Professional Assholes Equate Consequences With 'Cancel Culture' To Obscure That They're Finally Being Held Accountable

from the don't-let-them-get-away-with-it dept

You may recall, last summer, there was a big dustup regarding a letter published in Harper’s Magazine about cancel culture (though it didn’t use that term). I pointed out the irony of a bunch of very famous writers whining about being silenced and even took a shot at what a much better letter could have said. Harper’s even asked me to pen a response to the letter which it published (though, it only gave me a limited amount of space, and complained about some of what I originally submitted, which I — at least — found amusingly ironic).

Since then these debates have continued to flare up, as people keep screaming “cancel culture” in many situations where it simply does not apply. There are some who argue that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” which possibly takes things too far. I do think what can be said is that there are some cases where someone loses their job for questionable reasons, often having to do with a bunch of people online overreacting. And it’s reasonable to point out those cases and to highlight the unfair response. However, the focus on “cancel culture” and the willingness to expand that phrase to cover just about any consequences is very much being abused by the powerful to try to shield themselves from consequences.

Two recent pieces help drive this home. The always insightful and brilliant Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post has an excellent piece about how being held accountable is not “cancel culture.” This article drove home a key point for me: even if there are cases of cancel culture, the people who are whining most loudly about it are really trying to use those few legitimate stories of overreaction as a whitewash shield to argue that they should never be held accountable for their own behavior or assholish behavior.

As Sullivan points out, most of what people are complaining about as “cancel culture” is really people exercising their 1st Amendment rights to call out bad behavior and ridiculous arguments. And that’s a good thing. We should want bad behavior and ridiculous arguments to be called out. And, yes, we should recognize that sometimes people overreact. And sometimes there’s more nuance and the bad behavior maybe isn’t bad, or the ridiculous arguments aren’t so ridiculous. But often they are. And that’s where people speaking out and debating these things makes sense. As Sullivan notes, having people push back on nonsense is a good thing. It’s called responsibility:

It would help if journalists pushed back more effectively. CNN?s Pamela Brown gave a master class in her devastating interview with Madison Cawthorn, a Republican congressman from North Carolina. By the end, he had no defense left for his election denialism.

But, even if that sort of pushback becomes the norm, news organizations should be wary of handing these charlatans a megaphone.

You can call that cancel culture if you want. I call it responsibility.

The good news is that, in America, we get to argue about it.

The other piece comes from Will Wilkinson, who was recently let go from a job he had at the Niskanen Center, after a very disingenuous Trumpist online troll took what was an obvious joke from Wilkinson and pretended it was not a joke, trying to whip up faux outrage and comparing it to outrage that was more legitimate (I’m not going to get into the specifics, because it’s really stupid). Unfortunately, the Niskanen Center (whose work I often appreciate) decided to get away from the controversy and let Wilkinson go. And then some people turned up a tweet he had made from last year suggesting that cancel culture isn’t real. This resulted in a bunch of “well, what do you think now?” kind of takes.

Except, Will then responded and pointed out that what he experienced is not cancel culture, and rightly notes how the phrase is not just meaningless, but it collapses any of the important nuances and arguments into a mindless slogan (which is what allows dishonest brokers and assholes to hide behind it):

In my experience, tendentious question-begging is the point. Slogans like ?cancel culture? and ?political correctness? are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position. The person who believes that the transgression is serious enough to merit severe consequences isn?t given a fair chance to make her case for this position. Instead, she?s forced to earn the right to make the case by acquitting herself of the implicit charge that she is a petty tyrant policing mind-crimes in the name of stultifying ideological conformity. Good-faith discussion of the gravity of racist jokes never gets off the ground.

That?s why ?cancel culture? tends to strike me as more of an evasive maneuver than a coherent idea with determinate content.

And that’s exactly right. The phrase rarely seems to be used by those who actually are a victim of true overreaction. Even when unfair, they seem to recognize the nuances and uniqueness of their own scenario. Instead, those who scream about cancel culture the loudest seem to be the very type of people who are most afraid of any consequences for being an asshole.

Let’s put it this way. Bad judgment doesn’t call into question good judgment. The prevalence of unjust and unmerited censure, sanction, and ostracism should not suggest to us that censure, sanction and ostracism, as such, need a hard second look. The problem is the imposition of undeserved or disproportionate penalties. Penalizing people for flouting rules, norms or the terms of agreements is no more worrying than rewarding those who faithfully hew to them. Without the distribution of approbation and disapprobation, without a functioning economy of esteem, human civilization would crumble to dust and blow away.

People should get what they deserve. Duh. But what do people deserve? We?re never ever ever going to agree about that. We will always disagree about the bounds of acceptable speech and behavior. Even when we can manage to agree that somebody’s crossed what we agree is the line, we may nevertheless differ sharply about the gravity of the transgression and the price they ought to pay for it. Pluralism is hard. But we should steer into these disagreements, the real ones, and not evade them by fighting over the application of a dumb catchy term somebody made up six months ago to shut down constructive debate about whether the social opprobrium they?re trying to shield themselves and their friends from is deserved.

Exactly that.

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Comments on “Professional Assholes Equate Consequences With 'Cancel Culture' To Obscure That They're Finally Being Held Accountable”

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Bloof (profile) says:

‘Dear Harper’s Magazine, the other day I decided that it would be a wonderful idea to yell obscenities from the top of my neighbour’s roof at 2am in the morning, calling them names and declaring that their grandmother was a horse fornicator, Much to my shock, uncivilised people yelled back, called me a moron then removed me from the property, claiming that I have no right to be there. In the weeks that followed, all my neighbours gave me deathglares and not one of them spoke to me or returned friendly waves when I saw them in the street. i am shocked by the lack of civility that’s being shown to me for the words i said and the actions I have taken of my own free will, this is a sure sign that I am being deprived my freedom of speech. This is not the only incident, I was also scolded for telling children their parents have died and for yelling fire in a crowded theatre, cancel culture has gone too far! I beseech the readership to ignore any part I played in my situation and write to their congress person and complain on twitter about my neighbours and the fact I am being silenced because I am entitled to an audience and unconditional forgiveness as I am the right colour and related to people who have power and influence. There should be no consequences for anything I do, and when I fall, it should always be upward. I look forward to being given a platform and I am entitled to one by my sense of entitlement.’

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
SirWired says:

Remember "Pax" getting "canceled"?

Anybody remember that BusinessInsider CxO, Pax Dickinson, who got himself "canceled" for saying some sexist things (as a "joke") on Twitter (where he labeled himself as the CxO)? A lot of people rallied to his defense at the time, talking about how he really wasn’t the sexist pig his tweets made him look like.

Well, a not-long time after, he was scheduled to be one of the headline speakers at the infamous "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, right alongside Holocaust Deniers, White Supremacists, and guys who are openly proud of being sexist pigs. (He was listed right there on the poster about the rally by the organizers. I don’t know if he turned up to speak.)

I’d say that either Pax has astoundingly poor judgement, or he really is the pig a bunch of people thought he was.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Remember "Pax" getting "canceled"?

Ah. By all accounts, Roald Dahl was a horrible, horrible person. But he wrote some books I enjoyed a lot.

This Dickinson guy. Even if he (for example) supported fascists, the KKK, and Exxon-mobile, he may still have been the most fervent feminist you could find. People are more than one thing at a time.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
jilocasin (profile) says:

Good points

Good points Mike. While we shouldn’t let the overreacting whitewash the actions of those who truly should be called to task, we should also be careful not to pile on calls for ostracism, until we have taken the time to review for ourselves just what the issue is.

As you have written, things most often call for nuance. We wouldn’t want to lend credence to those who want to conflate responsibility with ideological conformity enforcement.

Baron von Robber says:

Reminds me of Trumpanzees using Schrodinger’s Douchebag when it came to Trump’s tweets.

Schrodinger’s Douchebag is when a douchebag is in a superposition of
serious or trolling states; upon one of their douchey statements being
parsed, the douchebag is forced at a quantum level to assume a state of
serious or trolling

sumgai (profile) says:

I"m not sure if this is a good summary, but my gut feeling here is that nuance is the opposite of emotion, which is the driving force behind the so-called cancel culture. Probably needs to be fleshed out though.

And for the record, I’m curious as to why I see (read into the article) #45’s name about every other line. Anyone else get that too?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"I’m curious as to why I see (read into the article) #45’s name about every other line"

Because he’s the poster boy for being used to getting away with bad behaviour, or he’s the poster boy for getting kicked out when even the most patient people have had enough of his crap, despite having had many chances?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
crade (profile) says:

The reason cancel culture isn’t a thing is because "Cancel culture" isn’t the claim that sometimes people get it wrong.. it’s a defense of the indefensible. It’s not trying to argue whether or not you are right that you think Nike uses child labour, just trying to argue regardless of whether you are right or not you shouldn’t tell anyone why you think that or do anything about it.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Cancel culture" as many in the Harper’s Letter put it kills conversation on social norms by abruptly imposing harsh social and economic penalties on recently-normal opinions and acts. This is an extremely common phenomena especially in subcultural spaces online.

"Cancel culture" as many professional assholes use it is an attempt to shield themselves from consequences of truly abhorrent behavior.

I’d like to think that few here support "cancel culture" in the former sense, but I’ve been jaded enough by people I’ve used to respect over the years to really believe that. I have no more trust in that regard, only depression as sociopaths are shielded from consequences time and again just because their sociopathy and abuse is done in the name of Critical Theory. I’ve lost count of the number of sexual abusers, groomers, grave dancers, blackmailers, and extortionists I’ve seen get away with with crap over the past 7 years because they’re also known for speaking in support of Critical Theory.

I no longer expect integrity from much of the Civil Liberties community on the matter. It’s made abundantly clear that as long as you act in the name of whatever is trendy in Civil Liberties activism, you can be as abhorrent a person as you want to be without fear of consequence.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Cancel culture" as many in the Harper’s Letter put it kills conversation on social norms by abruptly imposing harsh social and economic penalties on recently-normal opinions and acts.

Out of curiosity which ‘recently-normal opinions and acts’ would those be, and please be specific, because context and details matter when you’re talking about social backlash and penalties.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes, Rowling is a good example of someone why said some very offensive things that angered both her own fans and customers of both her publisher and the services she used to say them, thus facing consequences for what she said. But, she’s really not a good example of the reaction from the people she offended and the businesses catering to those people, their friends, families and supporters being unjustified.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Off the top of my head?

Making vague appeals to free speech (used to be of paramount importance on the left) now gets you people threatening your employer calling you a Nazi because of a growing demographic that assumes anyone who would utter the term wants to dehumanize the LGBT community or BIPoC. A number of signers of the Harper’s Letter were subject to people gunning for their jobs solely due to them being signatories.

Wearing cornrows if you aren’t black.

Wearing Sombreros if you aren’t hispanic.

Mocking the KKK in a frat party by putting on a play where one of the actors is playing the part of the bad guy (a.k.a. the KKK). Playing the part of the bad guy makes you an actual bad guy these days, apparently.

Being the widowed wife of a YouTuber who had the unfortunate judgement of involving himself in discussion around GamerGate. You’d think family members who stayed out of the controversy would be off limits, but not to journalists on Forbes.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I love the way you answered "be specific" with vague editorialised claims rather than actual examples. This is why nobody takes you people seriously – you avoid giving real information because you know that as soon as you provide real examples, your claims are easily proven false.

"Wearing cornrows if you aren’t black.

Wearing Sombreros if you aren’t hispanic."

Cultural appropriation is a sensitive subject in modern times, but I can’t think of any examples where people have suffered actual problems by doing so unless they’re also generally just dicks who are suffering consequences for other actions.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I’m not entirely sure why backing up your own claims about people being kicked off websites for things they said is related to unfortunate people facing actual real life issues. But I appreciate your generosity in that area, and look forward to discussing any examples you have on the subject at hand once you’re able to provide something to investigate.

Terran Ghost says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Quote: "Cultural appropriation is a sensitive subject in modern times"
"Cultural appropriation" is most of a time a bogus claim, rent-seeking and attempt at money grab using the maximalist interpretation of so called "intellectual property" concept.
"Cultural appropriation" could only be problematic if we are talking about adopting something form the culture of one of the minority native peoples, that don’t have their own country, like Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians and peoples like them. It is problematic not per se, but because of the fact they are struggling to maintain their culture under pressure from the dominant culture of the country they are living in. So adopting their culture blindly could trivialise it and actually lead to culture’s outright extinction.
But it is perfectly normal to adopt element from culture of nations that do have their own independent nation-states with population in tens of millions or more. If, say, a Canadian of European descent adopt elements of Mexican culture, it doesn’t put Mexican culture at jeopardy – it is still dominant in Mexico. If, say, an Italian adopt elements of of Japanese culture, it doesn’t put Japanese culture at jeopardy – it is still dominant in Japan. And so on…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Oh, here’s a recent one –
Donald McNeil being forced to retire from the New York Times amidst his (poor judgement) mention of the n-word when discussing the topic of rap lyrics during a field trip with students to Peru in 2019. There was no intent to offend, but intentions no longer matter. This excellent journalist is now persona non grata at the New York Times.

Isolated lapses in judgement in the past wouldn’t have resulted in such an extreme and disproportionate response. But hey – who cares about that? Your intent and history no longer matters in the modern era when it comes to Critical Theorists.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

To be clear – the mention of the n-word was when a student had asked him about the case of a classmate of her’s being suspended for having a video of herself as a 12-year-old saying the n-word. When he asked for clarification on the context, he used the word itself. He thought it was a defensible use of the word given the context. He wrote a groveling apology for it and that apparently resulted in more backlash that he wasn’t removed then and there.

Dozens of staffers demanded his removal. Possible there was other pressure involved from external sources? Unknown.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Isolated lapses in judgement in the past wouldn’t have resulted in such an extreme and disproportionate response"

Outright racist and sexist abuse wouldn’t have resulted in such things in the past, but this is a different time. There was a time where sexual harassment at the workplace was commonplace, even expected, for example. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get canned for such things today, even if what you did was mild compared to Mad Men.

Whether you think it’s an overreaction in this case (and it seems that many NYT employees agree with you, for what it’s worth), saying "we used to be able to get away with stuff like this" is not necessarily a positive thing, depending on how far back you wish to go.

"This excellent journalist is now persona non grata at the New York Times."

But still welcome anywhere else based on those credentials? This isn’t a person getting "cancelled" from an entire industry, this is a single employer responding to public complaints about an employee. This happens every day for a wide variety of reasons, and nobody complains about those. It’s only when something like this fits into a wider complaint that people even talk about them.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's really simple what's happening

People should get what they deserve. Duh. But what do people deserve? We’re never ever ever going to agree about that.

Much of what you see today is the 40 and under political right repaying people seven times for things like firing someone because of a single tweet.

The ADL and other groups are now losing their minds because their opponents are as good at doxxing as they are and are heavily using it. Consider this argument:

‘Unlawful doxing is different from the work that activists and researchers — including those at ADL — are now engaging in to identify extremists and help law enforcement agencies investigate the rioters who violently stormed the Capitol.’

It’s different because shut up!

What people across the aisle haven’t figured out is that "your enemy always has a vote" and yes, your enemy gets to use the same tactics on you that you do on them. There is no limiting principle on these things.

Cancel culture, doxxing, etc. the cat is out of the bag. This is why we used to value pluralism and tell people to grow a thicker skin. It was to ensure that we wouldn’t devolve into a game of people who feel like they’re on the losing end (no matter where they sit in society) starting to assault the norms and mores that hold us together.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: It's really simple what's happening

"It’s different because shut up!"

It’s different because in the first case people are having their private information released to the general public, including would-be stalkers and attackers, because some random asshole has a beef with them. While, in the second case people are helping the FBI and other agencies in their public requests for information to locate wanted criminals.

I’m sorry that your personal politics makes this confusing, but it’s fairly clear.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Not my problem

I’m sorry that your personal politics makes this confusing, but it’s fairly clear.

I’m sorry that you’re a moron who can’t see my point that "the enemy always has a vote" means you don’t get to say "well this tactic is ok because we’re the good guys, but you’re the bad guys so the exact same tactic is evil."

That’s right up there with "when Hamas double taps first responders, it’s terrorism but when CIA drone operators double tap a target it’s just war mmkay?"

The fact is that groups like the ADL have been pro-doxxing for years, doxxing people over speech. As things heat up, it’s going to get worse and retribution will be the norm.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not my problem

When the CIA (or the US military for that matter) kills first responders by bombing an area that was recently bombed they are acting no better than Hamas or any other terrorist organization that does this. The only difference would be if the area attacked was an active warzone already and even then it would be questionable.

On your original point, my understanding is that the ADL doesn’t publicly dox people. They simply provide their identifying information along with evidence of any crimes to law enforcement agencies. Operating within the legal system makes the difference.

Unless, of course, you believe that there’s effectively an asymmetric war between the ADL and their detractors where the "other side" uses public doxxing the same way that the ADL uses the justice system. While I can see the logic in such a point of view, I can’t agree with it.

Finally, if I remember correctly, PaulT is from the UK so using an American agency probably isn’t as effective in your argument.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not my problem

So, your answer to me pointing out that responding to public requests for information by the FBI to catch wanted criminals is not doxxing is to… go into a rant about doxxing that has nothing to do with the hunt for the people who tried overthrowing American democracy?

Like I said, your personal politics seems to be turning you into an idiot. Stop that.

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restless94110 (profile) says:


Assholes–professional or otherwise–have always been free to be whoever they are without mob justice coming after them.

You apparently think that if you do not approve of what they think and say then it’s A-ok to harass them and get them fired. They had it coming, right, bud?

You know, in the America of just a few short years ago, if someone told a "racist" joke, you just said, oh well. Who really cares? And then you moved on. Watch Chris Rock’s HBO (or Showtime) Special from the late 90s. Chock a block full of so-called "racist" jokes.

And funny as hell. It’s all kinds of wrong to poo poo those you don’t agree with and call them crazy or despicable or whatever term you want to use.

It’s not going to end well, as sooner rather than later, you will come to be judged by the cancel culturalists.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Here’s why I say “cancel culture” isn’t really a thing.

  1. It suggests a tendency of society rather than the existence of some bad cases.

  2. With few exceptions, those who complain about so-called “cancel culture” are never both the victims of the thing they are complaining about and that what they said or did is actually justifiable.

  3. No one I’ve asked seems to agree on an actual, coherent, consistent definition of the term, nor can they seem to agree on what instances are cancel culture and what is justified, rendering it meaningless.

  4. The main proposed solutions to the proposed “problem” would silence far more justified and 1A-protected speech than actual overreaction, to the extent there is any agreement on a solution at least.

  5. It serves only to remove nuance and silence debate and is not an actual argument in itself.

There are what I would call “employer’s conflict avoidance” and “overreactive cancellation” that cover the individual instances, which can be debated, but I wouldn’t say that means that “cancel culture” actually exists or needs to be “solved”.

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