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Are the #OwnVoices Movement & Cancel Culture Toxic?

It's Complicated, Folks!

19 days ago

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The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end. — Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours: The Class Foundations of Moral Practice

When I discovered the news, I was devastated. I was angry. I was beside myself. I wanted to burn the manuscript the minute I saw the commentary from my instructor.

What I am talking about is a moment when I realized that I couldn’t write certain characters, due to the charged political and cultural environment in the United States, and especially in the English-speaking world. Certain characters included characters who weren’t men, people of color, and middle-class. The statements made by my instructor were heart-breaking, crushing me under their weight of denial.

#OwnVoices and Cancel Culture have started important conversations; however, like any controversial movement or conversation, some level of toxicity exists. We shouldn’t throw away the important gains these movements/conversations have given us. Instead, we need to reevaluate how we talk about representation, inclusion, and language.

What the commentary said to me was that my own voice wasn’t important, unless I spoke only of those authentic experiences that came from my own background, my own life. What the commentary forgot to do was to offer a teachable moment, something dearly needed in our politically charged publishing environment these days. Moreover, the commentary didn’t look to understand my own background, my own struggles, and, if we’re completely honest, it ignored the complexities of race, class, and privilege in this country and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

Before we move forward, I want to make a few things clear. This isn’t a rant against the #OwnVoices Movement or Cancel Culture. Instead, it is a letter of support for the important conversations these movements have brought us. Furthermore, it asks that writers, teachers, publishers, and established industry veterans use teachable moments, in order to reach rather than radicalize individuals.

My own life experiences have made it impossible for me to write white characters. In other words, my life experiences, having lived on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Dulce, New Mexico, having graduated from an underfunded and neglected reservation high school, and having lived in New Mexico for the better part of thirteen years, I can’t seem to write about only white characters. I want to capture the authenticity of the state, understand the struggles of the Latinx, Hispano, and indigenous peoples in the state, and, more importantly, I want to understand humanity’s (that is, all of humanity) place in the universe, on this planet, and amongst one another.

Although I am comfortably in the lower-middle-class now, with about thirteen years of real struggle to get there, I have seen poverty affect all races, ethnicities, and geographies. I never grew up in a house that was mine, or one that my family could call home. For much of my life, my father and mother moved the three of us kids from one place to another, searching for prosperity, stability, and comfort, never really finding any along the way. We moved from one grandparent’s house to another, staying in basements, spare bedrooms with too little privacy, and hearing family members whisper awful things about us and our little family. My father moved the family, in two rusted-out Suburbans, with no more than three-hundred dollars to his name. We moved to the great state of Colorado, where we lived without comfort, without money, and without prospects of a future.

Despite being poor, unwanted, and feeling lost, we managed to build a house — one that would never be finished and would become a rather nasty fight in my parents’ divorce. This house didn’t have running water or gas when we first moved in. We did without showers. We did without a lot of things, including central heat and air-conditioning, something I am now thankful for having, something my landlord keeps up these days. We burned scrub oak, rotted wood, pine needles, papers, junk mail, and whatever else to keep warm in the brutally cold winters. We walked a mile to the bus stop, where we would wait for twenty, sometimes thirty minutes, waiting for the bus to arrive.

Despite being poor, unwanted, and feeling lost, we managed to build a house — one that would never be finished and would become a rather nasty fight in my parents’ divorce. This house didn’t have running water or gas when we first moved in. We did without showers. We did without a lot of things, including central heat and air-conditioning, something I am now thankful for having, something my landlord keeps up these days. We burned scrub oak, rotted wood, pine needles, papers, junk mail, and whatever else to keep warm in the brutally cold winters. We walked a mile to the bus stop, where we would wait for twenty, sometimes thirty minutes, waiting for the bus to arrive.

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Many of my life experiences have, by all accounts, gone against the grain of the dominant view of whiteness and prosperity in the country, the United States. I never saw prosperity until I came to New Mexico, where the twin lightning bolts of luck and hard work produced opportunities, opportunities few had after the ’08-’09 financial fiasco called the Great Recession.

Unlike some of my fellow Americans, I won’t say I wasn’t afforded some help from my whiteness. I have a name that people see as white — Gregory Rapp is probably as white as it gets, folks. Nevertheless, I reject the notion that I don’t have something beneficial to say about my friends, who were/are largely Hispanic, Mexican migrants, black Americans, and members of those indigenous peoples this country robbed of opportunity, prosperity, and comfort. I reject the notion that everything should be from authentic voices only, as it ignores the realities of race, prosperity, and life in a country such as the United States. It also ignores the fundamental nature of writing, and its ability to create empathy in readers.

However, I don’t reject the notion that people of color, women, and the working-class stiffs should have a voice in the publishing industry. I do agree with #OwnVoices and Cancel Culture in that we need to have more representation, the canon needs to be revised, and, more importantly, we need to stop quieting those voices that are most important in our society.

Are #OwnVoices and Cancel Culture toxic? It depends on where and when you entered the conversation and how you reacted to them. If you were like me, I saw these as an attempt to not stifle voices, but, rather, to create more inclusivity in the writing industry. However, there are those who believe the #OwnVoices and Cancel Culture have gone too far. Like any controversial conversation or movement, there are extremists, but, usually, the moderates, those who wish for understanding, real change, and constructive criticism of the dominant paradigms in publishing, will win out. Yes, toxicity exists everywhere. It would be equally toxic to ignore the concerns of #OwnVoices and Cancel Culture, just as it would be problematic to not have a constructive discourse on those concerns. Democracy and the marketplace of ideas are always going to be messy, and when we realize this, we will find that our conversations can be turned constructive rather than destructive. That compromise and inclusivity will reign out in the end — hopefully.


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G. Michael Rapp

Published 19 days ago

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