Have you been cancelled? Not to worry, you will be soon. Not one of us is pure enough to be safe, and the cancellers are never satisfied, but rather always hungry for their next victim.
Two weeks ago, a Des Moines Register journalist called Aaron Calvin wrote a piece about a local man, Carson King, who had become famous by raising over $3m in charity, winning the support of a big brewery among others. In researching the profile, Calvin uncovered some racist tweets made by King when he was a teenager, for which he expressed deep regret. “In re-reading it today — eight years later — I see it was an attempt at humor that was offensive and hurtful,” King reflected. “I am embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was 16 years old. I want to sincerely apologize.”
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Calvin told Buzzfeed that, while he “recognized that these were not representative artifacts of Carson,” he felt obligated to share the information, so included a “brief mention of these tweets and his apology at the bottom of this profile, after the glowing synopsis of his charity”. Calvin felt he did so in a “thoughtful” way that showed the tweets no longer showed King’s worldview.
King was dropped by the brewery anyway.
King wasn’t mad at Calvin. In fact, he said he appreciated that the journalist had pointed out the tweets and with it the opportunity to apologise. Nonetheless, those who felt the journalist had tried to tarnish the image of a “local hero” targeted him with harassment and then – inevitably – some old tweets of Calvin’s turned up and he, too, was cancelled. Fired from his job and forced to leave his apartment – another victim of “cancel culture”.
“Cancel culture” is a sort of addiction: the addict — outraged members of the public demanding someone’s humiliation and “cancellation” — gets a high, but only temporarily, and the desire creeps back once again and must be fed.
Yet this type of public ostracism is not exactly like other addictions — food, drugs, pornography, shopping or gambling – which involve private behaviours, albeit connected to social problems. Most addictions are about an individual escaping from some kind of pain or trying to fill an endless hole inside of them. Cancel culture is very much about public behaviour — a display of anger, power and virtue — as well as the self-loathing and emptiness in all addictions.
No healthy, secure person invests that much time and energy into destroying other people’s lives. No happy, fulfilled human enjoys seeing others – strangers – ruined, ostracised and vilified. Unless we are purely targeting violent, evil or dangerous individuals… but, of course, this is almost never the case. We target comedians, politicians, writers, friends, fellow activists, co-workers and former comrades. In a terrified frenzy, we look for any excuse — a verbal blunder, a politically incorrect opinion, a tacky 20-year-old Aladdin costume…
While Justin Trudeau — the wokest of leaders — may well be many things, I don’t believe he is a racist. No one does. While black or brownface is indeed racist, Trudeau’s poor costume choices two decades ago do not reflect who he is today: a boring, phony, political coward.
Plenty of things that seemed acceptable or funny 20 years ago are not today. And people change. I mean, 20 years ago, I was wearing a white pleather mini skirt and a mesh animal print tank top, reciting every lyric to “I’m a player”. And I just cannot wait for someone to dredge up all of our old Halloween costumes. (I must have co-opted dominatrix culture at least three years in a row. All you Pocahontases better have your CVs ready.
The worst thing about cancel culture is not even its attacks on others – it’s that the whole thing is a lie. I don’t believe that anyone thought, deep down, that they were better than Justine Sacco who infamously lost her job for a tweet. They just didn’t make the mistake of trying to be funny on Twitter, in a culture that would prefer not to take a joke.
Cancel culture doesn’t actually want accountability. It doesn’t want an apology. It doesn’t want a conversation. It doesn’t even want the world to be safe from truly dangerous people or ideas. What it wants is to feel that boot on someone else’s neck – perhaps in order to avoid the boot itself.
What is the purpose, after all, of demanding an apology, only to say the apology isn’t good enough? (And the apology is never good enough.) What is the point of saying you want accountability, when no redemption is available? Do we want change or do we want flagellation?
The truth is that many people get off on sadistic, herd-like practices that thrive on platforms like Twitter. Who can be the angriest, the most righteous, and the most devout in their hatred of the Wrong? Who would Never Do Such A Thing, never mind think it?
I don’t think racist or homophobic comments are harmless, but I do think that we prefer punishment over change. And if we truly wanted people to understand other’s hurt and to change their behaviour, we wouldn’t write them off for life.
Recently, when past comments by comedian Shane Gillis about Chinese-Americans came out of the woodwork, the new Saturday Night Live cast member admitted that he “sometimes misses” and that in his “10 years of comedy… you’re going to find a lot of bad misses.”
NBC, having recently hired Gillis for their flagship comedy, promptly unhired him. Yet not everyone wanted him cancelled — Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, who himself has suffered numerous racial slurs, suggested the two men “sit down and talk” and added, “I do not think he should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive. We are all human. He does not strike me as malignant or evil. He strikes me as a still-forming comedian from central Pennsylvania who made some terrible and insensitive jokes and comments.”
And this is precisely the point. Good people can say bad things; most people can and do learn from their mistakes. And sometimes, on the internet, things are misunderstood, misrepresented, and blown out of proportion. (Most of the time, to be fair.)
Indeed, we seem to thrive on doing just that: taking a headline, an out of context comment or joke, and running with it, never reading the article, asking questions about context, never wondering what else might have been happening beyond the frame. We love to hate, so much more than we love the truth or love to understand.
This has led to a real culture of fear. Young people feel so afraid of ostracism that they won’t be honest, even with their closest friends. “I probably hold back 90 percent of the things that I want to say due to fear of being called out,” one student told The Atlantic 2017. “People won’t call you out because your opinion is wrong. People will call you out for literally anything.” This isn’t uncommon; we all know that those deemed to have made “wrong” comments do not get conversations, they get cancelled. Online and in real life.
And you don’t even need to express a cancellable opinion.
I’ve had several friends simply disappear on me, almost out of thin air – no explanation, no debate, no angry showdown. These are not people who suddenly discovered my opinions, either, since my political views have never exactly been a secret. Rather, they were experiencing pressure from friends — getting “called out” themselves, due to their continued association with me, and didn’t want to risk cancellation by association.
For personal (but obvious, without having to think too hard about it) reasons, I’ve got into attachment theory lately, and it strikes me that we’re living in a culture of avoidants. We are so afraid of making ourselves vulnerable that we reject those around us at the first sign of difficulty. We ghost with ease, and avoid face-to-face, honest conversations at all costs. Rather than drawing people in, we disconnect. We react in a knee-jerk manner so that we don’t need to think too hard. Our boundaries are solid — so rigid we need not question them, as we are confident in our one-sided answers: there is right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. No inbetween.
It is inhuman as well as isolating. We deny our own truths, authenticity, and humanity because we deny it of others. Yet we can’t be close to one another without vulnerability, honesty and face-to-face connections. And, in fact, I don’t believe we can be close without disagreement — without knowing that we can have hard conversations with those around us and still come out unscathed, and with respect for one another. We create a false ego based almost entirely on low self-esteem and fear, projecting hostile and cynical attitudes at those around us. Who needs that prick, anyway?
I say all this, having dabbled in this behaviour myself. Having knee-jerked, chosen oversimplified hot takes, and written off those I believed to be on the “wrong” side of the political spectrum. I have labelled people in unfair ways. I have judged them as bad and irredeemable, based on one act or opinion. I called people who didn’t share my politics various things that enabled me to write them off, including “Right-wing”, “neoliberal”, “misogynist”, “libertarian”, “woman-hater”, “liberal” or “MRA”.
I didn’t bother engaging with these people in good faith or try to understand their perspectives. This did not make me more right, and it did not make my ideas or arguments any stronger. It certainly did not make me a better or more compassionate person, or help me understand what people really thought; the opposite, in fact.
I regret mistakes I’ve made in the past, and I’m grateful to have learned from them, grown and changed. (Some things I’m undoubtedly still working on.) It is something everyone should have the opportunity to do, but I don’t see us granting people this space.
I don’t know what kind of world the cancellers want to create. Some say they support “social justice,” but their behaviour is incredibly anti-social and, while there is power in being a canceller, there is no joy. So go ahead and cancel everyone, bathed in the depressing blue glow of your iPhone, grasping at a high, safe within your own world. Righteous, but alone, and imprisoned by your own sanctimony.