2/21/21 (that was yesterday) is marked “JK Day” in my Google cal. This is because February 21, 2021, based on the pub date of 12/1/20, is Day 83 in my latest book, The Sober Curious Reset, which is an interactive workbook that takes people through 100 days alcohol-free.
Each “day” has a different question for readers to consider about their relationship to alcohol, some writing on this, and an exercise, or “thought-experiment” to help them apply it to their life (I feel like I’m writing marketing copy right now, apologies, bear with me).
Some days also have a quote from a celebrity figure that loosely relates to the theme of the day. On Day 50 for example (“What am I really craving?”) we have Marianne Williamson: “People crave comfort, people crave connection, people crave community”; while on Day 64 (“Is my life better without alcohol?”) Ozzy Osbourne reminds us that “Being sober on a bus is, like, totally different than being drunk on a bus.”
Day 83 (“Did I have a hidden rock bottom?”) features a quote from JK Rowling, quite a famous one: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” Day 83 has also been giving me night sweats since October last year, after I read the manuscript in full for the first time since I’d written the book in April, while recording the audio book.
I had forgotten the quote was there. When I contacted my publisher to ask for it to be removed, I was told that it was too late; the paperback had already gone to print. Fuck. In the time between the final proofs of the book being passed and this exchange, Rowling had been subject to perhaps the cancelation of the century. Given the rule of cancelation-by-association, would Day 83 be when the trolls came for me?
I’m not going to wade into the JK debate here. Suffice to say that having had mixed feelings when it all kicked off (she’s entitled to her opinion, isn’t she?), and having since read everything I can find on the subject, I have landed on the side of the trans community.
But the fucked-up thing, is that overall I have spent less time worrying about the harm that JK’s comments have caused trans people, than I have about the potential repercussions for me of her quote making it into the print edition of my book (it has been removed from the eBook and audiobook).
This is what I see as the chief failing of cancel culture; while it does a great job of drawing attention to an issue, rather than channel energy, attention, and resource there in an ongoing and impactful way, it perpetuates a culture of fear and paranoia where an individual is made the scapegoat for our larger societal ills, and it becomes each person for themselves.
Which is most definitely only half the story. Undoubtedly, the cultural reckoning of this moment in the history of human interaction, will have positive repercussions in the months and years to come. In the case of JK, perhaps it will mean less kids are brought up on the Harry Potter books.
I was too old to have got caught up in Potter fever when it first hit and picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time on vacation three years ago. A millennial friend insisted it would give me important insights into the spiritual worldview of his generation. But I found the binary “good vs. evil” rhetoric less than magical. Wizards vs. Muggles? Isn’t that the fucking problem?
It makes sense that I am biased against cancel culture. As a professional writer I have a vested interest in not being canceled, as my career relies on my having a visible “platform” off of which to launch my books into the ethers of the internet.
I had a hard time selling my new book proposal, partly down to the fact that my social media engagement isn’t what it should be. This being partly down to the fact that I’ve stopped engaging so much on social media out of fear of inadvertently saying something that gets me cancelled. Hence, in part, this newsletter.
Not that anybody reading this couldn’t screen-shot something they deem problematic, share it up, and get the party started. Ugh. This is the state of hypervigilance that has come to color my writing life—“hypervigilance” a term that’s mainly associated with sufferers of PTSD, and which I’ve noticed being used increasingly commonly, especially in relation to our lives online.
Along with other terminology that has traditionally been applied to people who find themselves in co-dependent and abusive relationships: gaslighting; boundaries; self-abandonment; psychic violence.
We discuss this subject on the latest episode of the Sober Curious podcast, which features the writer Clementine Morrigan and her partner Jay, hosts of another pod titled F***ing Cancelled. Queer, leftist, anarchists both, they are also anti-cancel culture as a form of reparative justice, and approach the subject from a trauma-informed, 12-step perspective (they’re also both sober).
The irony being, since Clementine has been the subject her own Instagram cancelation, that having them on my podcast is something else that could get me cancelled. In fact, this may well already be in process (I haven’t dared to look at my IG page since I shared about it on Friday).
My level of hypervigilance about this? My therapist thought it was telling that I experienced several nights of sleeplessness in the lead-up to publishing the episode where I woke, heart hammering a hole in my chest, at 2.18am (the air date was Feb 18th).
One of the thought/fears that’s been keeping me awake since October last year, has been genuine concern about whether it’s time to think about a new career. On the one hand (and I ask myself this completely seriously on a weekly basis), does anybody really need to hear what another straight, white, thin, cisgender, middle-class, middle-aged Karen has to say? About anything?
I know how that line comes across, and this is not me being defensive or looking for sympathy. Part of me can’t actually believe that I’ve managed to make a living getting paid to write about stuff for this long. Meaning can’t believe I took for granted what an unbelievable privilege this has been—and what enormous responsibility comes with having a public “voice.”
Something that cancel culture is asking every writer (not to mention every editor, publisher, blogger, and social media oligarch) to reckon with. I question whether I am smart enough, or resilient enough, or whether I have enough time to do enough research for the job. (But then I did sell that book, and well here we are, and so I guess let’s just say for now that I am committed to doing my best.)
When media first went online in the late 2000s, the general rule of thumb among us journalists was “never read the comments.” Given the level of hate that tended to be spewed there, it was understood that this would be a fast-track to losing the confidence to every publish anything again.
I remember reading that Zadie Smith stayed off social media altogether for this very reason. Now, not reading the comments (or even creating a boundary by switching them off, as Clementine has) is seen as another cancelable offense.
I’m actually thankful to the people who’ve called me out online for various transgressions over the years: for cultural appropriation, white silence, my thin privilege. Not least for the fact that—my audience typically being made up of more introspective, empath types, thanks to the nature of my work with The Numinous—these have more often than not been prefaced by words along the lines of: “I love you dearly, BUT …” They didn’t have to be that nice.
Becoming more aware of my unconscious bias when it comes to race, colonialism, fat phobia, and ablism, for example, has in many ways made me a better (meaning more conscious) writer. It’s certainly made me a better (meaning more politically active) citizen.
It’s been humbling in important ways. And it’s also muffled me, and made me less trusting, more anxious, more cynical, and less optimistic overall. Less quick to follow my creative instincts and to experiment with new ideas.
Maybe this is the point. Part of becoming a better citizen means having empathy for the suffering of others, thus inspiring us to take action and make personal sacrifices on the behalf of those less fortunate—and I doubt that any level of mistrust, anxiety and apathy that I might feel about the state of the world today even comes close to how these same feeling states, and the factors behind them, impact those born Black, brown, queer, trans, neurodivergent, poor, or physically disabled.
Let alone my fear of being cancelled and losing my livelihood being anywhere near as real of a threat as any one of daily existential challenges faced by these same individuals. But then I ask myself, can all of us knowing how it feels to live in a perpetual state of fear really be the end goal? Isn’t social justice work supposed to be in service of the opposite? Maybe cancel culture is about a bit of both.
The ability to hold more than one truth at any one time is a skill we are all being asked to master in the now age. Like when I describe myself as being “not sober and I don’t drink.” Or the paradox that—as it pertains to free speech—”intolerance must not be tolerated,” as popularized by philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book, The Open Society and it’s Enemies, written in defense of liberal democracy following WWII.
At best, binary this/that us/them thinking leads to the reductive categorization of diverse groups of individuals (all X people think Y is harmful/offensive), when what’s needed is solidarity where it counts (every human being, regardless of their identity and beliefs, has a right to a living wage, shelter, bodily sovereignty). Something else that arose from my conversation with Clementine and Jay.
All of which represents about 20% of the thoughts I’ve been having about cancel culture in the lead-up to JK Day. The rest are still in the notes app on my phone; crumbs of ideas that crumble apart when I work them for too long.
Like the question of whether it’s more important to create inclusive spaces – where all are made to feel welcome regardless of identity, beliefs, and life experience (and therefore trauma imprints/triggers) – or spaces made safe by the exclusion of certain individuals; or the one about whether oppression is in fact what creates identity – do I only need to claim “I am this” in opposition to what “I am not”?—and if we can erase oppression/opposition without also erasing identity.
Or whether growing up in a home carpeted with eggshells, where keeping secrets was framed as a sign of emotional maturity and where my self-expression still has to be carefully managed so as not to risk triggering others’, leaving gaping holes in our capacity to understand and connect with one another, is what makes my chest clench up when I think about this stuff.
Whether or not cancel culture is a good thing is essentially un-figureoutable (sorry, Marie Forleo!). But besides my hypervigilant obsession with the subject being an attempt to understand and thus increase my odds of outsmarting it (as if), it also fascinates me because it is the most tangible daily example of us literally re-learning how to co-exist in a world without borders.
The internet the country where we all live now. A place where the old rules of conduct no longer apply. I sometimes picture us like migrants from the pre-digital era, crammed together on a life-raft made of memes crossing choppy waters to who-knows-where, all fighting for our place.
But instead of micro-managing each-others’ micro-aggressions, shouldn’t we be spending more time talking about how we can respond to the actual immigration crisis?
Thing is, I don’t have an answer to that. No one person does. Or for how we tackle climate change; or systemic inequality; or white supremacy; or the violent nationalism that led to the Jan 6 storming of the capitol (side-note: an IRL representation of how online “mob-mentality” operates). All interrelated, of course.
And so instead I channel my generalized mistrust, anxiety, and apathy about the world today, the kind that wakes me up like an alarm at 2.18am, into more and more notes on an app in my phone. Into another post like this.
Signing off for now until next time. If you can’t find me on social media in the meantime, it’s because I’ve been fucking cancelled.
This essay originally appeared in my newsletter, Like Nobody’s Watching. Subscribe HERE.