself up), but both are counter productive. Asking yourself a simple question like "What is being triggered here?" or "What is this shame about?" can be helpful. Notice if you're wanting to objectify yourself as a "bad person." What is that about for you? This is a deep exploration and will likely require some support, but it is a very important inquiry. Being curious and observing ourselves takes some practice, but like most skills, it can be learned with time.
Fourth, if you notice yourself wanting to shame someone publicly, be curious about that too. Is shame being triggered for you? If so, what is that about? What would shaming this person publicly (rather than simply educating them or messaging them privately) be doing for you? In other words, what intense feeling would that help you manage or relieve? Is there another way for you to manage or relieve that feeling? Is there something you're wanting to signal about your own "goodness?" If possible, bring your focus to yourself rather than projecting your feelings outward.
I acknowledge that introspection is very difficult when we're triggered. We may need to step away and calm down before we can examine this. I also acknowledge that getting support is unfortunately a privilege that many don't have access to, so please don't shame yourself if you're unable to get help. For those who do have the privilege, I believe we have a responsibility to do this work, and hold space for others as they work through their trauma responses. Yes, I'm asking you to take the high road, and let others react how they need to react without taking it personally, and apologize. I know this isn't easy, but doing so helps provide a corrective experiences for people who have been traumatized and gaslit.
If you're White and you see someone like Jane say something racially insensitive, instead of publicly shaming her, educate her. This gives her an opportunity to reflect, and learn something. If you're not attacking her she'll have less to defend herself against and be more receptive to learning, which is incredibly needed. We've all been socialized in a racist culture, and un-learning harmful messages is essential. Of course if Jane is unapologetic and insists on her righteousness, then calling her out publicly is warranted. It may not truly teach her to think differently, but it will hopefully at least get her to stop doing/saying harmful things.
I leave you with this: People do not learn through shame. Shaming may result in compliance, but compliance is not the same as learning. Shaming is usually only successful in teaching people to hate themselves or others, and both can have tragic consequences. If our society is going to heal, then deep, embodied learning and unlearning need to take place. I hope we can all support each other in this critical process.
Edited by Rebecca Prolman. Additional edits made after receiving excellent feedback from @persephone.persimmons on Instagram to clarify that the burden of education and managing reactions falls on White people and not POC.