How do we fight cancel culture?
Maybe silence really is violence.
Cancel culture is particularly interesting to me. Maybe it’s because I write for a living. Maybe it’s because I hate bullies and mob mentality. Maybe it’s because I’m clinging to the hope that one day the things I say will matter to somebody. Whatever the reason, this tweet stopped my thumb in its tracks during my habitual morning scroll:
Never write an email you wouldn’t want public. Never text & assume it won’t be screenshotted. Never speak at a conference & assume somebody isn’t recording you. Never Clubhouse & assume it’s private. Comms 101. I had this talk with my teenagers recently about social media usage.
What should disturb us most about this tweet is the fact that it’s possible to look at our world in a way which makes this good advice. Whether we like to or not, the line between private and public has been blurring for decades, and with social media well on its way to making that distinction obsolete, a certain amount of awareness about what you say seems wise. If everything you put in a digital format is now public (and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue that it isn’t) then choosing your words carefully so as not to cause offence online is more or less the same as being tactful during a private conversation so as not to cause offence. Right?
Wrong. To draw a fair comparison, we’d need to imagine a private conversation (such as we might reasonably expect to have over text or email) being overheard by millions of people. People who can contact our employers or our friends, who can present our words out of context or hold them to standards that didn’t exist at the time when they were uttered. These people can demand that I be fired. Post my name and address online. Send an avalanche of hateful personal attacks which far outweigh any offence which my original comments might have caused.
To navigate this brave new world I not only need to concern myself with how to avoid offending this person that I know, and that knows me, and is at least inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt. I need to consider how to avoid offending people that know nothing about my character, have never met me, and for whom my entire being is distilled into a few sentences or a few seconds of video. I’d need to begin every email or text or public utterance with a disclaimer of my political leanings and affiliations, the charity work I do, my commitment to anti-racism, my support for trans rights, and on and on, all to establish some degree of insulation against misinterpretation.
As Eric Weinstein points out in a response to the above tweet, “No one can actually live this way. Or do business this way. Or form deep friendships this way. The idea that we must run our personal lives around legal and comms strategies that no one can stick to avoids the problem.”
Is there a single person walking the face of the earth whose reputation could withstand every word they’ve said or written being scrutinised in this way? Simply accepting a world where we have to self-censor to the point of digitally lobotomising ourselves can’t be the solution to cancel culture. So what is?
To answer that question, we first need to think about how cancel culture actually works. It’s tempting to place all of the blame at the feet of the people who spend their lives sifting through the people’s social media history in the hopes of finding something to be offended at. Or the vocal but small minority of people who are outraged by the tiniest transgressions of speech. But these people don’t really define the culture at all.
What defines cancel culture is the people (employers, public institutions, politicians) who respond to this insanity by capitulating to its demands and firing people. It’s the prominent figures who refuse to publically condemn the practice of attacking people for actions taken years ago. It’s the media who boost the signal of this feigned outrage so that they can get more clicks. It’s the people who jump on the bandwagon not because they’re offended, but because they enjoy the opportunity to attack others. The same way that ordinary villagers would turn up in the public square to hurl rotten vegetables at the strangers being held in the stocks.
Cancel culture is the stocks and pillory of the modern age. It’s a capitulation to the ugliest aspects of our nature and it’s just as barbaric and embarrassing now as it should have been during the 16th Century. But just as in those dark days, this new form of public shaming and humiliation cannot exist without the participation of the rest of society. To end this nonsense we don’t have to sterilise our speech for fear that a misplaced or misinterpreted word will cost us our jobs. Cancel culture thrives because companies reliably take the path of least resistance when one of their employees is caught in the crosshairs. We can change that path.
We can contact organisations who bow to pressure from the mob and ask them to reconsider firing people for holding a view which others disagree with. We can apply these standards consistently whether or not we agree with the person being attacked. After all, none of us should have the goal of creating a world where everybody agrees with everybody else. The goal should be to create a world where we can have honest and open conversations about our differences instead of hiding from them.
If you’re the victim of an unreasonable firing, make some noise about it. Post the details on social media. Expose the cowardice of your employers. If you see these posts, share them, help them gain attention. If you’re a patron of these businesses, make your voice heard. Let businesses know that you want them to support their employees. If you’re a business owner, consider standing by your employees instead of throwing them under the bus.
This will require more of your time and maybe you don’t feel like it’s worth it. Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that this doesn’t concern you or that it’s wisest to keep your head down. As I said at the beginning, the most disturbing thing about all this is that it’s possible to look at our world in a way which makes this good advice. If you do feel this way, I’m not going to try to convince you any further, I’ll just leave you with the words of Martin Niemöller.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.