Friday, September 30, 2022

To cancel or not to cancel: Should this be the question?

 By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D

September 12. After almost three years without concerts, we were finally back in front of the Antwerp Concert Hall. Unfortunately, with very mixed feelings. Arcade Fire was performing, one of the most successful indie rock groups of all time. However, the group found itself in the eye of an unexpected storm, at least for outsiders like us. On August 27, Pitchfork published an article on alleged sexual misconduct by Win Butler, the front man of the band. Three women and one gender-fluid person made allegations of inappropriate sexual interactions and sexual assault. A couple of days later, the Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, announced that she would leave the tour with the band following these allegations. What followed was a veritable Twitter storm: people shared their disappointment en masse, numerous fans wanted to sell their tickets at rock-bottom prices, and many fulminated over the fact that ticket sellers did not want to provide refunds. The images of the first concerts in the UK were telling: many shared pictures of half-filled halls. Various radio stations around the world decided to stop playing the group’s music. It looked very much like the group would be completely cancelled. But it gradually became clear that the group had decided to face the storm with their heads held high and allow the tour, which involved dozens of people, to go ahead.

In Belgium, however, the mainstream media remained conspicuously silent on the issue. The contradiction between the (online) noise and the silence on the Belgian platforms where you would expect discussions were striking. I noticed that I did miss those discussions, I missed a debate. I missed some footing and a sharing of reflections. This also surprised me; I’ve been working on the topic of sexual violence for almost a decade, I have worked with people who are confronted with such violent behavior and people who resort to such behavior, as well as with people who both were victimized and who committed sexual offences. And yet.

Rationally, we know – as someone working in the field- that a person is more than his/her misconduct. We know that a person can have both good sides and talents but at the same time may be able and willing to go beyond other people's boundaries. We also know that, whatever Butler will say about this, his version of the facts will hardly get a chance.

But of course, no matter how much experience one has, no matter how many discussions one has had on the topic, reason and emotion sometimes go their separate ways. Before the concert, we struggled with a lot of questions: With attending the concert, do you condone the acts of which Win Butler is accused of? By applauding, do you endorse possible abusive behavior? By singing (in my case: blaring) the band’s songs along, don’t you a wrong signal to victims of sexual misconduct? And many more.

After the concert, a couple of not-very-profound pieces on these dilemmas appeared in (very) few newspapers. These were unfortunately limited to describing some reactions from people who attended the concert. Some of the reactions: “To go or not to go: I have had the discussion at home with my friend, but as far as I know, it remains only accusations and there is no official complaint. If he were under suspicion, only then would I reconsider my decision." and "We have to admit that we didn't actually think about it". A few fans also didn’t want to react because they didn’t want to contribute to “misplaced mass hysteria”. But also: “I don't condone that - neither Butler's behaviour - but eliminate everyone who has never committed a mistake and 1,000 people are left on earth." and “as long as it sticks to accusations, it is unfair to punish the whole group.”. At first, I was somewhat relieved reading the responses: people appeared to be able to give people a second chance and not go along with black-and-white thinking and with thinking in terms of monsters versus angels. But soon cynicism crept in and many questions arose: aren’t these people just finding reasons to justify any lack of reflections on the matter and/or their enthusiasm for the concert? Would they be so nuanced about my clients as well? Other comments in an English newspaper that tended to apologize the alleged misconduct did not reassure me either: “He’s a rock start, it comes with the territory, it's the lifestyle.”, “Women are chasing him every day of the week. They are one of the biggest bands in the world.” or “No offence to the male species but a man’s a man.”

What I notice is that people are beginning to tire of the subject of sexual misconduct. The debate on how we as a society should or could best respond to (alleged) misconduct is hardly held anymore, especially when it comes to more ‘ambiguous’ cases that do not correspond to people’s general perception of sexual violence and to cases that concern a person who does not adhere to the general view of the monstrous sexual predator. As we see in the examples above, victim blaming tendencies and a wide range of cognitive distortions then lurk around the corner. In my view, even more dangerous is that we increasingly seem to be looking away, ostensibly hoping that when we look away, the problem does not exist or will pass by itself. With the many problems the world is currently facing (climate, war, inflation, just to name a few) and the fear and anxiety that come with it, issues on (sexual) misconduct seem to fade again into the background. And when it is discussed, only two possible ‘solutions’ are often put forward: should we cancel the perpetrators or not?

The apparent arbitrariness with which these choices are made within society (to look or not to look, to discuss in depth or to ignore, cancel or not to cancel) also affect our clients and patients. They see this happening. For some, such observations may provide confirmation that their behavior may not have been so bad after all. Many will however be left with rather a sour feeling: Why do others get a second chance, and not me? Why am I ‘canceled’, and not them?



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