In today’s world, the idea of “cancel culture” feels as ubiquitous as social media itself. The term gets thrown around quite a bit, and indeed, we are seeing a massive uptick in a desire to purify society by uprooting those who seemingly do not belong because they don’t share the proverbial values that others endorse. Recently, I saw two pretty chilling comments on Twitter – one from a verified blue checkmark journalist hoping that Elon Musk would die in a fire, and another from a similar type of personality saying that the people of Colorado Springs deserved to have a half dozen people die in a shooting because they – as a community – voted for Donald Trump. Strangely, there are more and more people who seem willing to wish physical harm upon others if they happen to fall in a camp whose ideas do not align with their own.
What frustrates me about all of this is when these same people try to make a claim that “cancel culture” is not real. It must feel good for those people to say that because their ideas are generally not in conflict with what is deemed “acceptable” today, so in some ways, they are sitting in Ivory Towers making these comments, knowing full well that they will most likely not be the victim of the dangers of groupthink.
Cancel culture is indeed quite real, and it is problematic because it promotes the silencing of people with whom we disagree. Further, it seeks to alienate anyone who has ever made any mistake in their lives. I do not intend to be hyperbolic because we are not quite there yet, but if cancel culture really had its way, the world we live in would be an Orwellian one indeed, where everyone must think and say certain things that are deemed “acceptable” for fear of losing their livelihoods. If this reminds you of places we do not want to become – like China, which has locked people away in concentration camps due to a differing ideology – then good, we have a common understanding thus far.
What is particularly problematic then are the efforts to try to explain away this disease by dismissing its very existence. The most common retort that I hear is that “cancel culture” is an exaggeration, and that what we are really experiencing is “accountability culture.” That is, that people are rightfully being punished for things they ought to be punished for, and that society is waking up to its evils and changing its ways for the better. The issue with this understanding is that it seems to lump everything together. This thinking is fairly common for those on either extreme of the political spectrum so it should not surprise anyone that it generally comes from those polar extremes and rarely from within the middle. What is lost amongst these people in almost all things they argue is that two things can be true at once. And in this case, the two things that can be true at once are this: some people deserve to be held accountable but not canceled, and some people deserve to be held accountable and canceled. And I would even position a third: some people do not need to be held accountable at all, because they did not do anything wrong.
Let’s start with the obvious cases of cancelation. Harvey Weinstein abused countless women and he is paying the price for it. Some might argue that he is not paying enough of a price for the emotional toll he put upon all of his victims. Either way, his life and his career are over, and rightfully so. This is almost universally agreed upon by everyone. We also saw what happened with Jeffrey Epstein alleged trafficking in underage women. Again, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say that Epstein was dealt a punishment too severe for his crimes. In both of these cases, laws were broken, people were physically harmed, and there was near universality and consensus amongst the populus that these were people we never wanted to hear from again. We wanted their lives ruined because they ruined so many lives themselves. And for those who might say I am comparing apples and oranges with speech issues and literal crimes, let’s look no further than, say, Louis Farrakhan, who for years has spewed anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and homophobic vitriol, and has rightfully been shunned by most on the political left as an outcast as a result of remarks that are patterned and documented over the course of decades and objectively bigoted.
Where this becomes more challenging is when people do bad things that are less awful, perfectly legal, and less harmful to society at-large. In my mind, there are a few things to consider in these cases, but ultimately it comes down to this: accountability is someone having to face the consequences for their actions whereas cancelation is ensuring that that person’s career and livelihood are forever stripped as penance. To me, it is one thing to boycott a person or their brand if you personally do not like something that they did. It is a completely different subject to assume that whatever thing they did makes them forever an evil person who is not worthy of any joy in their life and going to whatever lengths you see fit to make that a reality. This is where the cancel people fall short – they believe that if something offends them personally, it must offend everyone the same way, and that the culprit is irredeemable and must suffer forever. That is not accountability; it is borderline fascism.
When weighing cancel culture, I try to think about a few factors: how “bad” is the thing that the person did, what consensus is there amongst the population that the thing was bad, and lastly, what type of punishment is truly necessary to ensure that the individual learns their lesson? I think about Kevin Hart, who lost an opportunity to host the Oscar’s after it was surfaced that he had made some homophobic tweets about a decade prior. I have a gay older brother and have been a vocal advocate of the gay rights movement since well before it was deemed “cool.” I was not fond of Kevin Hart’s remarks, but then again, they were also made a very long time ago and I have no idea what kind of person he is today. For me to say that he should be stripped of an opportunity to further his career for a stupid thing he did would open me up to the same kind of treatment. Do any of us want that? Is it not possible that he had been rehabilitated in the time since the remarks?
It seems these days that when anyone has an opinion half the country disagrees with, the other half tries to de-platform that person to ensure they cannot speak their mind. It is generally very bad in my mind to try to get rid of someone when half the country actually agrees with what they have to say. Whenever I have a problem in my life, I try to figure out if I am the least common denominator. That is, is it always me having the issue, or do other people have the same issue sometimes? If it’s always me, the problem is probably something to do with me that I need to fix. However, if lots of other people are agreeing with me, I am not the least common denominator. In the case of people like Ben Shapiro or Joe Rogan, they are not least common denominators. For Shapiro, his content gets more attention than all of the major liberal media news outlets combined. In the case of Rogan, it is the most widely distributed podcast on the planet. People who disagree with them or do not like them are welcome to not listen to them. But trying to pressure social media companies (or their employers) to actually create harm for them – and in some cases, actually threatening physical violence against them – is so puerile that I cannot believe I even felt compelled to write this blog to explain this side of the story.
It turns out that Ellen Degeneres may be mean to her staff. As a consumer, this makes me less interested in consuming content from her, because I don’t really admire mean people who abuse their power. But the empathetic side of me says that any of us could be an Ellen Degeneres if we were in her shoes. It’s very easy to throw stones unless you live in a glass house. Just because I am empathetic does not mean I will watch her show. But it does mean I do not feel a need to try to ruin her life. I don’t need to try to create public pressure to get her to lose her job or her livelihood. In large part, this is because I have better things to do with my time than to constantly whine about everything that seems unfair. But more importantly, it’s because I can already exercise my free will to spend my time focusing on other celebrities. Her being mean to her staff does not necessitate a full-blown war where I do whatever I can to make sure Ellen can never rehabilitate herself. Because that is precisely the thing – she can rehabilitate herself. And if we live in a world where we ruin the lives of those who make mistakes, we will actually end up in a world with zero accountability, because everyone will be too scared to own up to their mistakes for fear of their lives ending.
Ultimately, the problem with all of this “accountability” is that it is subjective accountability. We live in a world, for example, where there is respectful disagreement about an issue like universal healthcare. But radicals on that issue would suggest that denying universal healthcare is a form of literal violence – just as words are literal violence to them. Most people can see the irony in calling anything that is not literal violence “literal violence,” but I digress. The point is, their viewpoint on the issue makes it so that you are conducting hate speech to oppose them: you are a proponent of what they perceive to be literal violence. And so your cancelation is imminent should you get up on your pulpit and air your contrary opinion. And therein lies the danger of subjective cancelation – that it is used to bully people in arguments for which we have no common established practice or language. We have agreed as a society that racism is bad, but have we agreed about universal healthcare? Have we agreed about policing or a myriad of other issues where having the “wrong” opinion can ruin your life?
As long as healthy debate is stifled by cancelation, it is hard for me to call it “accountability.” An accountable society is one that welcomes healthy dialogue, not one that suppresses peoples’ free speech and their ability to talk through possible solutions.