Progressive Online Spaces Shouldn’t Demand Performative Conformity

By: Kelsey Bourgeois in collaboration with Russell Weiss

‘Cancel culture’ as an idea has become so ubiquitous, it’s practically meaningless. The right is crying about being ‘canceled’ for fucking minors and violently forcing entry into the seat of government to display hate symbols and the rest of us just think — maybe those things should have consequences. This is not the debate or conversation that I’m interested in.

What I’m interested in critiquing here is the ‘cancel culture’ that I have witnessed (and participated in at different points) in small to medium progressive communities. Namely, the way that some people will flag respectful dissent or disagreement — which are core features of healthy communities — as dangerous. Those who dissent, whether through action or inaction, are hyper-scrutinized, threatened into compliance, and/or excommunicated from the community entirely.

I’m familiar with the mindset that feeds this type of behavior. I was raised in a literal cult which demanded a performative commitment to dogma: the LDS (or Mormon) Church. Recently I have become a member of the ex Mormon community on tik-tok, which is in the throes of dealing with a bad actor. What I’m seeing is people perpetrating this cycle of purity testing I had hoped we could leave behind when we left the church. Except that now, rather than in the name of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ, it’s happening in the name of social justice and allyship.

The TL;DR version is: it came out that a prominent ex-Mormon has been behaving badly towards other members of the ex-Mormon community and when he was asked (very kindly) to please stop and also apologize, he instead doubled down, hard. His response to the call-in from his community has been to lash out in some scary and frankly, abusive ways towards anyone who challenges him. In reaction, much of the ex Mormon community has decided they are done with him. Some of those people are attempting to warn the broader community about him.

And then there are the police. Not the literal police (although as of this writing the individual in question may be in some trouble with them, too). I’m talking about members of the community who have taken it upon themselves to publicly sanction their peers who have reacted to the unfolding exposing of a bad actor — but not in the right way.

In order to really understand the dynamics at play here enough, I need to explain a bit about the space in which this all occurred.

I was raised Mormon and during the COVID-19 Pandemic began making TikToks about that experience. My videos gained some traction and I found myself in a community of other ex Mormon TikTok creators and users. I left Mormonism in very young adulthood, and in the past decade the religion has not been anything more than a great dinner party anecdote for me. I thought I had unpacked most of the indoctrination from Mormon upbringing in therapy, but this year on TikTok has been a good reminder of just how desperately some of those pesky and gross Mormon beliefs were still clinging to parts of my mind.

For example, I made a video answering the question “Which part of Mormonism was hardest for you to unlearn?” A year ago, I would have answered: the shame and stigma around sexuality. The toxic lessons I had learned about sex and gender were deeply ingrained; it took significant work to weed them out and to heal from them. But now, I suspect there may be an aspect of Mormonism that is even more insidious: the belief that not only is it OK to police one another, it is good and righteous to do so.

You see, Mormonism functions on a social structure of fear and tattling. Your eternal salvation depends, of course, on your own behavior here on earth, as well your ability to convert others. And, most relevant for this discussion, your policing of others’ behavior — your willingness to keep them on the “straight and narrow,” as they say. This makes it all but impossible to build real, strong and healthy relationships while actively participating in the Mormon community. Because when relationships are predicated on compliance to a rigid ideology, they fall apart at the first sign of noncompliance. If an individual’s beliefs evolve, if they step out of line or stop following any number of rigid rules, they become disposable. While Mormons don’t officially shun people the way Jehovah’s Witnesses or Amish folks do, they do cast them out for daring to make their own choices.

Disagreement and doubt are viewed as dangerous by Mormons.

This constant policing of oneself and others for religious purity makes it extremely difficult to form secure attachments, for fear that the community will drop you the second you make a mistake. This is especially true in Mormonism because the rules are so stringent that mistakes are inevitable. What you end up with is a lot of people hiding, fearful of being found out and fixated on presenting themselves a certain way to their families and communities. They do not trust that they can be themselves and, if they mess up, they will be given the chance to fix the rupture and learn. Instead, there is a focus on presenting a veneer of perfection, with the ever-present threat of social ostracization looming in the background.

At the same time, the church continues to experience fallout from cases of abuse perpetrated by its leadership. While those abuses are numerous, for the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to sexual abuse, benevolent patriarchy, and misogyny. Since the founding of the religion by a rapist con man in the 1830s, the religion has been rife with, and even built upon, misogyny and sexual abuse, particularly committed by those in positions of leadership or of high community esteem.

Circling back to today, I find myself in a community of ex-mormons for the first time in a decade on Tik Tok. And I am starting to understand that we did not all leave for the same reasons. In ex Mormon circles, the parlance for what finally made you leave is called a “shelf breaker.” Of all the negative experiences and cognitive dissonance you endured, each instance tucked away in the back of your mind, which of those finally broke that shelf and got you to leave?

For me: it was a combination of the misogyny, homophobia and racism that is both codified and deeply embedded into the culture. That, and losing my belief in God. Which literally happened in one afternoon. While I had been raised Mormon, I had never been particularly devout or committed to the teachings. Mormonism was the water I swam in and once I had adequate social support to swim elsewhere, I did. And while there are many people who leave for similar reasons, there are perhaps equally as many who leave for another reason. Namely, they realize they had been lied to.

Pre-internet, the Mormon church was able to suppress unsavory information about its own history. They would white-wash large portions of church history, claim new revelations from God in order to justify historical abuses, revise interpretations of scripture to avoid cultural backlash, and attempt, through various means, to erase previous problems and scandals. Their efforts were mostly effective. Over the last two decades, however, the internet has rendered this strategy of revisionism and obfuscation less and less effective. The church has been hemorrhaging membership as a result.

The general trend is that women, queers, BIPOC and other marginalized folks often have shelf breakers around the continued power dynamics and policies that actively harm them. In contrast, white cisgender heterosexual men tend to have shelf breakers around having been deceived. I suspect this trend holds because white cishet men are quite literally revered in the church. Why leave a community where you are automatically accorded value and leadership roles by virtue of your birth status?

Now, neither reason for leaving is wrong and splitting them into two buckets is deeply reductive. Many people leave and go on to spend some years deprogramming themselves from some of the more sinister beliefs. And I mean years, the indoctrination runs deep. Other people ditch the actual church for lying to them and then go on to recreate the same type of power structures outside of Mormonism that they benefited from while inside of it. Not all of them. Not everyone. But, you see where I am going with this.

Unfortunately, most ex Mormon spaces are dominated by the latter category. They are led and moderated by cishet white men on personal crusades to “expose” the church for its deception. These men feel lied to. They feel like their lives were stolen. They’re not wrong. And yet, this focus on how the church seeks to rewrite history often fails to account for the harm it has done to its most vulnerable members. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia are secondary considerations. I want to be really clear: these spaces and these people have helped a lot of others. They have paved a way out and done a lot to share how horrible the church is. That is true and, in my opinion, a good thing. Unfortunately, some of them — whether knowingly or not — still perpetuate a dynamic where a handful of mostly white, mostly cishet men are hero worshipped.

If you’ve never had much social clout or power in a community, you may balk at what I’m going to say next. But I maintain that it is very difficult to avoid abusing power, notoriety, and influence when you have it. Although I’ve never run a church, I was a very popular and respected yoga instructor for a decade. My career even included training nearly 40 other teachers. One of the reasons I moved on was that far too many people sought my opinion on matters in which I had no expertise whatsoever. It felt good to be looked up to, to be regarded as wise. It was all too easy to present my beliefs at the Right Ones and have people agree. This type of attention can go to your head very quickly. Even that tiny taste of power in a relatively small community was tantalizing and brought out a side of myself I did not like.

While I’m sure most people involved in these Ex-Mormon spaces are trying to do the right thing, this power dynamic and recreation of oppressive dynamics is the main reason I have been repelled from them. Until Tik Tok. Ex Mormon Tik Tok looks and feels really different than other post Mormon spaces. There are more women, more queers, more BIPOC, more disabled people and more sex workers! In short: exmo Tik Tok is very fun and filled with a lot of people who share my leftist, inclusive beliefs.

And yet, several of the deeply dysfunctional cultural practices of Mormonism have managed to creep into this space as well. As I mentioned, one high profile ex-Mormon with a large following and virulent core fan base had been sexually harassing women online for months, both in private and public. And at least some of the women he was harassing felt as though they could not rebuff him due to his status and penchant for doxxing and targeted abuse.

I see this as the first dysfunctional recreation of Mormon culture: the fact that this man got away with this behavior for so long without rebuke. Many of us caught glimpses of this harassment and didn’t reach out to the victim to check if she was OK. Others were directly told by the victim that she felt creeped out and scared, that she felt pressured to placate her harasser, and they dismissed her. That was a failing to hold power to account by folks who could have done so and it’s exactly how it would have played out while we were all Mormon.

It shouldn’t have taken multiple victims for the situation to finally be addressed, but it did. After a gentle and sincere private effort encouraging the offender to apologize and learn from his mistakes failed, these women began telling their stories publicly. From there, many of the people who did not hold the offender accountable originally, began doing so — both privately and publicly. Which was very heartening to see!

But then the second dysfunctional recreation of Mormon culture started to come into play, as a knock-on effect of holding the offender accountable. Which is, quite frankly, using shame to bully one another into uniform responses in an effort to force ideological agreement and purity. Specifically, those who were most vocal in calling out this abusive behavior turned their righteous anger towards peers who they perceived to be responding “incorrectly.” Especially if those peers were men. I literally can’t believe I’m over here defending men, but hear me out.

Here’s where it gets really muddled: what is the “correct” response in this instance and who decides?

It’s clear to me that anyone raising their voice to discredit or silence victims or defend this abusive behavior is not someone I want further contact with. But what about everyone else?

As a woman and a survivor of sexual harassment and violence, as well as other abuse tactics the offender has since started to employ: I also have personal feelings and opinions on how I think others should be reacting. I also am extremely triggered by the entire thing; I am not even being directly targeted by this person. Yet I have cried, I have lost sleep, and my work has suffered. I have personally made videos about some of the issues and done what I could to support the victims I know personally. I do not take any of this lightly.

What makes me bristle is the demand for a specific type of performative allyship from community members. I see this happening in many progressive spaces. It’s purity testing under heavy threat. Basically, if you don’t respond the right amount or in the right kind of way, or worse, you don’t respond publicly at all, you will be labeled as protecting the offender or part of the problem.

This smells a lot like the public performances of faith and righteousness we bullied out of each other when we were Mormon. We left the church because it demanded we signal virtue rather than actually live our values. Now that we have the chance not only to live our values, but define them for ourselves, I hate the idea that we will carry on assuming virtue based on a narrow set of performances.

When we did that, we thought it was the right thing to do! But just because our beliefs are not shitty anymore doesn’t mean that making assumptions about people who do not perform them in the right way is now OK. We cannot both demand performance of belief, often including an element of self castigation, and then shout it down for being performative.

I am wholly uninterested in determining someone’s commitment to a certain cause or idea based on a single metric in a digital space. Partially because I’m not privy to what kind of private or things they may be doing and partially because I reject the idea that there is one correct way to show up in a situation like this.

What this community has in common is that we left a religion that told us how to think and feel. It told us what was right and wrong. It had us policing one another for minor infractions and levying heavy social consequences while ignoring massive institutional abuse and abuse by individuals in power.

The last two weeks, I have seen many of us realize that we failed to hold an influential person accountable and then rectify that mistake. I have seen us reaffirm our commitment to equality in a variety of ways and lift up the voices of people directly harmed. I have seen us kindly call one another in rather than out. I have also seen us return to monitoring one another’s behavior and speech with the threat of severe social ramifications for perceived noncompliance: cancelation.

I have a lot of fear publishing this piece because I know by doing so, I am risking having the exact thing I’m opposing happen to me. But that’s exactly why I feel compelled to publish this. It makes sense to me to seek out friendship and community among people with whom I share core values and beliefs. But if I can’t carefully and respectfully disagree with members of my community, that’s not a community I want to be a part of.

I think we can put a stop to abusive behavior without demanding conformity of expression. A safe space is one free of both abuse and coercion. Intervening when an individual is actively harming members of our community is necessary. Policing the way that happens and the way each person responds to it is not.

We are each on our own path towards anti-oppression. If I see you make a good faith effort to live and speak about values that we share, even if you get it a little wrong from my perspective, I will not cancel you. Though I may open up a dialogue in which hopefully both of us learn something. And if I don’t see you speaking on the topic of the week on a certain platform in a certain way, I will not assume that means you don’t care.

She/her. I exist mostly on the internet. @kelseyannb on Instagram and Tik Tok and @kelsey_ann_b on Twitter.