The Actual Problem with Cancel Culture
For the most part, cancel culture has functioned extremely well. The punishment almost always fits the crime.
It doesn’t give me much qualm that Louis C.K. is being shunned for masturbating in front of unwitting witnesses. Woody Allen is merely irrelevant for having married his own daughter? Got off easy, if you ask me. Harvey Weinstein is, appropriately enough, doing actual jail time. Anthony Weiner has issues that argue he should never have been a public figure in the first place. His behavior was self-destructive, so why should it pain us that he self-destructed?
There is a fair critique of cancel culture to be made. I just haven’t heard it yet.
What I hear instead is a kind ad hominem response. What I hear from critics of “cancel culture” is a kind of weak retort: “I don’t care whether they have a point or not. I don’t like that point.” Alternatively, it’s to plead persecution. If I hear one more person compare cancel culture to a lynching, I’m going to lose my shit. Ostracism has a cost, but between a vicious shunning and the brutality of the ethno-fascism which we have never truly grappled with or resolved in this country, there is simply no comparison. The “canceled” still have a chance to find new paths and reinvent themselves. If someone as un-beloved as Kathy Griffin (canceled by the right with no one in other parts of the political spectrum motivated to come to her aid) can find a second act, well, just about anyone can. Actual lynchings are significantly more permanent.
No, when people attack cancel culture, they wind up attacking its aims, if not directly then by implication. No one who’s been canceled has found a way of pushing back without seeming to justify what they did or wind up seeming to criticize the push to greater fairness and tolerance that underpins “woke culture.” Admittedly, once you’ve been “canceled,” it’s kind of too late. Your motives are suspect.
No, you have to have your bona fides in order before you open your mouth. Someone who hasn’t already been compromised has to say: if our aims are inclusion and justice, we need to improve on the current model.
Why? The model isn’t working.
We’re more at each other’s throats than ever, and the retrograde forces are winning. Voting rights are being rolled back in many parts of the country. Armed rightist militias have done a test run of insurrection. That’s not strictly cancel culture’s fault, but cancel culture isn’t helping, for two reasons:
- It offers no path to redemption.
- It disproportionately punishes those who want to help and turns people who could be allies into enemies.
It is an American, all too American phenomenon. We Americans love nothing so much as to judge and to punish. Cancel culture is the spiritual twin of harsh sentencing laws. After all, there is a reason we have a higher incarceration rate than any other country on earth. If our penal system does not believe in rehabilitation, why would the court of public opinion? Once you commit a wrong, you are irredeemable.
And that’s a problem.
If there is no path to making things right, what incentive does someone have to try to do the right thing in the first place? You’re better off being Donald Trump from the start. Everyone else has to walk on eggshells and bear the risk of failure. Anyone with a conscience has to guard constantly against a fall from grace, while people who never even try to be decent can say whatever they want, do whatever they want…and still ascend to the highest office in the land.
The other problem is that cancel culture eats its own. While many of the people canceled are awful (Weinstein, Cosby, etc.), there are folks who actually do have a conscience. That’s what makes them cancelable.
JK Rowling is a great example. I don’t think she actively wants to harm transwomen, but she feels compelled to defend her position. When you defend a rhetorical position, it calcifies. Most people’s first instinct when challenged is to double down. You dig in, and what begins as a disagreement becomes an ad hominem conflict with no resolution. Someone like JK becomes angry and frustrated instead of the ally she in all likelihood would want to be.
Another prime example: Matt Taibbi, whom I’ll write up separately. Yes, he said and did some stupid things back in the day and betrayed certain biases in the process. Were women disproportionately the butt of the jokes he was a part of? Yep. Has he castigated the powerful and seen through many of the institutionalized forms of awfulness that make more lives more difficult than they need to be? Did he exhibit a lack of shame when his past writings came to light, or did he admit to them and apologize?
He clearly felt bad, because he acted against his own beliefs once upon a time. That recognition is the difference between a person who makes a mistake and an irredeemable monster. He is the former, not the latter; and yet, we treated him like the latter. Now he’s decided to train his energy on criticizing “censorship” and conformity in the mainstream media. How novel. How helpful.
What. A. Waste.
Like I said at the beginning, cancel culture isn’t indiscriminate. It gets things right more than it gets things wrong (Aziz Ansari, I’m sorry — you didn’t deserve for the world to know you’re a shitty lay). It might still win a few battles, yet lose the war.