Why are some problematic people so difficult for us to cancel?
Sometimes I go through my old writing, both online and on paper, and marvel at how much of an idiot I was. It’s good for a laugh but it’s also humbling. It is at these times I am especially thankful I am not a famous writer. It is nice to have the space to be stupid. This is not exclusive to things that I’ve said either. I’ve been abusive. There are a few people who could come out and say horrible things about me and the horrible things would be true. If I was a celebrity it would certainly be enough to be cancelled. Fortunately, I’m not. I’ve been allowed to reform and redeem myself in privacy and peace.
Maybe it’s because of my own previously problematic ways, I’ve distanced myself from “cancel culture”. I believe people should be held accountable for their actions but most things are not entirely irredeemable. The only person I have truly “cancelled” is R. Kelly. I did once have a strong attachment to his music, but once certain truths were revealed, I could not longer listen. I could not separate the artist from the actions. In fact, I actually have a visceral reaction to hearing his music and have on a few occasions, kindly asked people to turn it off. I avoided the truth about R. Kelly for years, because most people around me did and that was the easy choice. Once I looked into matters for myself, however, the truth was so sickening, letting go of the music was as natural as vomiting after a night of binge drinking. It was unpleasant but it was inevitable.
The decision to cancel people is not always an easy one, even once you know what they’ve been accused of. Back in 2012, I met Junot Diaz at MIT. He was having a reading for the release of his new book, This is How You Lose Her. I was a big fan, I had been for about two years at that point, after reading his story “Nilda” in an anthology I had gotten from the thrift store. He was one of the writers who helped me to find my voice. Reading his work showed me the power of staying true to ones voice. It helped me to further appreciate writing in dialect, how I really spoke, when I was with my friends, just kicking it, as most of my characters often are. I ended up buying two books and asking him to sign them. He was kind and seemed very grateful for the support. I took a photo with him and I still have it.
In 2018, Diaz was accused of sexual misconduct by a writer named Zinzi Clemmons. There followed a series of accusations from others that were impossible to ignore. And yet…I still have the books Diaz signed. They’re in a plastic bin in my closet. I have not touched them since hearing about these accusations, but I know that they’re there.
For what it’s worth, Diaz was cleared to teach at MIT again at the conclusion of the investigation spurred by Clemmons’ statements. Still, quotes from Diaz himself seem to, at the very least, not deny that the accusations are true. In these situations, where it comes down to the words of two strangers, I suppose as a consumer you just have to go with your gut. Yet, despite what my gut is telling me, I have not thrown the Diaz books out.
I am bothered by this and yet can’t bring myself to do anything about it. I want to be a person who stands with the abused but I still hold on to the books of an alleged abuser. I know people who were sexually abused as children and yet they are still fans of R. Kelly. I don’t know how any of this works and I can’t defend it. All I know is we all have to confront the truth within ourselves before anything else. One day I will buy a book shelf and I’ll have to unpack that bin and make a decision about those books. I’m not entirely sure what that decision will be and that does not sit well with me.