What Critics Seem To Be Missing About ‘Cancel Culture’

After Harper’s published an open letter signed by many prominent authors, professors and journalists, there has been a fair number of counter-responses and podcast episodes decrying the open letter’s concerns about cancel culture stifling the free exchange of ideas. So far the responses all seem to be employing three or four primary strands of argument, and all of the strands are nothing more than a variation of strawmanning and gaslighting. The fact of the matter is: there is an environment (albeit mostly existing online) of intimidation and fear that is used to silence people who might have a more heterodox, humorous, or contrarian viewpoint about hot-button subjects like race, gender identification, cultural appropriation, sexual dynamics or the relationships between men and women. People who disagree with the above statement, and the Harper’s Letter, more specifically, seem to argue these four basic points:

  1. Cancel Culture Isn’t Real Because Rich People

One of the signatories catching the most flack is J.K. Rowling, author of the “The Bottomless Cash Machine That Wore Round Glasses.” “Harry Potter.” The young adult series and subsequent films have given Rowling a license to print money, and indeed she has. A quick Google search estimates her worth to be somewhere around $750 million. There are other (presumably) wealthy signatories as well: Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Jeffrey Eugenides, ect… I say presumably because I have no idea what’s in their bank account and neither does anyone else. So as an argument that cancel culture doesn’t exist, this one is particularly weak. In other words: stop counting people’s money.

But let’s assume, for sake of argument, that ALL of the signatories are wealthy beyond imagination. So what? While it’s true that wealth provides a parachute, it doesn’t take away the fact that the person is no longer in the aircraft. People are successful at this level because they are passionate and dedicated to their vocation. Many of the signatories are writers, and as a writer, I can assure you, we don’t do this for the money. Most of us recognize that the publishing industry is 98% failure, with 2% of us ripping open the chocolate bar to discover a Golden Ticket inside. Most of us have primary jobs (teachers, journalists, insurance agents) and are writing in our underwear at 1 o’clock in the morning because we care about creating something and offering it to the world. We know full well that most likely, a handful of people will read our books, and three months after publication we’ll drift off into total obscurity having made zero impact on the literary landscape. But our passion, our desire drives us. Having that taken away because of some “problematic” view we expressed on Twitter or Facebook or in our ARCs is petrifying. There are plenty of examples in the publishing world of authors who are not named JK Rowling that have suffered severe disruptions to the things they’re passionate about because a cadre of snitches and schoolmarms launched a campaign to shut them down. That stands for presidents of organizations, volunteers, board members, committee members, or any other role people accept because they love the industry they serve. It’s not just about money; it’s about being able to participate in the communities they care about. The letter speaks for these people, not the prominent and sometimes wealthy signatories who were asked to sign it. 

  1. Cancel Culture Is Just Criticism

Or its variations: “Cancel culture is just accountability culture.” “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.” “Just because someone is mean to you on Twitter doesn’t make it cancel culture.” All the variations are significantly underestimating the impact these “mean Tweets” have on people who find themselves on the receiving end of this phenomenon. It dovetails nicely with the first dopey argument, because skeptics love to point at Rowling and Noam Chomsky and others as proof that, while they may have suffered some discomfort from being attacked online, they haven’t really suffered any serious damage. This may be true for the signatories, but it’s certainly not true for those of us who experience genuine fear, knowing we don’t have a platform to defend ourselves should the Ringwraiths come for us. For someone like Rowling, maybe it does only sting a little, and perhaps the “consequence” is that she loses a couple hundred thousand fans. But for the average person who wishes to communicate and runs a relatively obscure blog, or is hired as an at-will employee, the “consequences” are often not commensurate with the crime. Allow me to illustrate the difference between Cancel Culture and mere criticism. 

Criticism: 

Person A: “Blah, blah, Problematic thing that might be offensive, blah, blah.”

Persons B through Z: “You’re a creep and a jerk. Fuck all the way off and then go kill yourself!” 

THE END

Cancel Culture: 

Person A: “Blah, blah, Problematic thing that might be offensive, blah, blah.”

Persons B through G: “You’re a creep and a jerk. Fuck all the way off and then go kill yourself!” 

Persons H through T: “Looks like he works for Geico. Do your thing Twitter.”

Persons T through Z: Hey @Geico  Do you realize you have a problematic employee out here denying my existence? Come get your boy.” 

Geico: “Thank you for bringing this employee to our attention. He no longer works for Geico. His words do not reflect the values of our company.” 

Consequences for speech that others find offensive or distasteful or outdated should be that everyone thinks you’re a wanker and doesn’t want to listen to you anymore. You lose followers on Twitter, your YouTube channel goes from 30,000 to 3 views, maybe even your neighbors know what you said and think you’re a douchebag. Those are consequences I think many people would be/should be willing to sign up for if they want to communicate and express themselves publicly. As I write this I am fully aware that the 10 people who read this may drop to 4 next time I post another blog. What shouldn’t happen is that my employer gets bombarded with emails and Tweets, and because they are spineless and frightened, they cut me loose rather than weather the brief storm. That’s when criticism crosses into cancelation, which is what the letter outlines. Any other interpretation is just a cynical strawman. 

  1. My Existence Isn’t Up For Debate

A particularly slimy strawman and the easiest strategy to win any debate. The “My-right-to-exist-isn’t-negotiable” strategy. Theoretically it can be used in just about any scenario. 

Climate Change: “Well, I work for an oil company; that’s how I feed my family. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Abortion: “A child’s right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Gun Control: “I need guns to defend my family. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!”

Confederate Statues: “My great granddaddy fought under Stonewall Jackson. You’re erasing my existence!” 

Healthcare Reform: “I’m a doctor who expects to be rightly compensated for my labor. My right to exist isn’t up for debate!” “Yeah, well I have diabetes and need affordable healthcare. My right to exist isn’t negotiable!”

This is fun!

I’m not the most versed person when it come to LGBQT issues, I’ve never been the victim of sexual assault, and I have no clue what it’s like to worry about whether or not I’ll survive the ordeal of being pulled over by a cop. But I think there are a lot of cafes and rest stops between the status quo (which isn’t working) and “We don’t think you should exist.” Conversations such as: How should we ensure some degree of due process on college campuses and in the workplace? How do we handle trans individuals who want to engage in combat sports or enter vulnerable spaces such as women’s prisons? What would ‘defunding the police’ actually look like? These are serious topics that we can probably tackle in a way that protects everyone involved while being inclusive and compassionate toward vulnerable members of our population. But some don’t seem to want to even have the conversation. They’d rather strawman the question into a question of one’s right to exist and then intimidate anyone who raises these issues into silence. That’s the most invidious aspect of cancel culture: it puts a stranglehold on conversations, understanding, negotiation and consensus. 

  1. Cancel Culture Isn’t Important Because Trump

When and if you do get a cancel culture skeptic to finally concede that we might have a problem with how we engage one another in public forums, one of their final Hail Marys will be something similar to what the response letter states: “It is impossible to see how these signatories are contributing to “the most vital causes of our time” during this moment of widespread reckoning with oppressive social systems.”

The implication being that cancel culture isn’t a vital issue when compared to concerns such as removing Trump from office, reforming our police system, reforming our criminal justice system, creating equity and inclusion in our industries, and preventing massive rollbacks on reproductive rights now that we have a majority conservative SCOTUS. But I would posit that in order for these issues to be addressed and properly redressed, public conversations, otherwise known as “free speech” need to be upheld until it hurts. Yes, Trump is a human dumpster fire. Yes, we still have kids in cages. Yes, people are being swept off the streets in Portland. Yes, Trump used physical force to clear a path for his church photo-op. Yes, Russia might still be interfering in our elections. Yes, our president might have been aware that Russia was paying bounties for the lives of American soldiers in the Middle East. Yes, these are all major problems that do, in the immediate climate, make getting mobbed by activists on Twitter pale in comparison. But when we talk about cancel culture, we’re really talking about principles. I happen to think that both the right and the left are necessary. The right is there to prevent us from overreaching in our principles and the left is there to prevent corruption from settling into permanent power structures and institutions. It is my sense that we are creeping dangerously toward a one-party outlook, whereby the solutions to our problems can only be solved by either Democrats or Republicans. Both parties can and will become authoritarian under that outlook; history has taught us at least that much. For progress to happen, conversations need to happen between the two opposing forces. Compromise, in some cases, might even be necessary. Instilling fear in people who want to engage in the national conversation, or even make a silly joke about something, is corrosive to the principle of free speech, a free press, the free exchange of ideas. Furthermore, it does little to actually create true change in our society. Think about it: is getting John Doe, FedEx delivery man, fired from his job for saying the n-word on a commuter train going to make him less racist, or just more resentful? Or do you support it simply because it gives you a sense of control over other human beings and their livelihoods? Because, in the aggregate, that might be what we are giving up the most in all this hullabaloo about cancel culture. Maybe opponents of cancel culture, like myself, just don’t want to give random people the tools by which they can control us. 

I sign off with this interesting nugget. Just days before the Covid-19 pandemic shut much of the country down on March 19, the New York Times ran a narrative piece from a female professor who tells a harrowing tale of the absolutely Dante-ian ring of hellfire she went through during a Title IX investigation. The woman was poised to receive a tenure-track position at a new university in a different state where her wife had just received an assignment. Just days from being chosen as the preferred candidate, the hiring university received anonyous emails from a former grad student of the professor, claiming she was subjected to the professor’s unyielding sexual harassment. As is protocol, the university launched an investigation and ultimately decided to go with another candidate, a male professor whom the accused knew personally. As it turns out, this male professor was the author of the anonymous emails. He used false accusations to torpedo this woman’s chances of getting hired, so he could secure the position for himself. When this came to light, the offer was rescinded, and he has been dragged into court for libel, defamation of character and emotional and economic damages. Consequences, right? The NYT piece deliberately did not mention the name of this disgraceful man. However, after the piece ran, a woman with a rather large Twitter following took it upon herself to use context clues, court dates, and the name of the author to unearth the identity of the man and share it with her followers. Apparently, on behalf of this Times author she never met, she wanted more blood than the courts were willing, or perhaps able, to extract. The digital mobbing, which this blue-check user approved, resulted in his current employer being contacted as well as his publishing agent. His agent responded with a statement that they no longer represent him. One of the final, and most chilling, Tweets on this incident occurred just before we all went into lockdown here in the Northeast. A man wrote something to the effect of: ‘Don’t think the coronavirus is going to make us forget about you. We’re coming for you once this is over.’  The woman who started this interrupted avalanche against a man who has been held accountable in court? She was a signatory on the response letter claiming cancel culture doesn’t exist. 

If you took the time to read this, let me know where I’m going wrong. I’m always open to re-think and change my position. Just don’t cancel me.

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