When I was a freshman in college I met my first transgender friend. That’s not to say that there weren’t people in my high school that have since come out as trans, gender fluid, or any other identity. This was just the first time I came across someone who was actively transitioning.
He was into cosplay and had posted some of his early work on social media. I didn’t understand at the time that his male gender was as engrained into him as my female gender is in me, so when I recommended that he cosplay as Vasquez from Aliens, I thought it was a great idea. The character is female but appears masculine and carries a massive weapon into battle, often with her male counterparts taking up the rear.
I have so much respect for how politely my friend told me that he didn’t cosplay women. At the time I had no idea how hurtful this may have been. For someone early in their transition, just passing as their chosen gender can be a challenge. And here I was saying he should undo all that hard work.
He and I are more acquaintances now for no other reason than being in different circles, but he’s still been one of my frame of references for staying in touch with the transgender visibility movement. I’m so thankful that he didn’t immediately write me off and allowed me to learn over the course of our friendship.
This is why cancel culture can be more harmful than helpful. If he had simply unfriended me or worse, publicized my misunderstanding, I never would have become as open minded as I like to think I am now. I no longer think that altering one’s gender is a minor attribute. I don’t question someone’s preferred pronouns beyond ensuring that I am using them correctly. In fact, I don’t really involve myself in their decisions around gender at all. It’s a personal matter that I only need to be concerned with respecting.
I’m going through a similar process now understanding minority cultures in the U.S. As a white cis female from a middle-class New Hampshire family, to say that I am privileged is an understatement. I have had numerous advantages personally and professionally that I now see is not even close to the standard. In my goth high school days, I had the “life is pain” mentality that is common for the clique. Now I know my life has been significantly easier for little more reason than my race and social class.
Again, if someone judged my concern for minority difficulties based on how I was in high school, I would not have been able to educate myself on the situation now. There seem to be two very different messages out there about how to address people that misunderstand cultural climates either now or in their past. Either we seek to expose them to varying perspectives in the hopes that they will expand their minds, or we cancel them.
The former appears to be the go-to for our friends and family; the people we desperately want to share common ground with. The latter is reserved for celebrities and public personas. When we find someone we allowed to attain a level of widespread fame has misused that platform in the past, we immediately slap a #cancel on them and move on to the next person.
In certain cases, this can be justified. No one is going to say Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein shouldn’t be judged on their past behavior, but in less criminal cases we aren’t giving the person a chance to transform their platform for the better. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel and YouTuber Jenna Marbles are just a couple cases of people that have been “cancelled” for past transgressions who could instead be given the chance to renounce their behavior and turn to more enlightened endeavors in the future. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but if they aren’t given the chance to learn from their mistakes they will never be able to become allies for the unheard.
We know that people meet criticism with criticism. Look no further than the now-infamous case of Man vs. Food star Adam Richman who lost his show and public life after getting into an Instagram battle when he used the thinspiration hashtag. If my friend had berated me for my cosplay recommendation, I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have still come to a place of acceptance for gender transitions.
People want to be understood. They want to grow. They want to be the best version of themselves. And if we jump to “cancelling” them before they are able to understand what they did wrong, they will never have the opportunity to expand their knowledge.
There’s no need to recount the various cultural difficulties and inequalities we are facing in the U.S. It’s impossible to ignore them. But we cannot discount the opinions of others that we don’t agree with. We should always seek to learn and to evolve. Where some see riots, others see injustice finally getting the media airtime it needs. Where some see alternative lifestyle choices, others see the light of freedom they’ve longed for. Where some see a medical hoax, others see the chance to become a more collectivist society.
We never stop learning, so to assume that the position someone once held is at the root of their identity is to diminish them. To cancel a person imprisons them in a moment of mistakes and misunderstanding. To enlighten them toward a place of shared understanding should be the goal, and we should never stop trying to achieve it.