It was three years ago that Donald Trump, amid sexual abuse allegations and with the help of some less-than-ethical marketing tactics, contrived to defeat Hillary Clinton and win the presidency of the United States. His victory was carried on the backs of conservative white women.
It was two years ago that actor Alyssa Milano, in response to the sexual abuse allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, brought activist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement into the social media mainstream.
And it was one year ago that Christine Blasey Ford, in the midst of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Justice hearing, recounted her own experience of sexual assault during their adolescence.
This year, #TimesUp for redemption and everyone is #Canceled. It is undeniable that the past three years have served as a sort of gendered crucible in the United States of America and though there was no symbolic, gender-shattering event in 2019, we have seen a never-ending flurry of feminist and, more broadly, social justice call-outs and cancellations.
Looking back over the past three years, I wonder how the current culture of rapid-fire, trial-by-a-jury-of-our-social-media-peers relates to the deep and gendered psychological and sociocultural upheaval that was evoked by Trump’s election, the #MeToo movement, and the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing. We need to begin to think about how the social traumas our country has experienced since President Trump’s election are related to call-outs and cancel culture.
More op-eds than I can count have called-out cancel culture. It’s become trendy to describe it as lazy, petty, and toxic armchair activism.
In October of 2019 none other than Barack Obama spoke out against cancel culture, denouncing it as a form of self-aggrandizing that has little to do with activism. Many resonated with — even celebrated — his words. Online fora teemed with concern that the toxic practice of public shaming has come to be mistaken for ‘wokeness,’ but despite all this attention a connection has yet to be drawn between the massive social justice traumas we have experienced since the election of Donald Trump and the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which fit hand in glove with call-out culture.
Ever since these three pivotal, gendered moments — Trump’s election, the #MeToo movement, and Kavanaugh’s hearing — there a never-ending source of micro-aggressions and triggers can be found in both our daily discourse and the news. Just as a traumatized person is often compelled to repeat aspects of a traumatic experience, we, too, through social media, find ourselves immersed in major and minor threats to our cultural values. It’s true that social media platforms are sites where one can find allies to help cope with traumatic experiences. But they have also become places where the culturally traumatized can exercise hyper-vigilance, find evidence of threat, be triggered, experience re-traumatization, and finally attempt to triumph over assailants vis-à-vis call-outs and cancellations.
Trump’s election, the #MeToo movement, and Kavanaugh’s hearing can, in other words, be read for some as a form of gender re-traumatization and, for others, as a new crisis of gender-based expectations. These three traumatic moments have forced both women and men into polarized social roles. Women were thrust into the role of victim on a scale wider than perhaps had previously been appreciated, and men were thrust into the role of perpetrator. This nexus caused American society to rethink gender, power, and the personal experiences that cut across these axes.
Each of these events brought into high relief the everyday contours of gender violence in America. Even more, and perhaps more painfully, they laid bare so much that women have had to discount in our own experiences.
Take #MeToo as an example. As memories flooded into America’s collective consciousness through thousands of social media posts, there came also an agonizing recognition of all the trauma that women have internalized: from childhood sexual abuse to the enormous sweaters worn in the dead heat of our adolescent summers so as to conceal emerging breasts, from eating disorders designed to stave of menses to the freshman-year assault that was maybe your fault anyway for trusting the wrong person, from the daily slew of catcalls to the boss you were in love with who said he “adored” you, from the “bad sex” it wasn’t worth saying no to when other signs of resistance proved futile to the violent rapes and the epidemic of domestic violence. It takes a minute measured in time — and a lifetime measured in courage and grief, fear and rage — to put that all together; to realize: “Oh yeah. Me too.”
Given both my own lived experience and my training in psychology, women’s enormous capacity to internalize should have come as no surprise to me. But the size and shape of what we carry and the contortions of self-hate we perform in order to keep our silence never ceases to amaze.
As the Kavanaugh hearing unfolded, for example, I was astounded by my own capacity to simultaneously experience a surge of male-directed rage while also whispering to myself: “I hate you, too. I hate you for the things that have happened to you and for your failure to prevent them. I am not proud of you and I will never, ever forgive you.” I vacillated between those two psychic spaces in my relationships with both men and women. I did so in a way that required a deep re-working of my relationship with myself and with others, a re-working for which there was no short-hand. And, despite the social media chorus of women who made it possible to feel united in a shared experience of abuse, I faced this rebuilding task largely alone.
Let me offer one particular moment from my own experience in the hope that it might stand in for the way this confluence of traumas was being processed around the country. It took place during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings when my partner, a man, mused aloud: “I guess I don’t know how to take the public circus around thirty-year-old accusations that have yet to be substantiated. It sort of feels like we are throwing away ‘innocent until proven guilty’ under the #MeToo movement.”
A surge of destructive rage arose inside me. While he spoke, I quietly crouched in the corner of my mind, a panther ready to pounce. I said nothing at first. I was cold and distant for the remainder of the evening. A gendered trope, yes, but I am proud to say that I wasn’t stalking my prey. Instead, I was circling something else. I was circling the question: “How do we talk across the gender divide?” Some place inside me I knew that I didn’t want a fight, and that, when we spoke, our conversation had to be a dialogue or I would stow it away. I would hate. I would not forgive.
Looking back on this now, it feels like a very important moment precisely because the intimacy of our relationship placed a demand on both of us that we speak to be heard and not just to vent, and that we listen with the shared goal that our love might survive the conversation. That capacity had not previously been necessary in the privacy of my own mind — or in the experience of listening to other men call into public radio to espouse similar fears about decades-old missteps becoming an adult man’s undoing. Nor had it been necessary when joining the #MeToo movement on social media, singing my own painful memories into the echo chamber of Facebook. And it is not required in today’s call-out culture wherein we cancel people and institutions for their social justice imperfections.
I would like to say that our conversation was nuanced and exhaustive but it wasn’t. It was just good enough. I risked sufficient vulnerability to let my partner glimpse the depth of my hurt on the topic, and I explained some of the personal experiences that made it almost impossible for me to even speak to him about Christine Blasey Ford without shaking. At the same time, I maintained a solid enough internal dam against my own anxiety, anger, and anguish to prevent a tidal wave of hurt from capsizing the tiny raft of our relationship.
For his part, he listened compassionately, but he didn’t stop thinking things through from his own perspective. He spoke of his fear that all men could, in the court of present-day “wokeness”, be found guilty for having been socialized in a misogynistic culture. He spoke of scapegoating an individual for “crimes of the times.” He spoke of prematurely cancelling any possibility of personal growth. In response, I spoke of a world in which the scales of justice are so sorely tipped in favor of men that they are almost always presumed innocent — with the result that women are not heard. I explained that there is a fundamental tension that has to be navigated right now whereby women must be heard in order for “crimes of the times” to be properly seen as crimes against humanity. I went on to say that for women to be heard we must be believed and to be believed the attacker must, in some measure, be presumed possibly guilty. I empathized with the fact that this isn’t justice as we like to imagine it but stood my ground in insisting that this is justice as it needs to be right now, so we can eventually regain our equilibrium. I explained that when he uses his own fear of condemnation to distance himself from women like Christine Blasey Ford, he implies that his need to self-defend against lesser accusations comes at the cost of being able to share a woman’s horror at even the most extreme examples of misogyny. I told him that his fear is the problem. It is the reason women can’t be heard about the issues, large or small, that affect us.
But I also told him that his fear was valid, and I tried to reassure him that women do see these behaviors on a continuum and that we are very, very angry. I agreed that we demand to be heard and to be believed, even at the cost of a man’s presumed innocence because we do not view men, on the whole, as innocent, and that our chorus is not without undertones of rage. I expressed sympathy for men’s indoctrination into misogyny but insisted on personal responsibility for undoing some of that programming. And I told him I felt that men and women would have to survive both women’s rage and this moment of overarching male culpability together in order to arrive at a better place. I told him it was my opinion that the best thing a man could do was to tolerate his own anxiety, accept some measure of guilt, trust women to differentiate between crimes large and small, and to offer up possibilities for redemption accordingly (much as women for centuries have had to trust the judgment of men in our shared social institutions).
I felt heard. And, at the time, I was very pleased with myself for the conclusion I had come to in this one-sided conversation that had passed for a dialogue. But looking back on it now, as we live through call-out and cancel culture, I once again find myself circling something uncomfortable: are we actually offering up possibilities for redemption that are in accord with the nature of the offense? Or are we crucifying all social justice “criminals” regardless of their place on the continuum of guilt? Are we engaged in a dialogue or merely venting rage? Or are we experiencing PTSD symptoms in the wake of the myriad traumas that have unfolded since 2016?
I believe a traumatic response is contained in our social media pop-up courts of social justice.
In them I see less failed, lazy, or toxic activists and more wounded people who grappling to maintain integrity in their identity and sources of meaning. I see people constantly at war to defend their values and maintain a sense of safety and righteousness.
I feel compassion and kinship with these wounded warriors and yet, like many, I am critical of cancel culture. Which means that I concede that cancel culture teeters uncomfortably between activism and vigilante justice. It also means I recognize the absence of dialogue, redemption, or rehabilitation in our call-outs and cancellations.
We cannot heal this way, but certainly we can do better than just canceling cancel culture and those who partake in it.
For Part 2 of this essay, click here.
Andrea Singer is a doctoral student in Clinical Psychology at The New School for Social Research. She is interested in the intersection of the personal and political, particularly with respect to traumatic experiences.