Cancel culture sacrifices our principles
They say never meet your heroes, and this advice can be easily extended to following your heroes on Twitter. There’s nothing worse than finding out your favourite comedian retweets Joe Hildebrand articles, or that the drummer of a band you like thinks Adam Goodes is a “whinger”. Sometime it’s best not to know.
I often think the worst thing about Twitter is the opposite of that quote tweet meme: The Best Person You Know Just Made A Terrible Point. You either quit the app, or stay on there long enough to see your favourite tweeters become villains. That’s the curse of Twitter.
I’m reminded of this curse every time ‘cancel culture’ becomes the topic of the day. Whenever a right-wing hack writes some half-baked article, comparing cancel culture to Nazism, or Stalinism, or some other pejorative -ism, a strange thing happens.
Rather than saying that ‘cancel culture’ isn’t as vicious as it’s made out to be, or that punishing wrongdoers is actually a good thing, leftie tweeters, my brothers in arms, take a more radical tact:
“Cancel culture doesn’t exist.
It’s a myth.
There’s actually no such thing.”
For a group of people who claim to hate ‘gaslighting’ as much as they do, this is awfully gaslight-y.
Because the phenomenon that underpins ‘cancel culture’ is easily observed. Mass internet criticism frequently has a punitive element to it: boycotts, doxing, demands for sacking. If you haven’t seen it, you haven’t looked hard enough.
That’s not to say that these punishments are never justified. Sex offenders like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey deserve to be sanctioned, and it’s not immoral to boycott their work.
But saying that someone deserves to be punished is not the same as saying that the punishment doesn’t exist. A life sentence for a murderer is still a punishment, even if they are the guilty of the crime.
Yet numerous articles claim that cancel culture isn’t real, precisely because the targets of social media rage are deserving victims.
Take this viral Medium article, “Cancel Culture Isn’t Real”: “The reason I know “cancel culture” isn’t real is because to “cancel someone” isn’t an actual thing you can do. You’ll never hear any self-respecting adult say, “We can’t work with that person, I’m afraid they’ve been officially and formally cancelled.” They will usually say something along the lines of, “We can’t work with that person, they’ve been known to sexually assault people” or “they’re racist.” Which! Is! Fair!”
The problem with this argument is that the act of refusing to work with someone is the cancellation. That act may well be defensible, but, once again, an action being defensible does not negate the existence of the action. Regardless of the quality of the punishers’ motives, a person was still punished. That fact doesn’t change.
Whether deliberate or not, arguments denying the existence of cancel culture only serve to distract from the real debate at hand: is cancel culture defensible, or is it not?
In June last year, Amy Cooper was caught on camera trying to intimidate a black birdwatcher in Central Park with the threat of police brutality. “An African-American man is threatening my life.” The dog whistle was clear.
Amy Cooper is a racist, and her racism put the life of an innocent man at risk. She deserves to be judged, pilloried and condemned. She is, without doubt, a bad person. She deserves this label.
But did she deserve to lose her job?
Amy Cooper is far from the only racist person in America. There are, in all likelihood, many millions of people who harbour prejudices just as vicious as hers. Many of them, no doubt, have expressed these prejudices with more malice and vitriol than she did.
If we really have zero tolerance for racism, if we really want to set a strong moral standard, surely all of those people should also lose their jobs? Surely it’s not only the instances of racism that end up on Twitter that we should care about? We should care about racism in all settings, punishing each offender with equal force, as befits their offense.
On the Left, we often talk in the language of universals. We believe that everyone deserves a dignified life, that the basic material fundamentals — food, shelter, security — should be provided to all people, without caveat or condition.
This belief contains a level of dissonance, because guaranteeing rights to all means guaranteeing rights to millions bad people, including those who hold views we find reprehensible.
As hard as this may to come to terms with, if we really believe in these universals, this is something we have to make peace with. Because bad people still need food, water, clothes, and shelter, and in a market society, they still need an income.
If we accept that racist people should be fired from their jobs, how are we to provide them with an income? Special racism welfare payments, for racists who are unable to work on account of their racism? Or will racists qualify for disability payments, given they have a condition that prevents them from entering the workforce?
Defenders of cancel culture like to pretend that it is only the rich who are cancelled, public figures who will still be able to derive an income after they are fired or boycotted.
But as Amy Cooper’s case shows, you don’t have to be a celebrity or a public figure to have thousands of strangers online calling for you to lose your job. It can happen it to anyone, on any day, in any city.
Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed charts the stories of ordinary people who have been publicly shamed online, for infractions varying from offensive Facebook posts to off-beat comments during work conferences. Many of them lost their jobs, their livelihoods, their reputations. None were lavishly wealthy.
The urge to punish bigots and offenders is a real and righteous one. Our sympathy should always go to victims over perpetrators, and cancel culture can be a force for good.
But punishment cannot involve depriving people of an income, making supposedly universal rights conditional. Access to economic resources should never be considered a reward for good moral conduct. Everybody, good or bad, deserves them.
Sadly, so many of the best people, on Twitter and in real life, make the worst points when it comes to this issue.
Fighting racism may be principled, but using economic sanctions to do so is unprincipled.
I hope I can stay on Twitter long enough to see my favourite tweeters make this point.