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Kelly Cadigan and Leaving the Right for Selfish Reasons
It's good when people recognize that the right hates them.
Kelly Cadigan, a 22-year-old trans woman from Florida with a large tiktok following, recently began spewing antitrans and antiblack hate to an enthusiastic conservative audience.
This weekend, though, she reversed herself, and posted a video apologizing for her intolerance and cruelty, specifically apologizing to trans and Black communities.
Cadigan acknowledges that people don’t have to accept her apology or trust her. No one needs to interact with her, or welcome her into left spaces, or stop criticizing her.
Still, some of the criticisms directed at her apology are I think pretty unhelpful. I thought I’d briefly discuss a couple of them.
Racism Isn’t About What You Feel In Your Heart
One response to Cadigan’s video comes from people saying that she’s not sincere; they argue she embraced the right for clout, and is turning to the left for clout. She’s deceptive or lying.
There’s obviously no way to refute this; you can’t read people’s minds. But, for precisely that reason, trying to determine whether people are really racist or antiracist, deep down in their hearts, is mostly pointless—and worse than pointless. Focusing on the internal state of racists centers racists; it make racism about the bigots. In doing so, it makes it essentially impossible to ever convict anyone of racism; again, you can’t read people’s minds. If racism is about what’s in your soul, a racist can just say, “no I don’t hate you,” and that’s the end of the argument. They’re in the best position to know.
But racism isn’t about what you feel in your heart. It’s about how your actions and words create real harms, or reinforce structures of oppression.
Cadigan may or may not have embraced racism and transphobia sincerely. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that her words could be weaponized as political propaganda to harm Black and trans people. By cosigning and embracing the right, she gave the right a propaganda victory—people could point to her and say, “look even trans people believe that trans rights has gone too far” or could rally around her claim that Black people were happy under slavery. She contributed to marginalization and oppression.
By the same token, we don’t know if Cadigan in her heart has rejected bigotry. What we do know is that her video is a straightforward rejection of right wing narratives. She points out at length that the right absolutely refuses to countenance trans identies. “The right doesn’t ever believe that I can be a woman of any kind,” she says, and adds that “there’s no middle ground with the people on the right.” That’s a very direct, stark statement from someone who tried to find compromise that the right is determined to deny her selfhood, and to marginalize and harm trans people. The right constantly claims trans people are aggressors; Cadigan pushes back against that narrative. Her current video helps the left, as her previous ones helped the right—and again, this is regardless of what is happening in her head or soul.
Some might say that she’s just saying she’s changed her mind without doing anything. But public political statements are public acts. They function to buttress narratives, to open up space for marginalized people or to shut that space down. When dealing with hate, I think it’s important to acknowledge that words influence and affect people, and that those affects are what’s important, not what people may feel inside.
On that basis, Cadigan’s earlier videos are noxious and dangerous; her most recent one is helpful and good. And again, this has nothing to do with whether you forgive her, or trust her, or want to have anything to do with her.
Self-Interest Is a Basis for Solidarity
Another common criticism of Cadigan is that her reversal was the result of self-interest. She left the right because she realized that they hated her, and that they weren’t willing to compromise on that even if she embraced their talking points and spread hate herself. Her alienation from the right is based on selfishness; she realized that they want to hurt her.
People argue that it would be better, or more sincere, for her to reject the right out of altruism. And perhaps so. But—there’s a pretty clear reason that the right’s strength is specifically demographic. The right does best with older white straight cis Christian men. They are weaker with white women, weaker with Jewish people, weaker with POC people, weaker with LGBT people, weaker with Black men, and weakest of all with Black women. This isn’t some sort of accident; the right hates marginalized people, and marginalized people, recognizing that they are hated and targeted, tend to be less enthusiastic about the right’s program.
The right’s sweeping bigotry and white male supremacy is in fact a huge weakness, because it alienates large portions of the elecorate. And that shared alienation becomes grounds for solidarity. The Democratic coalition, for example, most of whom are not trans, have been inspiringly quick to push back against the anti-trans movement. That’s in part out of altruism, but it’s also because of self-interest; an ascendent Christofascism threatens Black people, Jewish people, other queer people, women. Solidarity is always based in part on shared interests; that’s why it’s stronger than charity or pure altruism. My fate and your fate are linked; we help each other.
You actually see that in Cadigan’s video. She rejects the right because she recognizes the right wants to harm her as a trans woman, and that pushes her to see that her racism and her transphobia (directed at nonbinary people especially) are wrong. The people targeting her are also targeting these other groups, and suddenly she sees herself on their side. It’s selfish, but it’s also a powerful force for political organizing. Sharing enemies and sharing interests is part of what creates winning political coalitions.
Politics Is About Working With Imperfect People to Make a Better World
One more time, this isn’t really about forgiving Cadigan. No one has to forgive her or work with her. She fucked up very badly; she did real harm. No one has to be okay with that.
I think it’s important, though, not to get so caught up in rejecting this one person that we create insupportable barriers to political action. If joint endeavor requires (a) an ability to see the purity in other’s hearts, and (b) a rejection of all self-interest—then there’s not going to be any joint action, because you can’t see into other people’s hearts, and virtually no one is going to forswear all self-interest.
Luckily, you don’t have to, and they don’t have to. Judge people by what they do (and again, speaking in public is an action, though not the only one or the most important one.) Find connections and joint interests. The right, as Cadigan shows, is good at hate, but we’re better at trust and at solidarity. That means we can win.
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