"Cancel Culture" claims are exaggerated. That doesn't mean there's no problem.
On wanting accountability that is in line with progressive values
WHY ARE YOU WADING INTO THIS ONE?
What I’m Writing
What I’m Reading
The Three Weeks that Changed Everything — James Fallows on what went wrong
The View From Here
Another day, another debate on whether “cancel culture” is real or whether it’s the invention of thin-skinned public commentators who already have platforms and power and don’t want to be told that they’re wrong. The latest iteration comes in response to this open letter published in Harpers and signed by writers from across the political spectrum, including people with whom I rarely agree and find somewhat boring (David Frum, Bari Weiss, Cathy Young); people with whom I rarely agree but find interesting, provocative, and thoughtful (Thomas Chatterton Williams, Meghan Daum, Anne Applebaum); and people for whom I have tremendous respect and am nearly always in agreement with (Michelle Goldberg, Dahlia Lithwick, Zephyr Teachout, Loretta Ross). The content of the letter itself is not particularly objectionable (I don’t think?), but it is of course being read within a particular context, and so objections have mounted.
Part of the pushback comes from a sense that complaints about “cancel culture” essentially amount to the people who have long been on top — white people, men — no longer having perches from which to expound on whatever they please without critique or consequences. And there is certainly a good deal of truth to that. Many of the same people who complain about cancelation are also the quickest to whine if someone insults them on Twitter, and the quickest to report a perceived wrongdoer to the boss, the school administration, or another relevant authority. Much of what gets branded “cancelation” is in fact commentary like “this is racist” or “this is sexist”: Uncomfortable pushback to be sure, and criticism that can feel unfair and professionally threatening, but not actually “cancelation” in any real sense. Often, the complaints about “cancel culture” are really about not wanting to field intense criticism for your work, especially if that criticism homes in on what a reader perceives as blind spots or explicit animus.
Some of the intra-media complaints also come from the fact that there are more people competing for a few vaunted spots. Media is no longer a white man’s game; there are a lot of people who see the world quite differently, and are demanding necessary and overdue changes. That is certainly the story of my career: Beyond a handful of writers on lefty publications (Katha Pollitt at the Nation, for example), there just wasn’t much of a model for feminist opinion writing, not in the mainstream press. That has changed radically and overwhelmingly over the past decade, wholly because women stormed the gates. In doing so, we launched criticism after criticism at mainstream press coverage: How reporters wrote about rape and sexual violence; how reporters covered female candidates for elected office; how newspapers categorized “women’s stories” and “women’s issues;” how concepts like “objectivity” often assumed all of a man’s preconceptions and few of a woman’s realities. This work continues, not just from a feminist perspective, but also from people who seek racial justice. It is destabilizing. Many of the complaints about cancelation are about more voices coming into the fold — voices that are undermining the whole way the system was set up. And all of this feels especially perilous when our industry is convulsing, when every day there are more layoffs announced on Twitter. Fear underlies this, too — a sense that criticism might mean being branded bigoted, which might mean your livelihood evaporates. What that misses is how many people were kept out for so long, who never had the chance to establish those livelihoods to begin with.
So yes, most of the “cancel culture” complaints are overwrought. On the long list of things worth caring about, cancel culture is very low down. Criticism is not cancelation. Conflict is not censorship. On all of these issues, the right is far, far worse (how many voices opposing the party line are at Fox, or on right-wing websites, or speaking at conservative religious colleges?). Often, the right uses this narrative of the “intolerant left” to cover for its own misdeeds and groupthink, and it’s an underhanded, bullshit tactic that too many progressives fall for.
It is also true that there have been instances — many instances — where people have been fired from their jobs (and not just in media) for holding opinions that have nothing to do with their ability to perform said job, and who are fired entirely because an employer doesn’t want the PR headache. It is absolutely the case that there has been a chilling effect: that many progressive writers and commentators have a growing list of issues that they won’t touch with a ten-foot pole, not because their opinions are so beyond the realm of what’s acceptable, but because media jobs are increasingly scarce and few people are willing to risk their job (or in the case of freelancers, their ability to continue getting work) on a piece that pushes the envelope or runs afoul of the progressive Twitter consensus. Self-censorship is often a good thing and a sign of maturity and continence — you should be able to assess whether what you’re saying is offensive, and often, make the choice not to say it. But at least anecdotally, the outer edges feel like they’re narrowing in a way that is sometimes less about what’s right and fair and more about toeing a party line. The problem is less “this is potentially offensive and / or I don’t understand it well enough to cover it well” and more “I don’t want to deal with the headache of covering this topic in a way that is not exactly in line with what a small group of people believe I should be saying, and I am afraid that those people will come for my job and my reputation.” Part of the job of a journalist is to tell stories that are messy, and that don’t always fit into our ideas of how things should be. Part of the job of a commentator is indeed to sometimes make unpopular arguments, to push the boundaries, and to sharpen the edges.
Plenty of folks in media won’t even share an article on Twitter if it was penned by someone who has been branded as having Bad Ideas, regardless of the content of the actual article. And this comes up with the Harpers letter, too: A big point of contention is who else signed on it, that by virtue of a few of the names on the list, the letter itself is bad. And it’s legitimate, by the way, to think that the letter itself is bad, or wrong, or addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. But it gets more complicated when that criticism shifts to, say, holding people who signed the letter accountable for the views of other people who signed the letter, when those views are not articulated in the letter itself. Or, say, reporting people to their bosses for signing the letter.
Whether you agree with my view on “cancel culture” or not — and I have a feeling that virtually no one will, which is fine — it is worth considering, here and always, what proportionate consequences for wrongdoing look like, and what it means to put your values into action even when it’s difficult. I’ve written about this before in the context of criminal justice and incarceration, and this thread from Josie Duffy Rice is useful. In the criminal justice context, if we believe (as I do) that far fewer people should go to jail, that sentences should be radically lower, and that incarceration should be a last resort instead of a first one, we need to continue to push for that even when the person accused or convicted of a crime is someone whose actions touch our deepest sensitivities. I have the most difficult time on this with sexual violence, especially given that most rapists never spend a day in jail. For example: When Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison — effectively a life sentence — my immediate inward reaction was to cheer. The man spent years abusing women with impunity; he has mouthed the words “I’m sorry,” only to turn around and hire a lawyer who attacked his accusers in the ugliest and most misogynist ways possible. He is sorry he was caught, but I do not believe he is sorry for his actions. The fact that he was convicted and given a harsh sentence was gratifying not because I felt like he deserved it — although I did feel like he deserved it — but because it signaled that everyone, from judges to the average citizens who make up juries, are finally starting to take violence against women seriously. They are finally starting to hold powerful men accountable for their crimes.
But I sat with that feeling. And on the other side of the immediate emotion, I saw vindictiveness masquerading as justice. I saw in myself a willingness to compromise my beliefs about what would make for a better system and a better world when faced with the very difficult realities of the world we live in. I saw a simplistic falling-back on a series of assumptions about what it means to get redress that ultimately came from being indoctrinated into a view that puts punitive jail time as the end-all be-all to “justice,” and that sees more time — absurd amounts of time — in jail as the measure of a crime’s severity. Anything less than the death penalty for murder, or even life in prison, sounds low to us because American criminal penalties are so extreme. Ten years for rape sounds low, until you take a step back and you picture how long ten years is when you’re locked in a cage.
These are the hardest cases: When you believe a wrong has been done and you want both a fair penalty and to send a broad message. I struggle with this all the time.
So what does this have to do with the letter in Harpers? Obviously getting canceled or criticized or even fired is not anywhere on the same plane as being incarcerated. But I am increasingly wary of the demands for firing, or demands for bosses and employers to level some penalty for wrongdoing that is not directly related to the person’s employment and ability to do their job (a much more difficult line to draw in media, to be fair, but I’m not just talking about media jobs). This is another area where America is an outlier among peer nations: Our employers have colossal power over us, and workers have very, very little. The concept of “employment at will” — that your employer can fire you at any time for any transgression, or no transgression at all — is just not a thing in the saner democracies to which we often compare ourselves. A big part of this is waning union influence, but it’s generally a consolidation of nearly all workplace power into the hands of employers, to the detriment of employees. In America, we are so used to this that many of us hardly even notice it or question it. And even the progressives among us lean into it.
Which is why you hear even progressive folks responding to “cancel culture” job-loss concerns with “actions have consequences” and “you don’t get to say whatever you want and still keep your job.” Of course actions have consequences, and of course no one gets to say whatever they want and still keep their job. But there should be a clear nexus between what was said and the person’s ability to do their job. Sometimes that is indeed the case. Often it’s not. And increasingly, the nexus between what was said or written and the job is stretched thin to make the case for professional reprisals.
In the past, I’ve made the case for professional consequences for bad acts, including writing offensive things. As I learn more about worker protections elsewhere, and as I’ve watched workers’ rights in the U.S. get rapidly whittled away over the last decade, I’m rethinking that position. A job in the U.S., with our badly frayed social safety net, is not just a job; a job is health insurance, it’s one protection against going bankrupt because you got sick or hurt, it’s the ability to keep a roof over your head, and in the age of Google, it’s tied to a broader reputation. I think there are cases where termination for what someone wrote or said outside of work is warranted. I also think termination should be a penalty leveled sparingly and proportionately; instead, it’s one I’m seeing demanded more often and more vociferously and often as the first point of action, as other progressive-minded folks shrug because, well, all of our jobs are precarious and nothing should make you special.
Here is the good news: Transformative work is under way. This work is messy. It is imperfect. I feel confident that we are moving toward something better: More voices, more views, a widened lens, and the more accurate and honest accounting of the world that comes with that. That is incredibly exciting. I’m writing about the excesses of this moment not because they define it or are the most important story, but because they are part of the story that we shouldn’t deny of avoid. And I worry that the path some are on — that some are justifying — could lead us into bad unintended consequences, including for the people whose voices have long been pushed to the margins.
We should always look at the strategies we use to achieve what we think is a just end. We should always ask whether that end is really fair and just, or whether it’s the only option we’ve been told exists. Specifically, we should consider how much power we want to give employers — or, perhaps, how much we want to validate and call upon the power employers already have.
These are not clear answers. There will be hard cases and then harder cases that will stretch the limits of our empathy, and that might pit several of our most deeply-held values against each other. There will continue to be dissent and debate and often it will be productive and sometimes it will cross a line, and none of us will agree on where that line is. But it’s useful, I think, not to pretend that this is easy work and that the lines are clear. It isn’t, and they aren’t.