Skirting The Issues: Reflection and Growth
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a person in this world who inevitably will harm others, especially in the context of queer and trans communities. For some queer and trans people, especially those with other marginalized identities, this may be the only community where all their identities are allowed to exist in full bloom. But what happens when we harm another within or outside of the community and the community responds with cancel culture rhetoric? Where do we go to be affirmed in their queer and trans identities, and who is left to affirm their imperfection and capacity to grow as a human?
I write this all in the context of parsing through the hurt and harm that I have caused recently in my personal life. I feel lucky my inner-community has received me as merely a human, equally complex and capable of harm as themselves. I feel lucky that they have seen and acknowledged my goodness, trusting that I will use this as an opportunity to deepen my understanding of myself so that I can better recognize the conditions, fears, and beliefs that led me to cross both explicit and implicit boundaries.
To begin, we must discuss hurt and harm. Clementine Morrigan, a writer who discusses cancel culture, notes that hurt and harm are not the same thing. Hurt can happen when someone crosses unknowable boundaries, when there are disagreements, when there is conflict, or when there are mismatched expectations. When someone is hurt, accountability is not needed because there is not anything the person knew they were being held accountable to. When someone is hurt, showing care and concern is appropriate, and agreeing to future boundaries is essential in setting up a system of accountability. Harm can happen when explicit or implicit boundaries have been established and violated. When there is harm, accountability is appropriate.
When we try to resolve our interpersonal conflicts and we conflate hurt with harm, we are participating in cancel culture. That is, we use hindsight to say, “you should have known there was a boundary, or that this would harm me, and therefore you need to be held accountable.” However, “should have known” is a tricky metric – sometimes the person truly should have known, which would make it a harm, and sometimes the person had no way of knowing, which would make it a hurt. For example, imagine the last time you made coffee for your friend and they said, ‘please do not add cream to it.’ There is a clear, implicit boundary that you should also not add milk to it, which you surely can be held accountable to. However, is there also an implicit boundary that you shouldn’t add sugar? That you shouldn’t make it iced? Perhaps they said “please don’t add cream to it” because they don’t like cream, in which case sugar and ice may be a welcome gesture of kindness. However, perhaps it is because you are a white, cis man, they are a Black non-binary person, and they do not want you to infringe upon their autonomy with this power dynamic in the background. If they hold the second view and you thought they held the first, you will be surprised by their hurt reaction when you deliver them coffee that has ice and sugar in it. Even worse, if you never try to understand or are never informed about why they were hurt, you will continue a pattern of crossing implicit boundaries due to your privilege. Cancel culture would have you publicly called out for not seeing your privilege and exile you from the community, while also demanding a statement of accountability that you are unprepared to give because you do not understand why you have caused hurt.
As I think about an alternative to cancel culture in practicing accountability, I think about the roles that everyone must play in preparing for and responding to harm. In preventing hurt and harm from occurring in the first place, I ask: Were boundaries sufficiently discussed? Were there other signs or indications from past interactions that a boundary should have been established but never was? Was the boundary an implicit, cultural one (such as interacting with privilege) – one that the hurt person expected you to be aware of and one that you expected yourself to be aware of? Or was it one that you were surprised to learn about?
In understanding harm that has happened, I ask: Is deepening your understanding of yourself to learn why the harm occurred part of your accountability process? If you were aware of the boundary, what within you compelled you to cross it? Was there a response or reaction you were looking for in the other person that was meant to quell an insecurity within yourself? Have you communicated your own understanding of why the harm happened to the person you have harmed, taking full ownership of any external or internal factors that may have caused it, assuming they have consented to listen? Do you have ways of demonstrating this?
Of the person harmed and of the community, I ask: Have you given yourself the space to process and feel what is actually coming up for you? Are you conflating hurt with harm? Are you receiving the person who harmed as a full human, capable of growth, and have you communicated that to them? Are you viewing them in the worst light possible, or are you putting effort into seeing their goodness? Please note: In some situations, I recognize the harmed person must fully shut themselves off from the person doing the harm, and these questions are not meant for those instances.
My questions are only meant to deepen our curiosity about how we can better hold the humanity of one another – they are not a comprehensive guide for accountability. I leave you with a quote from Rumi: “Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times / Come, yet again, come, come.”