October 5, 2021

For all their romance, adventure, and happily-ever-afters, fairy tales have a way of illuminating the everyday frictions of life in a crowded world — and particularly how things can go wrong when a person primed for grievance meets someone who’s not at his best. Hence the perpetual presence in these stories of the conflict-seeking, hypersensitive fairy, who roams the countryside, often in disguise, testing the manners of the peasants and princes and rewarding the ones who prove polite — but also, more importantly, unleashing magical hell on the ones who don’t.

A vain young prince turns away the homeless hag seeking shelter at his castle, and is transformed into a repulsive beast. A girl insults the old crone who asked for a drink from her family’s well, and spends the rest of her life unable to speak without snakes and spiders falling out of her mouth. A couple makes an unfortunate oversight on the guest list for their baby’s christening, and the offended party casts a curse that puts the entire kingdom in a hundred-year coma.

On the surface, the moral of these stories is that kindness will be rewarded. But they’re also cautionary tales about being on your best behaviour in a world where offending the wrong person might just ruin your life.

It’s not hard to see how this notion would have resonated with people who lived in the highly stratified societies of old, where a lack of deference to your lordly betters could get you beaten, imprisoned, or executed. But unlike the hapless folks who accidentally pissed off an all-powerful sorceress, people who lived under lèse-majesté or similar statutes at least had a pretty good idea who the members of the ruling class were. One of the things that made these fairy tale scenarios so frightening was that anyone who asked you for an annoying favour might have the power to destroy you, and any moment of weakness or pettiness might be your last. By the time you realised that you’d bogarted a cabbage from a neighbour with magical powers and a penchant for kidnapping, it was too late.

In this way, the latest viral outrage from the annals of American culture feels a bit like something out of the Brothers Grimm. It happened last week at a dog park in Brooklyn, when two people got into, well, the sort of conflict that people at Brooklyn dog parks get into. Words were exchanged, tempers flared, and eventually, one party whipped out a cell phone and began recording the other — who walked away, but too late.

The curse was already cast.

The man with the recording, an author and activist named Frederick T. Joseph, posted it to Twitter with claims that he’d been “racially assaulted”: the woman on the video, he said, had threatened to call the police and unleashed a “racist tirade” in which she told him: “Go back to your hood.” Within 24 hours, his followers had identified and doxxed the woman, Emma Sarley, who was immediately denounced as a monster and fired from her job. (“Emma has been terminated,” Joseph told Twitter followers, in a thread about the incident that he updated with every development.)

The practice of cancelling ordinary people for minor public rudeness or crudeness has been a common practice for nearly 10 years now, even before the existence of YouTube compilations like “10 Karens Who Got What They Deserved”. In one early example of the phenomenon, a woman named Adria Richards overheard two men making a juvenile joke about “dongles” as they sat together at a tech conference, snapped a photo of the offending parties, and posted it on Twitter to demonstrate the tech industry’s supposed hostility to women.

The man who’d made the joke was fired (although surprisingly, within a few days, so was Richards.) But rather than serving as a cautionary tale about the dangers of rushing to judgment, the incident known as Donglegate has become a sort of template for posting first and asking questions later. In 2018, a Chipotle employee was publicly branded a racist and fired after she declined to serve a group of black men who hadn’t paid for their food. (Chipotle quietly rehired her after it was revealed that the men had a history of “dine and dash” theft and had targeted the restaurant before.) A year later, a video of Covington Catholic student Nick Sandmann smiling in front of a Native American protestor resulted in wall-to-wall media coverage, death threats, and the mass condemnation of a group of high school kids as evil white supremacists — even after additional footage revealed that the true story was somewhat more complicated.

Emma Sarley’s cancellation unfolded with lightning speed in part because it seemed so familiar: Americans had already been through one viral outrage in which a white woman at a dog park racially antagonised a black man and suffered the consequences. But like many sequels, this one was both flimsier and more far-fetched. Not only did the 27-second video lack any context for how the encounter began, it didn’t actually show Sarley saying the five words that doomed her to being denounced as a racist. And the charges against her were brought by a man with a pretty extensive history of public grievances that turned out to be either embellished or outright fabricated — including one remarkable incident in which he claimed that the owner of a rented Airbnb was conducting Satanic rituals in the basement. The peculiarities were enough to give at least some devout progressives pause, including Nikole Hannah Jones, who admitted on Twitter that the stunt seemed irresponsible and made her uncomfortable.

Of course, none of this mattered amid the mad rush to judgment that cost Sarley her job and reputation. And while time will tell if there was more to the story, there will be no prizes for having declined to join the mob (unless you count being angrily lambasted for your non-participation by online vigilantes who possess an enviable degree of confidence in their ability to read other people’s minds.) Even among people who agree that Sarley’s punishment was grossly disproportionate to whatever she might have done, there’s a tendency to shrug it off as something she could’ve avoided, if only she were more careful. “This is just the world we live in,” they say. “If it were me, I would simply never say or do anything that could cause me to be accused of racism.”

Obviously, these people never read fairy tales.

Otherwise, they might realise how easy it is for even a careful person to suffer extraordinary consequences over the most ordinary sort of conflict — if they’re unlucky enough to encounter the sort of chronically-aggrieved someone who has both the motivation and the platform to escalate something like a minor spat at the dog park into a full-blown attempt to annihilate your life. After all, cursed characters like the cabbage-stealing pregnant woman aren’t punished for doing evil. They’re punished for being rude.

And as with contemporary cancellations, these are as much stories about people losing their minds over minor transgressions as they are about the transgressors themselves. A man is sentenced to live as a beast, all because he didn’t want to let a random stranger stay overnight in his house. An entire kingdom, cursed to a deathlike sleep because someone felt snubbed at a birthday party. Sure, the cursed could have simply been nicer, kinder, more generous and less petty. But the all-powerful fairies and witches of these fictional worlds could also engage a little restraint and stop going scorched-earth on ordinary human beings at the slightest hint of offense.

By this same token, the New York Times-bestselling author with a massive platform and an enormous amount of social and cultural power might have genuinely believed that a random 25-year-old stranger was “racially assaulting” him when she (allegedly) suggested he take his (allegedly) aggressive dog back to his own neighbourhood. Maybe he was even correct about her motivations. But his choice to blow up her life over it was just that: a choice.

And it’s one with alarming implications. The costs don’t stop with the cancelled person; nobody really wants to live in a world where such low-grade conflicts, an unavoidable part of daily life in a big city, become punishable by social and professional death. Where anyone could be a secret surveillance agent with the power and motivation to wreck your life. Where the only way to be sure of your safety is to avoid offending these people by behaving perfectly at all times — and that’s assuming you can keep up with a continually-evolving definition of what “perfect” behaviour should look like. Who among us can claim to have always been a perfect paragon of politeness even on his most difficult day? Who is this certain that he always will be?

In a country founded on robust speech protections and personal liberty, which relies on high levels of social trust to keep functioning, things begin to unravel when that trust erodes. It’s not good for a society when people start surveilling and snitching on each other. We stop sharing, stop collaborating, and start thinking about keeping an oppo file on everyone, the better to get them before they get us. It’s also not good to normalise the existence of a class of secret police whom you offend at your own peril, not least because once you create that category, everyone — including the actual police — are going to want a part of it.

This isn’t merely theoretical. Every time the American public starts getting too gung-ho about punishing people for hateful, hurtful, or otherwise offensive speech, the state inevitably jumps on that bandwagon, leveraging the momentum for their own purposes. If people should be protected from hurtful speech on the basis of race, sex, or religion, they say, surely other identity categories should be granted a certain noble status… like, say, being a member of law enforcement. And if it’s only fair that Emma Sarley have her life ruined for insulting Frederick T. Joseph, the cops are sure you’ll agree that we should punish other acts of disrespect just as harshly — like flipping off a police officer. Or stamping on a “Back the Blue” flag. Or having a bumper sticker that the local sheriff finds obscene.

There’s a true sympathy and depth of feeling that leads some on the Left to want to compensate for historic wrongs, centuries in which black Americans suffered abuse and discrimination, by elevating allegations of racism today to a special category of Bad — in which case there can never be such a thing as an overreaction to perceived bigotry. It’s well-intentioned but ultimately condescending; what are we to make of the notion that a wealthy, educated, highly successful and influential black man like Joseph is nevertheless so defined, and so damaged, by his race that he can’t be expected to wield his considerable social capital responsibly? To think twice before destroying a less powerful person? To exercise restraint when his neighbours get on his nerves?

That’s a fairy tale in its own right — one whose narrative works against progress, against individualism, and, ironically, against diversity in a place where people of many wildly different backgrounds have to coexist in close quarters. America, a nation of immigrants, has been more successful at this than most. We bond over our common humanity, we work for the betterment of our communities, we rub shoulders with all sorts of people — and occasionally, we butt heads the way neighbours tend to do. But in a free and equal society, that needn’t stop us from living happily (or mostly) ever after, side by side.