Article

A Roadmap Away From ‘Cancel Culture’ and Towards Transformative Justice

March 9, 2021

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With all of the exploitation and abuse in the world, it’s tempting to become numb or cynical. But adrienne maree brown, a thinker and transformative justice practitioner, is charting a different way forward with love as her guiding principle.

Her best-selling 2019 book of essays and interviews, Pleasure Activism, argues that joy is an essential part of any movement for justice—a feeling that’s easy to lose sight of while fighting against racism, sexism, economic oppression and all the other -isms. With Pleasure Activism and her other writing, podcasts, community organizing and events, brown brings artists and activists of different disciplines and generations into conversation, underscoring the idea that collaboration is essential to finding answers to tough societal problems.

With her new book, We Will Not Cancel Us, brown adds much-needed nuance to the “cancel culture” discourse playing out in mainstream media. The book focuses on ways people can lovingly hold each other accountable within social justice movements when someone causes another person harm. brown begins with the tough admission that online call-outs often start with sincere intentions for accountability but attract a hunger for outrage and spectacle—a result which feeds social media algorithms, but doesn’t necessarily serve the survivors of said harm or the larger goals of building stronger communities and movements.

Operating on the idea that no one is disposable, and that abuse is often perpetrated by those who have been abused themselves, brown asks tough-but-sensitive questions that challenge readers to reframe their assumptions about redressing harm.

Ahead of the release of her next title, Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation (out April 6 via AK Press), brown discussed the abolitionist and transformative justice principles at the core of her work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With We Will Not Cancel Us, you write about the need to build strong communities in the face of oppressive systems. Can you please speak to the importance of that in this time when people are so isolated because of COVID, and so much activism is happening online?

I think we’re in this really important, beautiful phase where we’re learning so much can happen even at a distance. But it’s a double-edged sword because so much of what is happening is happening on platforms that were not necessarily designed for us to use them to foment change and to bring down systems of harm. They were designed to serve capitalism, which means they want as many clicks and likes and as much engagement as possible. And what gets a lot of engagement is drama.

And so a lot of the meta, meta thinking around the book is like, how do we start to retune our attention towards things that are solution-oriented, things that help us build? And this is a hard time for that. We’ve been immersed in a culture of destruction for such a long time.

I think it’s really important to also have a sense of, what is the application of call-outs? What is the application of canceling people? What is it we’re actually trying to achieve? And I think what we’re trying to achieve is always stopping harm from happening. And if you follow that trail, does this actually stop the harm from happening? I don’t think so. I think it actually kind of creates these quick and shallow disposals of people.

I’m thinking about abolition all the time, trying to understand how we bring it to pass: How do we defund policing? How do we defund the prison system? How do we actually break those patterns in ourselves in order to break them in the larger world? So a lot of it for me is connected to that.

One of the things that was really important to me in the book is that I’m not saying that [call-outs are] never, ever the strategy to use. What I’m trying to introduce is some technology for discernment. Does this call-out actually makes sense for me to engage in? How do I engage in a way that aligns with my abolitionist principles? How do we ensure that the survivors’ needs are actually getting met?

What would actually create the boundaries and the spaciousness that we’re trying to give to survivors for their healing, while also helping the person who has created this offense to break the cycle of harm within them? And some of what seems to help is to have a sense that all of us get harmed, and all of us commit harms.

You write about that dynamic, about how people want to see situations as the angelic victim versus the evil perpetrator. What is the importance of not seeing that as a binary?

My friend Prentis Hemphill wrote a beautiful essay called “Letting Go of Innocence” that I referenced in the book, which I think is really important. It’s that this concept of innocence often works against us, where it’s like, ‘Oh, this innocent person was shot by the police.’ And then immediately the other side is like, ‘They weren’t so innocent. They did this, they once called someone a bad name or whatever.’ Is that a reason that person deserved to die like that?

You start to interrogate that and you find that everyone has a story that could be told about them that paints then as a victim and a story that could be told about them that paints them as this villain. It becomes very boring and binary. White supremacy has a certain view of who the villain is. Patriarchy has a certain view of who the villain is. Capitalism has a certain view of who the villain is. Ableism has a certain view of who the villain is. And throughout history, we have notoriously been wrong about who the villain actually is, or what concepts are actually villainous concepts to our species.

What I’m making a case for is that disposability is a concept that might be the most villainous for our species: to think that there’s some way we can get rid of people who commit harm, and that will remove the harmful behavior and the harmful belief systems from our communities. And when it doesn’t—it hasn’t—at a certain point we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing? And what are some alternative ways we could be spending that time to help us actually stop harm from happening, deepen our relationship with each other and grow movements that can hold difference, that can hold conflict, that can recover from misunderstanding, that can fundamentally make a case that abolition is really possible?

In We Will Not Cancel Us, you seem to focus more on the questions we should ask ourselves, without being prescriptive. Is that something you plan to follow up with in your next book? Or was it a conscious choice to resist creating a prescriptive framework?

I don’t think that we’re quite at the place where we can do a prescriptive framework. I think we’re so early in the experiment of this phase of abolition. That said, I point in the book to resources that I think are able to do a lot more of that. Fumbling Towards Repair by Shira Hassan and Mariame Kaba is an incredible resource. It’s a workbook that basically supports people who want to go through a transformative justice process. And Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha [and Ejeris Dixon] put out a book called Beyond Survival that really is like a grand gathering of transformative justice stories, case studies, lessons from people. Patrisse Cullors is releasing An Abolitionist Handbook this year, which which has this 12-step program of what it looks like to actually take abolition on as a practice.Planting Justice’s Prison Abolition Work Starts at the Root

I’m putting out a book this spring called Holding Change. That includes a whole section on mediation. I want us to grow the capacity as communities to feel like we can be responsible when harm happens in our community, that we can be collectively responsible. Some of us mediate. Some of us hold healing circles for the survivor, some of us healing circles for those who cause harm, that we can feel like we have an abundance of resources.

I also want to be realistic that, right now, we don’t [have that]. This pandemic has unveiled for a lot of us just how small our reliable communities are, and how much we need to deepen those relationships so that they can hold change and conflict and differences.

It seems like creating these networks of support on a person-to-person level is what needs to happen before abolition can be widely seen as a solution on a societal level. 

This is one of the big questions that people always ask with transformative justice and with abolition practices. Can it work at scale?

The first interactions I had with the ideas of abolition work were around the system of slavery. [For people living during that time,] it felt impossible that that system could end and there could be some other way of functioning that didn’t rely on Black people being enslaved. And I think we’re in a similar moment now. It’s impossible to imagine what our societies would do, what cultures would do, what communities would do if we didn’t have prisons.What I’m making a case for is that disposability is a concept that might be the most villainous for our species: to think that there’s some way we can get rid of people who commit harm, and that will remove the harmful behavior and the harmful belief systems from our communities.adrienne maree brown

Mariame Kaba has given incredible talks about this, that we’ve had 250 years of this well-funded prison system experiment. And it hasn’t stopped rape. It hasn’t stopped robberies. It hasn’t stopped drugs. It hasn’t stopped anything at all. All of those things that we think of as harm, they continue without the responses they need.

I think we are very aware now that a ton of people who are in the prison industrial complex actually need mental health support. I think we are very aware that a ton of people who end up in the prison industrial complex actually need an equitable economy in which to function.

And I do think we’re in a place where we don’t need to wait for us to get good at the experiment of mediation before we start those things. So I’m all for the places that are already saying defund the police. Let’s go ahead and start redistributing into other experiments with those resources. One of the other things that Mariame points out—what would it look like if the experiment of transformative justice was as well funded as the experiment of prison? We have no idea what things could look like at scale because we’ve never actually had the resources to even experiment at any kind of scale. We’ve had to argue over every penny.

All of that said, I also think that transformative justice is something that happens at an intimate level. It happens in a community that knows each other.

I don’t think we’re looking at something like, it’s going to move from this system straight over to that system. I think it’s going to move from being something that we outsource—we think that harm can be pushed and kept far away from us—to something that we take responsibility for intimately. So I look at my community: When is it my turn to mediate? When is it my turn to show up for someone who needs to get out of an abusive dynamic? When is it my turn to show up in community as someone who names that I have caused harm and takes accountability for something that I’ve done?

With this piece I felt like that was part of what I had to learn. In the initial essay I wrote [and published online], there are things that I did that were harmful for some of the readers. And in the book, I really made an effort to be accountable for those things that I did and to let the pieces grow with the feedback that I received. That felt important to me to do. And I think we all have to learn, how do we do that? How do we do that even when the stakes are very high?

Yeah, I love the idea of the book as a living document. How do you think we can shift from the culture we’re in now to one where no one is considered disposable? 

One of the one of the things I love to point to is there’s an organization called Generation Five based in the Bay Area, and it was created with the goal of ending childhood sexual abuse in five generations. And when I look at almost every social issue that we have, if we look at it with a five generation view—or, as Indigenous teachers often show us, a seven generation view—then I think we can begin to understand that no one is disposable, and it’s going to take us a long time to understand how to actually be in those practices.Tongo Eisen-Martin on a Poet’s Role in a Protest

One of my other teachers, Danielle Sered, said that no one experiences harm for the first time when they’re doing harm. As a society, as a species, but specifically in our communities, we have to start asking ourselves those questions like, what caused this? Can we get to the root system?

And in an ideal world, we stop all the harm first. Then we get time to examine where the harm came from. Then we get time to heal and unwind. Then we can see a society where we no longer have that harm. But we’re not in that ideal world. It’s all happening concurrently.

And so part of what I’m offering to people is each of us is going to have to start to address it differently. Each of us is going to have to start to say, in my own life, can I navigate and operate as if no one is disposable?

In my own life, I’ve gone through experiences where I could have written call-outs, I could have called for cancellation for people. What I found was I really needed boundaries that I could trust myself to hold and I could trust my community to hold.

You write about the United States as a culture more oriented towards death than life. But here in Oakland and all over the country, I’ve been really inspired by mutual aid efforts that have sprung up during the pandemic. How do you see that factoring into what you’ve been writing about in these books?

I want to lift up the book Mutual Aid by Dean Spade, which I think is a beautiful examination of this. I think ultimately that mutual aid is going to teach us a ton about how to be in communities that can be accountable to each other, because mutual aid only works when you’re able to say, “I have a need,” [and someone else says] “I have something to offer to that need. Being in conflict is just another need.

Going through an abusive situation just creates another need. And if we can stretch far, we can say even the person who’s caused abuse has some unmet need, and they think it can be met through harm and domination and manipulation and gaslighting. And they think that’s going to meet some need in them, but the need is not met. The abuse continues. They just find new people to take it. But mutual aid suggests those needs can be met. Maybe they need a different therapist, maybe they need a different kind of healer or a group of healers, maybe they need to see that people who were structured and shaped to be abusive found another path.

And there’s other writing that I’ve been doing. I wrote a piece on relinquishing patriarchy. I wrote a letter to white folks. I’m really looking at these huge structures that are coming down right now. And it’s time for them to come down. The people who hold those dominant identities need to see that there are examples of people saying, “I’m going to put down the supremacy,” which is a fundamentally mythological state. Human beings are not supreme to each other based on the vagina we came out of. That’s not what determines our worth and our well-being or miraculousness. So to me, that piece feels very important, to just be able to identify that there’s another way possible. If you are born into an abusive identity, there’s another way possible. If you were shaped into being someone who is driven towards conflict, causing harm to other people, there’s another way possible.