Performative outrage and its discontents

Hey, have you heard of this thing called cancel culture?

In the last year or so, it has seemed like every month a new public figure gets canceled. Publicly castigated, dragged through the mud, and forced out of relevance. You crossed the line, so says the mob, and we’re done listening to what you have to say. On the one hand, any kind of mob mentality is a bit frightening, but on the other, we live in a time of shockingly hateful public rhetoric and brazen mistreatment of huge swaths of the population; paired with more egalitarian control of the public discourse why not take the opportunity to correct bad behavior? And so we’ve watched media executives, youtube film critics, and of course political figures fall into disgrace–rightly and wrongly– at the hands of faceless mobs. These efforts ostensibly serve to correct our culture, and to that end they have a set of increasingly codified rules. As I watched another cancelling unfold this week, I was struck by the mechanics of this process, and in particular what groups lead the charge and on whose behalf.

I’ve been a passive follower of an internet subcommunity of historical costumers for almost three years, starting while I was travelling for research and desperately needed something to occupy my downtime. Initially, I watched youtube videos by one CosTuber (as they call themselves), then by a few more, and eventually started following several people in the community on Instagram. After about three weeks on my separate sewing Instagram account, I abandoned the community, feeling that it was extremely navel-gazing and, for a group of people who constantly use the word “research”, extremely uncritical in their thinking. I went back to watching my 3-5 regular youtube creators and mostly stayed away from wondering about these people as individuals. Still, information would filter onto my radar every month or so about a shockingly insensitive thing someone in the community had done. You see, the world of historical costuming is highly Anglophile and Eurocentric–people tend to dress up as wealthy white people from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And, as Americans, the only places where you can go once you are dressed that way and feel that you are in an appropriate setting is… a former plantation. Dressed as a slave owner. So, most of these moments of public outcry have previously centered on people or events at plantation houses where white (women) were strangely oblivious to the history part of their historical costume.

But something new happened this week. One of the more famous CosTubers in the community outed herself as an anti-vaxxer in a series of increasingly self-incriminating Instagram posts, culminating in one in which she compared having to show a vaccination card to having numbers tattooed on one’s wrist. She is, of course, not the first person against the COVID-19 vaccine to compare it to some aspect of either the Holocaust or the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Indeed, this was not a unique form of bigotry, but stupid on many levels nonetheless. A poor and offensive comparison, an ill-informed opinion regarding both personal choice and public health, and, as they say, not a good look. The response from the historical costuming community was swift and harsh. Immediately, people began commenting on the post itself and in others that indirectly implicated the anti-vaxxer, criticizing increasingly harshly what she had written. And her response was, of course, not ideal: first standing by her words, then trying to clarify, then issuing an apology that seemed to be more about how much she disliked receiving criticism than actually making amends for her harmful words.

More interesting to me, though, was how other high-profile members of this community capitalized on her snafu. On one side, there was the effort from other major… let’s call them influencers… to distance themselves from her, saying that she had deceived them and that they hadn’t realized she was a secret bigot. This reaction is fascinating and a little bit scary to me; it is, in fact, what all the people decrying cancel culture fear, that it is an effort to root out all the “bad people” until no one is left. This is what I mean about this community being uncritical, though. The impulse was to follow a script, to outline a set of steps and responses required from this person, and then to go through a ritual ostracism when those steps were not performed correctly. It’s in how those steps were established, and the way the bad deeds were framed that I think gets really messy.

In this conflict, the complaint registered against the original poster (OP) again and again was that she was a secret bigot, that she had revealed herself to be anti-Semitic through what amounted to Holocaust denial. This, to me, is a leap. Holocaust denial is no joke. Nor is comparing things that are very much not fascism to fascism. But neither of those is actually anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is not an event of Jewish history. It is an event of modern history. Holocaust denial can certainly be a tactic of anti-Semitism, a way to try to downplay the mistreatment of Jews and cast doubt on our experiences. But the Holocaust targeted many more people than just Jews. Moreover, it was one of several genocides perpetrated against minority groups during the 20th century, and to deny the Holocaust is also to deny other mass exterminations. It is to deny the tactic of genocide, which was performed by almost every major imperial power (including the US). So, making light of the Holocaust, while it may be taken personally by some Jews, is not an affront to Jews generally, but an affront to everyone, as it betrays an inability to recognize true injustice and to acknowledge the unspeakable violence that most of the world’s population was either subjected to or complicit with.

Making Holocaust-denying statements, or, really, Holocaust-belittling comparisons, akin to anti-Semitism, is, to me, an odd misdirection. Oddly, it rubs me the wrong way as a Jewish person. You should understand that as the grandchild of unabashed Zionists who lived through the Holocaust, I was raised to believe that anyone who is not Jewish should be assumed to be at least a little anti-Semitic. The emotional toll of the Holocaust was the fundamental belief among certain Jews of that and subsequent generations that your non-Jewish (goyishe) neighbors would sell you to the Nazis if given the chance. Jews who believe this, you see, don’t believe in allyship. We don’t trust anyone fighting on our behalf, because we don’t believe that they fundamentally understand our struggle, nor will they stick by us in a system that privileges them. And, frankly, it seems that many Black Americans feel the same way. So, when a largely goyishe community levies charges of anti-Semitism against someone for repeating canned lines that are not so much anti-Semitic as fundamentally inhumane and immoral (not to mention banners of anti-intellectualism, misinformation, and public health threats) it feels like Jews are being used for someone else’s narrative.

I don’t mean this on a grand scale. I don’t think there is some plot to use the Jews. I think, instead, that these particular criticisms are something of a cannibalistic exercise among other CosTube influencers, eating the previous crop of popular content creators to gain notoriety.

Among those leading the charge was a Jewish influencer who seemed to be using the controversy, and the fact that it had been characterized as an issue of anti-Semitism, to feed her narrative of herself as an educator on Judaism to a goyishe audience. It was interesting to see her simultaneously try to fold this particular cancelling into a larger narrative of social justice, while also explaining that, actually, comparisons to the Holocaust are offensive to more than just Jews and this is an issue of anti-vax rhetoric.

Meanwhile, another Jewish influencer dug hard into the idea that this particular event was an instance of anti-Semitism, taking the reference to tattooing in the OP as an opportunity to lecture about Jewish attitudes towards tattoos, although it was not clear to what end exactly. Why is it important to understand that there was a lot of anxiety among Holocaust survivors that their tattoos would make them ineligible for burial in Jewish cemeteries (a concern that, incidentally, seems to be a myth)? How does that make the OP any more offensive? All it seems to do is center the (real and important) inherited trauma of this one individual person, but in a moment in which it is only tangentially relevant.

That same influencer went on to detail other instances of anti-Semitism in the historical costuming community, such as one that was more clearly actual anti-Semitism, in which organizers of a Secret Santa event refused to change the name to accommodate Jews who complained that the name made them uncomfortable. What was beginning to come through in these complaints was a call for community policing, a kind of hyper-critical vigilance directed everywhere at once, that elevates those in the position of critic to a higher status as moral arbiters.

Others in the community issued general calls for people to “educate themselves”. But this, too, seemed to distract from the issue. It’s not so much that the OP didn’t do her research, but that she remained willfully ignorant of things that are common knowledge, such as the symbolism of the Holocaust and the necessary benefits of vaccination. The phrasing of these calls, moreover, seemed more to call into question how good a historical costumer such a person could be, if they could not be bothered to do “research” on things that they should already know. In that context, the criticism actually places the critic in a seemingly better light, implying that she knows how to do real research in a way that this old crop of influencers does not. Ironically, in the series of posts linked above by @sewmuchhistory, the article she cited does not actually talk about Jewish anxiety over being buried with tattoos, but instead the anxiety around tattooing in light of concentration camp tattoos and how some young Jews have fought the taboo as a declaration of their identity. In short, she did very poor research.

Other influencers continued this line of thinking, not just offering themselves as better researchers, but as people who could guide the community in how to be vigilant and, most importantly, morally correct.

In each case, members of the community used outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism as soapboxes to draw attention to themselves. In short, it all read to me as craven attention-grabbing. At the same time, public accusations of bigotry and misinformation are important actions. People who express offensive or dangerous opinions should be criticized for doing so. What worries me, then, is not the fact that cancelling happens, but why. It’s my hope that these kinds of arguments serve to educate both the people involved and the people watching. But what this incident showed is that most of the spectators are reactionaries waiting for someone to tell them what to think, and the people willing to lead have other motives at heart. I’m not going to generalize and say that is always or even often the case. In fact, I think the way this conflict unfolded highlights the fact that this group is particularly … stupid. Unable to think deeply, quick to call a cursory overview of a topic “research”, and believing that enjoying the aesthetics of bookishness makes them well-read. In fact, I think this incident stood out to me because it was among the worse displays I have seen online. Even my local mommy group (a type of organization that is infamous for being combative to the extreme and highly susceptible to mob mentality) has been swift and unquestioning in shutting down anti-vax rhetoric, backing up such efforts with relevant links to the CDC website or reputable news sources. So, I offer this as a cautionary tale, not of the risks of cancel culture or even internet politics, but of how both of those things can be abused by self-serving people in an uncritical community.