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McGrath ’24: The “Breaking Off Culture” Debate Reinterpreted: The Imagination of Restorative Justice in Online Discourse


Last month, the historian and staff writer at The Atlantic Anne Applebaum brought a damning charge against the so-called cancel culture – a phenomenon she calls “The New Puritanism”. In it, Applebaum railed against the modern mob’s inability to tolerate opposing viewpoints, arguing that the lack of due process in online rooms has effectively silenced anyone who disagrees with the progressive consensus.

Throughout the play, Applebaum consistently contrasts the mob justice of the Internet with that of the criminal justice system. While this tenet of their reasoning is clearly undermined by the well-documented history of racism and classism of the American legal system, this comparison with the criminal justice system nonetheless provides a useful new framework for the debate on abortion culture: when restorative justice is a viable alternative to prison terms within the legal system , then applying this non-retaliatory framework to conflict in our online discourse could similarly prevent future harm.

Restorative justice, deeply rooted in indigenous practices, is an alternative to forms of Carcarel discipline. “Restorative justice begins with focusing on the needs of the harmed people and then extends to the needs of all those affected, including those who cause harm,” said Yoana Tchoukleva, an Oakland civil rights attorney. “Nobody is left behind, nobody’s needs are disregarded. Everyone is always and already part of a network of relationships. ”

By placing the victim’s wants and needs at the center of the mediation process, those affected can regain control that was taken from them during their initial victimization. Several parishes and school districts have introduced restorative justice programs with great success. For example, in the early 2010s schools in Oakland, California began implementing restorative justice tactics as an alternative to “zero tolerance” suspension and deportation policies. In 2014, over 90% of Oakland teachers surveyed reported that “restorative practices have been very helpful or helpful in dealing with difficult student behaviors in the classroom”. In a more legal context, restorative justice solutions are often aimed directly at the damage caused – for example, if the perpetrator has stolen a bicycle, he may have to pay the cost of buying a new bicycle.

The criminal justice system – with its overly punitive criminal laws, dizzying recidivism rates, and investigative procedures that routinely re-traumatize survivors of crime – generally does not serve the victims or perpetrators of harm. Similarly, when someone is “canceled” for harmful comments, the harmful beliefs that underlie them are not sensibly addressed. As a result, outside mainstream discourse, these opinions will continue to fester, leaving marginalized communities just as vulnerable to harm as they were before.

The transfer of this model of restorative justice to the Internet would of course present great challenges. The harm caused by incidents of interpersonal violence is almost always clearer than it is in political debates, and it is not fair to suggest that the mere persistence of a particular political view is necessarily harmful in and of itself. I am not claiming that we have a central body for the police debate, but that we are working together to bring an ethic of restorative justice into our online interactions. By embracing the best intentions of those who disagree with us and offering growth opportunities, we can ultimately bring about more equitable and productive public discourse.

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but when I imagine how this framework could shape my own online interactions, I keep coming back to two central questions.

  1. How am I involved in the systems I am criticizing?

I find the more time I spend online, the meaner I get. Social media performance incentives admittedly prey on my most reactionary instincts to reduce others to the worst they have said or done – removing people from their context, making expressive comebacks, and getting likes from people who already agree with me . I fear this stems from my own defensive stance – as if criticizing someone else’s “problematic” attitudes can break free from how I have benefited from the systems that reinforce those attitudes. With our broader political culture dominated by the chronic online, it is not surprising that politics in general can feel defined by this atmosphere of retaliation.

With any opinion voiced on social media about fair game public scrutiny, it is only natural that some people who act in good faith take it upon themselves to respond when someone makes an offensive comment. The problem arises, however, when this effect results in snowballs, making the magnitude of the backlash far outweigh the damage actually caused. And while it’s rare for someone to actually lose their job as a result of this backlash, social shame and isolation can themselves have dire consequences. Given this cycle, I’d like to try to be honest with myself about my own motivations in posting – to see if my voice is actually driving the debate or if I’m subconsciously centering my own guilt.

2. What would an ideal result actually look like?

“It’s easy to tell if a person or group is shady, evil, psychopathic. The hard truth (hard because there is no quick fix) is that long-term injustice produces the worst behavior, ”writes abolitionist and activist Adrienne Maree Brown. “The percentage of psychopaths in the world is just not high enough to warrant the ease with which we try to mark this condition with others.”

Just as one of the goals of restorative justice is to prevent relapse, applying this ethic to our online spaces could prevent a similar type of slipping hazard: by banning those with unsavory views on platforms like Substack, 4chan and Parlor, the one If we have a concentration of marginal opinions, we risk promoting cultural resentment, which can lead to further radicalization. And while BIPOC and other marginalized groups often bear the brunt of the emotional burden of educating others, those striving to be allies of these communities may seek to lighten some of that burden by amplifying these often underrepresented voices in their own efforts to inform the other side.

Historically, standards that define the scope of acceptable debate have often been dictated by the institutions themselves, much to the detriment of marginalized communities. For centuries, people of color have not been able to voice concerns about discrimination without retaliation. Prior to the emergence of #MeToo, allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace were routinely swept under the rug. And before the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” fall in 2011, living openly as an LGBTQ + member of the military was impossible. To argue that progressives are stifling free speech today not only ignores this history of institutional gatekeeping, but also denies the fact that public backlash is itself a form of speech that should be protected.

As society advances towards equality, social codes will inevitably change. So it seems that the central question of the cancel culture debate is not whether those who violate these codes do harm, but how we should react when that violation occurs. We still have the opportunity to battle overly punitive instincts in our online communities – something that can only be done by trying to understand the complexities that 280 character interactions often fail to convey.

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