Review: We Will Not Cancel Us

We Will Not Cancel Us, adrienne maree brown (Afterword by Malkia Devich Cyril). Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020.

Summary: A plea to those within the modern abolitionist movement to not use “cancelling” or “call outs” against one another.

I picked up this book online, intrigued by the title. On reading the book, I discovered that I was overhearing a conversation among an “us” of which I am not a part. I say this at the outset to explain my approach in this review. It is simply to listen and, hopefully, learn, and reflect in my description of this book an accurate rendering of its message. adrienne maree brown is a leader of the modern abolitionist movement. One description of this movement states, in part:

Modern abolitionists see it as our mission to provide the models of community safety, security, mutual aid, and harm reduction that are needed, and to do the political education, relationship-building, and movement work to bring others into demanding transformative economic and social change for abolition.

The author self-identifies as “a Black biracial queer fat survivor, witch, movement facilitator and mediator.” I am a white, cisgender male, straight, Christian, and (hopefully) recovering racist. It is a certainty that I don’t understand everything in this small book. I am learning that often, I don’t even know what I don’t know. So, unlike some reviews, I do not want to engage or critique but try to listen and reflect what I am hearing. Too often, we have critiqued and judge what we don’t even begin to understand.

The book is an enlargement on a blog post titled “Unthinkable Thoughts: Call-Out Culture in the Age of Covid-19.” The first part of the book describes the response, both positive and critical to the blog post and what the author learned. She learned she needed to make distinctions between harm and abuse, in general more clearly define terms and ideas, and offer appropriate content and trigger warnings. She goes on to offer definitions of terms: abuse, conflict, harm, contradiction, misunderstanding, and mistakes.

The central chapter, a revision of the blog post, speaks from our current time, amid the pandemic and a pervasive sense of fear, both of the pandemic, and the wider pandemic of white supremacy. It speaks out of the observation of cancelling or “call outs” being used in conflict situations within the abolitionist movement. She warns of the danger of “no one left to call out, or call we, or call us.” She does not disavow the use of call outs in the wider culture with those whose status, power, and unresponsiveness warrant the use of this technique (often by widespread social media campaigns focused on a statement or act causing harm). She notes the personal impacts of a cancel–job loss, status loss, harm to family and emotional distress. She expresses concern that within movement, other, prior steps need to be taken to pursue harm reduction, including, where possible, personal conversation. She also notes that the use of call outs may become cathartic and make the use of this tool more tempting.

In a follow-up essay, she speaks about the aim of movement being transformative justice. Yet she questions the ways some people have been eviscerated because small, as well as larger transgressions. In turn, she proposes three questions to open up conversations leading to transformative justice:

  1. Why? Listen with “Why?” as a framework.
  2. Ask yourself/selves: What can I/we learn from this?
  3. How can my real-time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)?

One concern the author expresses is that her honest processing in this book of her “unthinkable thoughts” will be weaponized by those outside the abolitionist movement. The truth is, any of us who have been involved in any movement have experienced the same phenomenon. We are often each other’s harshest critics and if we are not careful, we can self-destruct. I would hope that no one would use this review as a weapon, but rather recognize the authenticity, aspirations, and growth as a movement leader it reflects.