With most of us vaxxed and boosted, some of us are anxious about gathering with our FOX-watching families again. Can we set boundaries without being accused of "canceling" them?
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For many, this holiday season is an opportunity to make up for missing our loved ones during the pre-vaccination pandemic days. Families who skipped holiday celebrations last year, or who had abbreviated, distanced gatherings will be able to exchange hugs once again. As far as holiday miracles go, it’s a pretty good one.
Unless, of course, the people you tend to spend family holidays with are anti-vaxxers or some of the 15 percent of Americans on the QAnon train. Or if in 2020, you felt a kind of morbid relief at being able to use COVID as an opportunity to recuse yourself from days of family arguments over politics and religion, or as a means to finally enjoy a peaceful meal without pressure to cheerfully accommodate someone who’s abused or wounded you.
Or you might be a mix of both—excited to see your people again, and anxious about how things will play out. Families are complicated.
The pandemic has exacerbated deep-seated differences that, in politically and religiously heterogenous families like mine, were likely already simmering or even boiling during Donald Trump’s presidency. Remember all those articles around the 2016 election, and really throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, concerned with how to talk politics at family holiday gatherings? Even that was hardly the start of the holiday-argument divide; I remember the slew of racist emails one of my aunts began forwarding as soon as Barack Obama announced his first bid for the White House. There’s a reason for the old adage about steering clear of religion and politics as conversation topics.
And yet now, those with complex feelings about their families—especially people who’ve set boundaries to mitigate those feelings and the behaviors that precipitate them—might just be members of the bloodthirsty “woke mob” trying to inflict “cancel culture” on their loved ones.
The idea that family estrangement is a new phenomenon caused by “cancel culture” is freshly popular among “cancel culture’s” critics—those who believe “cancel culture” has run amok. A recent prime example comes from a marriage and family therapist who wrote in a local paper that “‘canceling’ is now happening on the family level,” because adults in their 20s and 30s can’t tolerate differences of opinion, and who, “in vindictive protectiveness,” are too willing to “stop all communication with their parents as well as anyone else that bothers them.”
This is pretty rich coming from the older generations that brought us Daddy went out for cigarettes and never came back. And the current dialogue is profoundly generational; critics mostly lay blame on millennials for blithely cutting off their boomer parents. (Where Generation X, which is largely invisibilized in generational whines, falls into any of this is unclear; Gen Z also gets flack for being too quick to “cancel” others, but they’re unlikely to have boomer parents. It’s almost like none of it makes actual sense!)
The gist seems to be that if you abandon your family the good old-fashioned way, that’s fine. But if you tell Grandpa not to crack racist jokes around your kids, or you’re not looking for another shouting match about vaccines, or you’re tired of answering nosy questions about when you’re having kids or why you’re still single, you’re a “cancel culture” snowflake looking for a safe space. Nobody has any hard data on whether family estrangements are actually on the rise, but hand-wringing articles blaming young adults for inventing the idea of cutting off their families certainly do seem to be proliferating.
A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times takes this boneheaded premise to hilarious new heights. In it, psychoanalyst Galit Atlas takes intriguing research on estrangement—Karl Pillemer’s findings that one in four of adults are estranged from family in some way—and twists it into a facile argument about how Instagram, through the “toxic parents” hashtag, is somehow brainwashing millennials into canceling our parents without a second thought. She writes: “Research by Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, indicates that 1 in 4 American adults have become estranged from their families. I believe that’s an undercount, because others have stopped short of completely cutting off contact but have effectively severed the ties.”
Squishy definitions are doing a lot of work here, as they always do when “cancel culture” critics get riled up. If “canceling,” as Atlas describes it, means everything from total cut-off to reducing contact or setting boundaries on acceptable conversations and behavior, then anything that isn’t an aggrieved person wholesale accepting a relationship on the aggriever’s terms is “cancelation.” That’s very convenient if your livelihood involves talking to people about their family problems and how they must work to resolve them. In the L.A. Times op-ed, Atlas acknowledges that the pain of family estrangement is real, but her solution—that adult children need to have difficult conversations with their parents instead of “canceling” them—presumes that those hard talks, and efforts to find common ground, simply aren’t happening before adult children walk away entirely.
This premise simply doesn’t track for me, either in terms of my own experience grappling with whether or how to stay in touch with family, or in terms of what I read every day as an avid consumer of advice columns, of which I follow three dozen or so on a regular basis. It occurred to me that, as other people who are in the business of being paid to wrangle family dynamics, advice columnists might have a thing or two to say about whether we’re in a mass crisis of people gleefully abandoning their loved ones because of “cancel culture.” Therapists might have hundreds of clients; advice columnists might hear from thousands of readers.
I reached out to Jenée Desmond-Harris, who writes as Dear Prudence at Slate, who told me: “Based on the letters I see, many people actually go to great lengths to avoid ending relationships with friends and loved ones—even those who have cheated on them, abused them, taken advantage of them or otherwise caused them actual harm. In fact, the people I hear from are often looking for advice on how to preserve these relationships.”
Jennifer Peepas, who writes the blog Captain Awkward (of which, full disclosure, I am a Patreon supporter), said something similar: “No one’s trying to never see their family again. They’re usually grieving, writing, ‘I’ve tried everything, and we still get can’t through 20 minutes together.’”
I also talked with Alison Green, creator of the work advice site Ask A Manager, since workplaces are another space in which millennials get a lot of flack for being demanding and difficult because of their allegedly unreasonable expectations. Her take was a little different. Letter-writers to Ask A Manager were more likely to say they couldn’t have a real-talk conversation at work about their needs, or to think they had when they hadn’t, but letter-writers still struggle profoundly with how or whether to walk away from a job—whether to “cancel” their employers.
“The most popular topic in my inbox,” said Green, “is people who feel too guilty to resign. Every week I get a shocking number of those, even now in this [great resignation] shift going on. Workers are claiming more power for themselves, and starting to see the worker-employer relationship in a clearer light. But even now I don’t think I get any fewer letters from people who are really torn up about resigning than I used to.”
I even interviewed a self-described boomer and advice columnist, Amy Dickinson, who thoughtfully shared with me her experience with estrangement in her own family, and asked some compelling questions about generational positions and power: Do boomers have some responsibility for the expectations their kids have set about family relationships? Or, in her words, “Who raised all these snowflakes?”
Whether we’re talking about parent-child relationships or employer-employee relationships in terms of “cancel culture,” we’re fundamentally talking about power dynamics. Which tracks: “Cancel culture” critics are nothing if not invested in maintaining and perpetuating traditional (and traditionally conservative) power dynamics. Are many people in general afraid of having tough conversations and conflict? Absolutely. (But it never seems to be the abusers and bigots who expect obedience and conformity who are afraid of those things.) Are others staying in relationships and in jobs that hurt and demean us because we’re afraid of what might happen if we speak up? Absolutely. (But it never seems to be the people who wield positional power as parents and bosses who are afraid to speak their minds worrying about their place in the fray.) Are most people—especially young people—merrily abandoning their families and even their jobs without a word? It doesn’t seem so.
What does a hard conversation about our differences look like, anyway? Is it issuing the second, fifth, tenth, or 100th patient explanation of identity to a father who won’t use his trans child’s correct name or pronouns? What middle ground is there to be found in “healthy debate” when one person believes Black Americans need to “get over” slavery already, and the other believes systemic racism is alive and well today? (That’s an example from my own life!) Does a “hard conversation” prevent a toddler from contracting COVID from anti-vaccine grandparents who show up unannounced demanding cuddles?
Every family, every relationship, every workplace—they’re all different. They come with different histories and future goals and current needs. People have different tolerances for conflict, and we may or may not have ever learned healthy or productive ways of resolving conflict when the time comes. (Ironically, one of the best dives into what it’s like to share differing political beliefs within a family comes from Teen Vogue — a publication that is often derided as being at the vanguard of fomenting “cancel culture” among irascible, cancel-thirsty youths.)
Often, the advice columnists I spoke to told me, the people who are struggling with potential estrangement are looking for that final, magical formula or script that will allow them to simply show themselves safely to the people they love (or the people they work with, who are sometimes the same people), who have hurt them but who they don’t want to cut off forever. Jennifer Peepas of Captain Awkward summed it up: “They’ve gone to therapy. They’ve tried ‘If you do X, I feel Y,” statements. Tried to have very civilized discussions. They’ve tried ‘What if we agree not to talk about it forever and still hang out for grandma’s sake.’ They’ve tried everything, and come to the very painful place where none of the ‘nice’ ways worked.”
I know what it takes to engage in hard conversations about religion and politics, and to change hearts and minds. My own political views shifted significantly from the right to the left in my 20s, while in my 30s, I have worked professionally in messaging strategy around abortion access. Hard conversations are definitely involved—that’s why I still have them with my own parents, especially about racism and bigotry and feminism, of which they seem ever more skeptical despite my efforts—but so too are consequences, of which one is the threat or practice of estrangement. There were a lot of patient people who talked to me about their experiences and identities in the years it took me to shift from right-wing conservative Christian college kid to feminist social-justice warrior, and I am grateful to them. But there were also a lot of people who simply decided my bullshit wasn’t worth their effort, and the pain of realizing that, and of losing people I had valued connections to, was often deeply impactful.
Eliminating or reducing contact, or resetting the terms of engagement, are sometimes the only ways in which people can establish real consequences that spur healthy changes in how we relate to each other. And yet the defining characteristic of “cancel culture” critics is their dogged entitlement to other people’s time and attention even and especially when it’s hurtful and harmful; the same can be said for problematic relatives who won’t stop their bigoted screeds at the Thanksgiving table, or the abusive boss who demands emails be answered at 3 a.m.
By Galit Atlas’s expansive and basically meaningless definition of “canceling” from her L.A. Times op-ed, I (an elder millennial) “canceled” my (boomer) parents last year when we disagreed over safe behavior in the pandemic. They had a much higher COVID risk tolerance than I did; after realizing how much worry and stress it was causing me to hear about their travels and social gatherings, I asked them not to tell me about their exploits. Instead, they sent me photos of all the fun stuff they were getting up to. I finally told my parents I couldn’t stay in touch with them directly under these circumstances; it was too anxiety-inducing. They could contact me through my husband or an aunt in an emergency. We exchanged Christmas gifts and cards through the mail.
It was the freest I’ve felt in my adult life. For those low-contact months, a tremendous weight had been lifted, and not just because of the pandemic stuff. In mine, as in so many families, the pandemic highlighted a growing divide in our values, and how we saw ourselves in relation to each other and society in general. I didn’t have to hear about their pandemic vacations, but neither was I pressured to participate in family holidays where I’d be interrogated about my liberal politics or forced to volley against Fox News talking points, or have to play another round of “that’s racist” with my dad, wherein he’d laugh in my face whenever I told him to shut down his casual bigotry.
Casting people who set any kind of boundary—whether that’s skipping a holiday dinner, calling home twice a month instead of daily, requesting to be paid for time worked, or blocking all contact indefinitely, or walking off the job—as all the same “cancel culture” snowflakes who can’t handle human differences effectively precludes people from engaging in self-advocacy, period, unless they’re willing and able to live with the associated guilt and stigma. It in fact turns the very dynamic being criticized on its head; arguably, a parent who requires daily calls or else issues the silent treatment, or a boss who demands unpaid overtime, is as unable to handle “differences” as the child who wants space, or the employee who’d like to spend her off-the-clock time, well, off the clock. The question is: Who is supposed to give in? Not the person pulling the (purse) strings, emotionally or financially.
I reconnected with my parents soon after vaccines were widely available, and the first tentative regroupings were joyful and pleasant, free of the aggressive inquiries into my politics (especially my pandemic politics) that had originally turned things so sour. But it wasn’t long before my parents regressed into old patterns, and the only way I’ve found I can remain healthy (physically and mentally) while staying in touch is to assert much, much stronger boundaries around visits and conversations than I ever had in the time leading up to COVID. In the pandemic, I was forced to find a chosen family—my husband, my friends, other relatives—who genuinely supported me without demanding I prove myself worthy, again and again. I have accepted this, and found a way to instead focus on the things about my relationship with my parents that I do cherish, and learned to tee up those “hard conversations” when I have the time and energy to engage meaningfully. I guess Atlas would call that “cancellation.”
Amy Dickinson smartly articulated this pivot when she told me how she’d decided to care for her own father when he resurfaced in an ICU bed after decades of estrangement. Sitting in her car outside the hospital, she thought to herself: I have so many resources. A really good husband, great kids, tons of feeling very supported. I felt like I had the option not to do that—the option not to go into the hospital and show up for a man who hadn’t shown up for her. It was the option that gave her the ability to choose to support her father.
That option is what “cancel culture” critics want to take away, to cast as impolite and illiberal. It is the mere spectre of the option that incites fear in those who Jennifer Peepas described thusly: “Anybody who’s panicking about this is somebody who’s used to having obedience and authority, and that’s the relationship they’re supposed to have.”
This is why, both Peepas and I suspect, we see “cancel culture” panic around interpersonal relationships manifest especially prominently among conservative parents with not-conservative kids, and in evangelical leaders and conservative circles where power-holders feel entitled to the first, middle, and last word on everything. The panic isn’t limited to the right wing, but it’s steeped in the authoritarian values of conservatism writ large—a philosophy fundamentally rooted in silencing dissent, and not in facilitating healthy conflict.
In light of this, it is not, perhaps, young people—or people of any age who set boundaries or even become estranged from loved ones after years of strife—who have the wrong idea here, or who have the wrong tools or bad tools or no tools for dealing with conflict and differences in people’s values and beliefs. It seems more likely that those who lack the tools for handling conflict are the very people who condemn others for getting tired of enduring conflict at their own expense.
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