The mantra of the moment in certain circles is, “You’re not being Canceled; you’re facing consequences.” Okay. Let’s take a moment to work around this and see where we fall. There are two outcomes: we’ll either meet in the middle, or we’ll get stuck to the centrifuge’s outer wall. (I’m secretly hoping gravity will win over inertia.) What we need to think hard about are the actions driving the consequences. And after thinking hard about it, I’ll put this out there: We’ve spun scarily out of control in what we see as punishable offenses.
Like many teenagers, I did a few bad things, one of which was lighting up a cigarette in the girls’ room of my high school. (I swear on the souls of my non-existent grandchildren it was the first time I’d ever committed such a sin, and I didn’t get past the first drag before Mrs. Teacher walked in and hauled me out of the unlocked stall.) The next three days of my life were spent in solitary confinement in the library, ‘in-school suspension,’ they called it. Also, my parents were DoublePlusUnhappy, and I won’t go into how that played out. If there was a silver lining in my temporary incarceration, it was this: I went from Nerd Girl to Cool Girl in a New York minute. So, consequences.
My sneaky ciggie was a consequence-bearing action on my part. It was also a conscious action that I knew would bear a swift and just reaction. Smoking was not allowed on school property. (Buses, fortunately for us nicotine cravers, were an entirely different matter back then.) I was not of legal cigarette-buying age—a fact generally overlooked by store clerks since nearly every kid in the 1970s was often sent out for Marlboros by a parent. And my parents were uncommonly strict on the matter of tobacco usage. They would not permit me to smoke until I was 65. In short, I did a Bad Thing and got my just deserts.
Fast-forward from the Pre-Discoassic Age of my teenagerhood to now. Rather than fill this page with umpteen examples of sackings, ‘resignations,’ and career erasures, I refer you to the Free Speech Union’s list of fifty recent condemnations and this other list of cancellations compiled by Everything Oppresses (@SoOppressed). Once again, please don’t be deterred by any assumptions about either of the groups. The cases in these threads speak for themselves.
Do you notice a trend? Do you see that many of the crimes for which these people faced comeuppance are, for lack of a better word, ridiculous? I’ll summarize:
- Tweeting “All Lives Matter”
- Failing to cancel a university exam after George Floyd’s death
- Challenging the concept of “White Privilege”
- Criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement for [breaking social distancing guidelines / violence / Marxist ideology / anything at all]
- Defending statues and monuments from destruction by mobs
- Publishing a controversial opinion piece (um…on the opinion page)
- Questioning whether trans women are women (operative word is ‘questioning’)
There are also countless examples of self-cancelation in the renaming of rice and pancake syrup brands, dropping ‘Dixie’ from a music band’s name, putting Gone with the Wind in proper context, and so forth. But that’s another story for another time.
Here, I want to focus on why we’re placing radical sanctions on individuals for saying the wrong thing, for offending someone or some group, for what is fast being labeled as hate speech—which now tries to trump free speech. Or, at the very least, tries to impose unprecedented limits on what we are permitted to say. (Take note, readers, that in the United States, there is no ‘hate speech’ exception to freedom of expression. See page 5 of F.I.R.E.’s recent letter to Fordham University on behalf of Austin Tong.) The word ‘limit’ has a nice, soft ring to it, but to me, it is as loud and strident as an airhorn blown two inches from my ear.
I do believe limitations on speech are necessary. We don’t get a free pass at yelling “Fire!” in a crowded cinema when there is no fire. We can (and should) be sued for disseminating lies about an individual either orally or in print. We don’t get to walk up to another person and threaten to “beat the living crap out of him.” Although, even this last I find fuzzy: consider the difference between this phrase uttered by me, a 110-pound woman, to Rocky Balboa, vice the reverse scenario. It strains the imagination to think I could ever be regarded as a serious threat to Rocky’s personal safety. Not so the other way round.
What we’re seeing now are herculean efforts to curtail our speech far beyond that which is both dangerous and false (shouting fire), lying at the expense of a reputation (libel or slander), or placing someone in fear of imminent physical harm (assault). We are hearing arguments in favor of limiting speech that is perceived as offensive.
Having lived in the UK for a few years, I came away loving that island with the exception of only three things: dental care, the lack of mixer taps, and the country’s interpretation of so-called hate crimes and hate speech. I can deal with the first two, but draw a hard red line at the last, particularly with the UK’s 2014 Hate Crime Operational Guidance, which defines ‘hatred’ based on the perception of the victim.
In other words, if I say I’m offended by what you say, I win. Discussion over. All I need do is state an exaggerated sense of fear.
On my side of the pond, it’s looking like we’re headed in the direction of a post-modern, relativist subjectivity that knows few bounds.
The question is, why? Why are we, as a society, beginning to dig into closets of the past and present in search of anything that might offend us? I offer two hypotheses.
First, doing so provides a sense of self-esteem (albeit false self-esteem, but some people will take any they can get when it comes to the I’m-better-than-you-are game). Even Barack Obama denigrated this practice in 2019, saying:
“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.”
“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’” (my emphasis)
For a timely example of exactly this type of social justice warriorship, see the call to change Trader Joe’s branding of ethnic foods–started, naturally, by a high school senior with absolutely zero standing.
As horrified as I am at the prospect there’s a shred of truth in self-actualization via condemnation, the second possible motive behind Cancel Culture is far worse. We may have arrived on the shores of a foreign land where we assign ourselves value points for negative characteristics. We are somehow better people if we can latch onto a sense of victimization and hold tight. It’s a James Taggart kind of ploy: love me not for my virtues, but for my faults—not so different from that scene in Notting Hill where dinner guests compete for the last brownie (points) by relating their tales of suffering. Tell the most pitiful sob story, win the prize.
And so it is with our embracing of offense—the sheer, masochistic, self-loathing love of being hurt. The more we enjoy this feeling, the more rocks we overturn to find further wounding material.
Whether virtue-signaling or lust for victimhood is the correct motive for justifying consequences from employment termination to de-publishing to death threats (and maybe there’s another motive, but I haven’t found it yet), the problem is not whether Cancel Culture exists, but why Consequence Culture exists in its current unreasonable state.
I’ll return to my smoking-in-the-girls’-room example. There was no subjectivity about that. I broke a stated rule; I got what was coming to me. But when the rules are no longer stated, when they change and expand at the whim of a few (see #9 on this NYT list of Cancel Culture theses)**, when the rest of us don’t even know what the rules are anymore, how can we talk about whether the consequences for our actions and speech are even remotely fair?
**”The emergent, youthful left wants to take current taboos against racism and anti-Semitism and use them as a model for a wider range of limits — with more expansive definitions of what counts as racism and sexism and homophobia, a more sweeping theory of what sorts of speech and behavior threaten “harm” and a more precise linguistic etiquette for respectable professionals to follow.”