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McGrath ’24: The ‘cancel culture’ debate reimagined: envisioning restorative justice in the online discourse

Last month, historian and Staff Writer at The Atlantic Anne Applebaum laid down a searing indictment of so-called cancel culture — a phenomenon that she has deemed “The New Puritanism.” In it, Applebaum rails against the modern mob’s failure to tolerate opposing viewpoints, arguing that the lack of due process in online spaces has effectively silenced anyone who disagrees with the progressive consensus. 

Throughout the piece, Applebaum consistently contrasts the mob justice of the internet with that delivered by the criminal justice system. While this tenet of her argument is clearly undermined by the American legal system’s well-documented history of racism and classism, this comparison to the criminal justice system does nonetheless provide a useful new framing for the debate over cancel culture: If restorative justice is a viable alternative to carceral forms of punishment within the legal system, then applying this non-retributive framework to conflict within our online discourse could similarly prevent future harm. 

Restorative justice, with deep roots in Indigenous practices, is an alternative to forms of carcarel discipline. “Restorative justice begins by focusing on the needs of the people harmed and then extends to incorporate the needs of all impacted individuals, including those who cause harm,” explains Yoana Tchoukleva, a civil rights attorney working in Oakland. “No one is left behind, no one’s needs are disregarded. Everyone is always and already part of a web of relationships.” 

By placing the wants and needs of the victim at the center of the mediation process, survivors of harm are able to regain the control taken from them during their initial victimization. Several municipalities and school districts have introduced restorative justice programs with great success. For instance, in the early 2010s, schools in Oakland, California began implementing restorative justice tactics as an alternative to “zero tolerance” suspension and expulsion policies. As of 2014, over 90% of Oakland teachers surveyed reported that “restorative practices were very helpful or helpful in managing difficult student behaviors in the classroom.” In a more legal context, restorative justice solutions oftentimes directly address the harm that was caused — if the offender stole a bike, for example, they might be required to cover the cost of purchasing a new one. 

The criminal justice system — with its overly punitive sentencing laws, staggering recidivism rates and investigative procedures that routinely retraumatize survivors of crime — generally fails to serve both the victims and perpetrators of harm. In a similar way, “canceling” someone for pernicious comments fails to meaningfully address the harmful beliefs underlying them. As a result, these opinions will continue to fester outside of the mainstream discourse, leaving marginalized communities just as vulnerable to harm as they were before. 

Transferring this restorative justice model to the internet would obviously present major challenges. Harm caused in incidents of interpersonal violence is almost always more clear-cut than it is in political debates, and it is not fair to suggest that simply holding a certain political view necessarily amounts to harm in and of itself. I am not suggesting that we have a central body to police debate, but rather, that we collectively endeavor to bring an ethic of restorative justice into our online interactions. By assuming the best intentions of those who disagree with us and providing opportunities for growth, we can ultimately bring about a more just and productive public discourse. 

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but as I envision how this framework might shape my own online interactions, I keep coming back to two central questions. 

  1. How am I implicated in the systems I am criticizing? 

I find that the more time I spend online, the meaner I become. The performance incentives of social media admittedly prey upon my most reactionary instincts to reduce others to the worst things they’ve said or done — to remove people from their context, craft punchy comebacks and get likes from the people who already agree with me. I worry that this stems from my own defensiveness — as if by criticizing someone else’s “problematic” take, I can let myself off the hook for how I’ve benefited from the very systems those takes are reinforcing. With our broader political culture dominated by the chronically online, it’s not surprising that politics in general can feel defined by this retaliatory atmosphere.

With every opinion expressed on social media fair game for public scrutiny, it's only natural that when someone makes an offensive comment, some people acting in good faith may take it upon themselves to respond. The issue occurs, however, when this effect snowballs, causing the scale of the backlash to vastly outweigh the actual harm committed. And while it might be rare for someone to actually lose their job as a result of this backlash, social shame and isolation can themselves be punishments of significant consequence. In light of this cycle, I want to strive to be honest with myself about my own motivations in posting — to consider whether or not my voice will actually propel the debate forward or if I’m subconsciously centering my own guilt. 

2.  What would an ideal outcome actually look like?

“It’s easy to decide a person or group is shady, evil, psychopathic. The hard truth (hard because there’s no quick fix) is that long-term injustice creates most evil behavior,” writes abolitionist and activist Adrienne Maree Brown. “The percentage of psychopaths in the world is just not high enough to justify the ease with which we attempt to label that condition to others.” 

Just as one of the goals of restorative justice is to prevent recidivism, applying this ethic to our online spaces could prevent a similar type of slippery slope: By banishing those with unsavory views to platforms like Substack, 4chan and Parlour that boast a concentration of these fringe opinions, we risk fostering the type of cultural resentment that can lead to further radicalization. And while BIPOC and other marginalized groups often bear the emotional brunt of educating others, those striving to be allies of these communities can try to relieve some of this burden by amplifying these often underrepresented voices in their own efforts to inform the other side. 

Historically, standards defining the scope of acceptable debate have often been dictated by institutions themselves, much to the detriment of marginalized communities. For centuries, people of color have been unable to voice concerns about discrimination without retaliation. Before the rise of #MeToo, accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace were routinely swept under the rug. And prior to the fall of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2011, it was impossible to live openly as an LGBTQ+ member of the military. To argue that progressives are stifling free expression today not only ignores this history of institutional gatekeeping, but it denies the fact that public backlash is itself a form of speech that should be protected. 

As society makes strides toward equality, social codes will inevitably change. It appears, then, that the central question of the cancel culture debate is not whether those who violate these codes are perpetuating harm, but rather, how we should react when this violation occurs. We still have an opportunity to fight against overly punitive instincts in our online communities — something that is only possible when we seek to understand the complexity that 280-character interactions often can’t convey. 

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