The Cancel Monster

Social media “mobs” are relatively powerless. Why is there so much fear of them?

In the Zadie Smith short story, “Now More Than Ever” (2018), the world is gripped by a formless fear that cannot be named. New Yorkers point signs with arrows on them at the windows of other New Yorkers, accusing them of unspecified crimes. The characters can’t even call this behavior Stalinist, because the very language of history and metaphor itself has become passe. In this world, everyone informs on each other constantly for previous bad behavior. No one is permitted, ever, to display any sympathy of any kind for the perpetrators of crimes. There is a specter haunting New York (well, at least the elite academic part of New York that the professor-protagonist moves through.) That specter is…cancel culture.

What does it mean to be canceled? It’s quite terrible. It means you’re beyond the pale. As the unnamed Professor character tells us:

I bumped into someone on Bleecker who was beyond the pale. I felt like talking to him so I did. As we talked I kept thinking, But you’re beyond the pale, yet instead of that stopping us from talking we started to talk more and more frantically, babbling like a couple of maniacs about a whole load of things: shame, ruin, public humiliation, the destruction of reputation—that immortal part of oneself—the contempt of one’s wife, one’s children, one’s colleagues, personal pathology, exposure, suicidal ideation, and all that jazz. I thought, Maybe if I am one day totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free. Of expectation. Of the opinions of others. Of a lot of things. “It’s like prison,” he said, not uncheerfully. “You don’t see anybody and you get a lot of writing done.”

It’s like prison, being canceled. Except, not prison, because the professor’s acquaintance is not incarcerated. He’s still free to walk around the Village. It’s unclear what he’s been accused of doing, except that “he did not have ‘victims’ so much as “annoyed parties.” He’s genuinely upset, that much is clear, though his suicidal ideation is treated with enough flippancy to be ambiguous (“all that jazz”). The important point is that his reputation was damaged, and reputation lives forever. It’s kind of like a vampire, I guess. His “annoyed parties,” however, have been erased entirely from the narrative. They take no part in his vampire immortality. They’re not even human, because they have no life in this story at all.

With respect to Smith, who I generally like, “Now More Than Ever” is a bad bit of speculative fiction. We never really find out what it means to be “canceled,” except that it sucks. The terror is unclear, less like the unseen nightmare in Bird Box and more of a nebulous social anxiety (“what if people are saying bad things about me, and that makes me feel bad?”). When the Cancelers come to your door, they won’t devour you, or guillotine you, or truck you away to a gulag in Siberia. They’ll just point signs with arrows at you, and expect you to point signs with arrows in your turn. A dystopia that you can ignore with little material consequence isn’t particularly scary. A monster that can’t be described, beyond the terror of his shadow, isn’t much of a threat.

In Smith’s defense, she can’t describe what cancellation entails, because nobody can. Suey Park ran a viral twitter campaign to #CancelColbert in March 2014 for an out-of-context Twitter joke, and folks, she got him. The Colbert Report stayed on the air until Stephen Colbert left to take over the Late Show from David Letterman. Colbert’s iteration of the Late Show is currently the second-most popular late night TV show (presumably among people who still watch late night TV). In June 2018, a New York Times op-ed ran through a short list of rich people and celebrities who had been more recently canceled:

Bill Gates is canceled. Gwen Stefani and Erykah Badu are canceled. Despite his relatively strong play in the World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo has been canceled. Taylor Swift is canceled and Common is canceled and, Wednesday, Antoni Porowski, a “Queer Eye” fan favorite was also canceled. Needless to say, Kanye West is canceled, too.

Down here in February 2019, I imagine that you, like me, have forgotten why half of these people were canceled in the first place. But how are they doing now? To what dystopian hell-prison were they consigned to after their brutal cancelation? It’s weird… they all seem to be doing just fine. Bill Gates is still obscenely rich, Erykah Badu is still performing and has a reportedly hilarious role in What Men Want, Taylor Swift recently released a stunning Netflix special showcasing the first album of hers I’ve ever liked, “reputation,” which is all about the perils of fame and—you guessed it—reputation.

The #MeToo misogynists have not fared quite as well. They were all canceled, which is why Louis CK is selling out his shows, Aziz Ansari just launched his first comeback performance, Junot Diaz still holds every position and honor he previously held at various important institutions, recurrent Hollywood failson Max Landis announced he’s making a feminist movie, etc, etc. Even R. Kelly is still, somehow, a thing. As Danielle Butler writes in The Root:

You’d be hard pressed to name a celebrity or public figure that has been summarily “canceled” by a large swath of the population—be it an online or offline community—and treated like a leper. Even the ones accused of the most egregious crimes manage to hold onto a core group of supporters. And with the passage of time—and the obligatory mea culpas penned on iPhone notes—many find themselves back in the public’s good graces within a matter of months or even weeks.

Generally speaking, being “canceled” only means that an otherwise cushy multi-million dollar career gets briefly interrupted by some bad press. A few people have lost jobs, or gigs, or had work in production literally canceled (Louis C.K.’s movie “I Love You Daddy” about the relationship between a 68 year old male film director and a 17 year old girl, was taken out back and shot. The case against the gunmen was dismissed on the ground of justifiable homicide.) The only people in any real trouble are (some) of the alleged serial rapists: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey. Trial and prison, in their situation, is quite real, not speculative fiction.

Cancelation rarely goes to trial. The fear of being suddenly “canceled” by the wild mob is primarily an elite media fear of being mocked or yelled at ON THE INTERNET, OF ALL PLACES, HOW DARE YOU. But then, if you’re an elite media figure, the internet is basically your living room. You sit on a couch and pontificate—though social media isn’t your house, of course, it’s Jack’s house, and Mark’s house. But you sit there, in Jack’s house and Mark’s house, where the ungodly rabble is also allowed to gather, and sometimes instead of delivering the praise you richly deserve for everything you’ve ever said or done, they just scream at you about how much you suck. This can be very upsetting (and for someone with mental illness, it can also be seriously damaging). But it remains, for most people, a very different scenario than interpersonal verbal abuse, where you can’t mute the abusive person in your personal or professional life. On the internet, you can always log off. If you’re already famous, and your crimes weren’t—or can’t—be prosecuted, you can always choose to ignore (or cash in on) temporary reputational damage. You’ll never be permanently ostracized.

The fear of reputational damage and ostracism is much older than the internet. In 5th century BCE Athens, you could be #canceled by popular vote. If a sufficient number of your fellow citizens wrote your name on a piece of ostraka (broken pottery) you were expelled from Athens for 10 years. (This is the origin of the word “ostracism.”) An obsession with fame and reputation is common in ancient Greek thought and throughout early Indo-European literature as a whole. According to Daniel Walden, classical scholar at the University of Michigan and Current Affairs contributor: “one of the central concepts in Indo-European poetry is imperishable fame. In Greek it’s κλέος ἄφθιτον (kleos apthiton), in Sanskrit it’s śrava(s) ákṣitam, which are exact cognates.” In Zadie Smith’s short story, it’s “reputation, that immortal part of oneself.” The same concept, repeated through time, familiar though not exactly universal to everyone’s experience. You can find it in Book 1 of the Iliad where Achilles, feeling publicly disrespected, threatens to log off.

So what do you do, now, in the 21st century, if the “immortal part of yourself” has been publicly condemned? Well, dear reader, no offense—and no worries—it’s unlikely to happen to you. Cancellations are generally reserved for people who are sufficiently famous enough for their transgressions to be noticed. But when our faves are attacked, we often ride to their rescue. This is what happens in a culture where we conflate “taste in media” and “affection for famous people” for the more complicated business of “having a personality.” We feel both personally responsible and morally implicated by the parasocial relationships we have with people who do not know who we are.

I have to talk about Barbara Ehrenreich here, even though I don’t want to. I promise to go through it quickly. If you missed this particular 15-minute drama, or have already forgotten, Ehrenreich tweeted (and then deleted) “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English.” She left up a better-worded though still questionable version of the tweet. Liberal feminists Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter replied approvingly, expressing their much more explicitly racist thoughts about Kondo. (I don’t think Ehrenreich’s joke was definitionally or intentionally racist, but the racists thought it was racist, which is itself kind of an indicator.) Ehrenreich apologized that her joke didn’t land, and that ought to have been that. However, some people, obviously unfamiliar with Ehrenreich’s long history of anti-imperialism, called for her to be #canceled. Ehrenreich’s a tough old bird; I imagine she’ll survive this. No one is actually, physically, going to cancel anything about her. But the left went into an uproar regardless; should Ehrenreich be canceled or defended? Is she a demon or a saint? Have we totally lost our collective minds? Is the left doomed? Are we all going to be torn apart by the cancel monster?

Mark Fisher raised similar fears in his famous essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle.” There are large elements of the essay I still entirely agree with, but the figures he chose to discuss are curious. He names two leftists who were, in his view, unfairly attacked in “high-profile twitterstorms”—Owen Jones and Russell Brand. Jones is still a highly-regarded British leftist and a columnist for the Guardian. Brand also seems to be doing fine; he recently praised the #MeToo movement (despite his Lothario past! screamed the British press, displaying once again their nuanced understanding of the issues of the day.) Fisher didn’t live to see the evolution of cancel culture (in 2013 it was known as “callout culture”), but I’m curious what he would have made of the fact that nothing about these dynamics has really changed, but also nothing that terrible has really happened. The problems with identity politics he outlined are still in play: (“the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of [anti-bigotry] movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other”) but the left has not, to date, been devoured by the vampires. In fact, the left is gaining strength in both the U.K. and the U.S., while callout/cancel culture pervades the internet, and racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism still live and thrive (yes, even sometimes on the left).

“Minorities expressing dissent, disappointment or unfavorable opinions of a public figure online are…pathologized as a culture onto itself,” writes Butler in the Root, “a new iteration of censorship by the hands of people who don’t actually possess any collective social capital to have any final say in cultural production beyond providing a culture soon to be commodified.” Cancel culture arises out of genuine frustrations, sometimes appropriated and commodified by bourgeois liberalism, but nonetheless real for all that. These frustrations are about power; who has it, and who doesn’t. Canceling doesn’t really work—it can’t work—because canceling itself is an expression of powerlessness. It’s lashing out in rage and hurt because people get away with bigoted bullshit all the fucking time, and it feels like they always will. From the serious cases to the insignificant, from #MeToo abusers to the occasional white leftist accidentally dropping a microaggression, very few people get permanently canceled. Just about everybody ends up fine, their careers intact. There’s no perma-death in this game.

The only place where “canceling” can have dangerous or long-term effects is for the unfamous, and/or for small spaces populated by the relatively powerless. Consider Justine Sacco, a random person with 170 followers who made an accidentally racist joke on Twitter, only to be hounded by the internet (even Google itself joined in on the “fun”). Sacco was forced out of multiple jobs, a punishment that far exceeded the crime of a single clumsy joke. Professional ostracism can matter in places with high competition, high pressure, and low wages—as in academia, with its beleaguered grad students and adjunct professors. (The Professor character and her acquaintance in “Now More Than Ever” would make sense if they were legibly adjuncts.) The world of YA publishing, which recently had its own troubling “cancel” scandal is another space with little power: dominated by (mostly white) women, usually low-paid, and highly competitive. This a sphere where the margins are slim and there are real stakes to cancelation. (But even again, relatively minor stakes: A twitterstorm can end in free publicity). Regardless, it’s gross and tragic when marginalized people compete for scraps. The grossness and tragedy isn’t a result of “cancel culture” but of the power dynamics in play. The issue isn’t that “YA twitter” (that scary Fury!), has too much power, like those vicious, vicious Tumblr teens—but that it has basically none at all. Frustrations turn inward, directed at policing the community, rather than outward at a publishing industry that pays writers in pennies, imagines diversity as a marketing gimmick, and treats creators—especially in a field as commercially popular as YA—as replaceable commodities.

I’m not arguing that “cancel culture” should be practiced or celebrated—far from it. We’re not (sigh) actually going to gulag the #MeToo misogynists, so we’ve got to figure out what a path to redemption for them might look like. The calls to “cancel” mere microaggressors rarely result in harm (Justine Sacco again being a notable exception), but they’re certainly misguided. As Fisher writes in “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle”: “We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree—on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.” Fisher also describes the experience of logging off the internet and going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, where he encountered a culture very different than the online left. “The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog.” It sounds not unlike a (good) DSA meeting. As DSA’s own excellent “Guidelines for Respectful Discussion” explicate:

Encourage yourself and others to maintain a positive attitude, honor the work of others, avoid defensiveness, be open to legitimate critique and challenge oppressive behaviors in ways that help people grow. We want to “call each other in” rather than calling each other out—in other words, if you are challenging someone’s ideas or behavior, do it respectfully, and if you are being challenged, receive it respectfully. Remember, mistakes will be made, nobody is perfect.

This seems eminently reasonable. It could be that respectful discussion is much, much easier in person, and—to repeat a point that has been made ad nauseum by everybody for years—Twitter is an especially bad medium for complex conversation, and should probably should be taken a lot less seriously.

I want to clarify a few points: I’m not saying it’s ok when people on the internet are vicious for no reason, or that everyone should just “grow a thicker skin.” I’m also not saying that everyone who engages in a cancelation party is legitimately outraged—there are hypocrites and virtue-signalers among them, of course. But as a leftist, I think it’s troubling to categorize angry people as a mindless, hysterical, savage mob (with all the racist and misogynist ugliness implicit therein). People are never really mad “for no reason.” It’s just that sometimes rage can get muddled and misapplied because we live in a frustrating hellworld.

Mostly, I want us all to be realistic about what “canceling” actually means. It’s not the Thing That Goes Bump In The Night. It’s a minor inconvenience to the powerful (and sometimes a major inconvenience to the unpowerful). It’s like shooting a vampire with ordinary bullets: probably quite ow, but after a little nap in a coffin, the vampire will be fine. The problem, really, is that there are vampires, that some people have power and others have very little, and the powerful can basically do whatever they want with little real consequence, and the vampires have erected a castle where we feel like we have the power to cancel those who hurt us, but we don’t, because that’s not how power actually works. Of course anger over powerlessness can be misdirected and cannibalistic, but the monster is not the anger itself, but the source of it: inequality, bigotry, harassment, injustice, the daily grind and immiseration of our lives. The left isn’t in danger of being torn apart by the fangless demon of cancel culture. If it’s in danger at all (and I don’t think it is, we’re tough old birds) it’s because we sometimes get so distracted by stupid internet bullshit that we forget what the left is all about.

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