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No, We Shouldn’t Cancel Ordinary People for Stupid Shit They Say Online

Image via Pixarbay (CC).

During last year’s Easter Orthodox Celebrations, I found myself visiting some older relatives. The weather was warm, the sun was shining through the small backyard attached to the house near the Băneasa Airport.

But inside, at the festive lunch table, after hearing various hypotheses on how COVID-19 vaccines can harm people, one family member remarked that they are going on a rampage nowadays, trying to cancel everyone old left and right — plus their dog.

Not the actual neighbourhood where my Easter lunch took place. CC image via Wikimedia.

Those family members feared that angry young people were out to tear down statues, cancel history or strip themselves off of any ‘Western Culture’ symbols the very next day. I was experiencing stripped-down Ben Shapiro narratives through the mouth of a baby boomer. The usual.

I knew that I was not finding myself in an environment too open to discussion. Also, the food was good, the Formula One race for that weekend was about to begin after dessert, so I was not in a combative mood. Thus, my demeanour was that of an authentically curious person, trying to figure out what these people so far removed from my own bubble were receiving from their media and information channels.

In the past few years, I’ve become aware of the many conceptual constructs that have served as ammunition in the culture wars. Among them: the classic, recurring one of political correctness; the more recent one of critical race theory; COVID-19 vaccines have obviously become almost everyone’s talk of the day. But the cancel culture one stuck to me.

In this paper, I’ll argue that there is indeed an amorphous movement that occasionally coagulates in order to silence or even prevent the livelihoods of some people. Most of the time, the public has the right to boycott very powerful people that do shitty things. But this movement can sometimes become something that can be harmful for the ordinary person.

And, even though cancel culture may not be the last horseman of the apocalypse, in some of the cases the ones taking part in such movements are either hypocritical themselves, or are detrimental to the circulation of speech due to self-censorship.

1. How collective online actions can be used in a good way

As with everything so fervently cited in those exchanges by militants of any side — the definitions concerning these constructs vary depending on the ideology of the emitter. But let’s take a look at one of the more official definitions.

“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming” (Dictionary.com, 2020).

Some people trace the origins of the expression in a misogynistic joke, later adopted by black culture (Romano, 2020). Others connect cancel culture to call-out culture, where victims of sexual abuse, misconduct or harassment get to shame their respective perpetrators on social media. This leads to waves of public outrage and even criminal prosecutions.

Examples of Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby come to mind. Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in jail for all the pain that he inflicted (BBC News, 2020). He’s currently serving his time. Cosby was initially sentenced to a three- to a 10-year sentence, but his conviction was overturned due to an extremely rare legal procedure (Dale & Durkin Richer, 2021). Louis CK had taken almost a year out of the public eye due to his sexual misconduct (Dry, 2018).

But the desire to cancel (mostly famous) people also spilled out in non-sexual contexts. Roseanne Bar’s show was cancelled due to a racist tweet (VanDerWerff, 2018). Kevin Hart stepped down from presenting the Oscars due to a past homophobic tweet (Owens, 2019).

Screenshot via Harper’s magazine.

The peak in interest for the term was reached in the summer of 2020, after over 150 notable public figures from all sides of the political spectrum signed a letter published in Harper’s Magazine. The signatories came across all axes of the political spectrum — from Bari Weiss, J.K. Rowling, Steven Pinker or Matt Yglesias, to Noam Chomksy or Cornel West.

In it, the signatories argued that “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”. Also, they were saying that editors „are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes” (The “Harper’s letter” signatories, 2020).

2. How reactionaries used it hypocritically, as a narrative tool

Cancel culture is oftentimes used by conservative, reactionary or right-wing commentators as a bogeyman to instil fears in the heads of older people.

As FiveThirtyEight noted last year, it became the American Republican Party’s new political strategy (Bacon, 2021). The leader of the party and former president himself denounced it as “the very definition of totalitarianism” (Vice News, 2020).

Bari Weiss in 2019. Image © by Alberto E. Tamargo / Alamy.

One main exponent of this movement is Bari Weiss. She’s an American journalist that rose to prominence as an op-ed and book review editor for The Wall Street Journal (2013–2017), after which she joined the New York Times as an op-ed staff editor.

Weiss is part of the Intellectual Dark Web, a loosely-knit group of reactionary public intellectuals. The likes of Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro or Douglas Murray were named as being part of it in an article authored by Bari herself (Weiss, 2018).

Perhaps least known to the general public is that Weiss herself “spent years crusading for the type of censorship she claims to loathe”, going after Arab scholars who criticized Israel (Greenwald, 2018). The accusations of anti-Semitism led to calls by some politicians to get them fired (Cole, 2005).

Fortunately, the internal investigations by the respective universities of those professors found the accusations to be baseless. The efforts of Bari Weiss and fellow-minded people in power to get the Arab scholars cancelled failed.

After signing the Harper’s letter in 2020 she left the New York Times. This came as a result of the paper’s widely criticised publication of an opinion by a senator calling for “sending in the Troops” (Cotton, 2020) in order to deal with BLM/George Floyd protesters. Even though she didn’t get cancelled, she “said she experienced bullying online and lamented the New York Times’ inaction on her harassment allegations” (Saad, 2020).

Weiss continues to decry to this day the perils of cancel culture. In a beyond surreal discussion on CNN, she went on live on air to say that the world has gone mad. In a rare moment of unintended pure comedy, she affirmed that “people that work on networks like the one I’m speaking on right now” are censoring her (Parkman, 2021). It really seems that the irony is weak in this one.

3. How they can be misused against progressive and neutral people

Nevertheless, there are instances where people have lost their livelihoods due to stupid jokes they’ve made, deemed by some ganging up in social media mobs because they were offended.

Let’s look at the example of Justine Sacco. She was 30 in 2013 and doing PR work in NYC for IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast online publication. Before departing Heathrow for Cape Town in order to visit family, she made this joke to her 170 Twitter followers:

Screenshot via The Guardian.

Like it, love it. Find it stupid. Hate it, criticize it. It’s fine. But some on the internet took it a step further, finding themselves immensely offended.

They started documenting her private life and called on IAC for her firing. Needless to say, when she arrived in Cape Town, she was already without a job. Someone even went to stalk her at the airport (Ronson, 2015).

The same report documents the case of a man making a “big dongle” joke at a tech conference to a friend. A woman overheard the conversation, took a photo of him and tweeted the incident. “Not cool. Jokes about… ‘big’ dongles right behind me”, she tweeted to her 9k followers. The digital mob got blood-thirsty again. Obviously, the man was fired the next day. “I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears, but” — he paused — “when I got in the car with my wife I just… I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying”, he told the NYC Reporter.

But a curious thing happened the next day. The other side of the political spectrum then went after the woman. Someone DDoS’d (digitally attacked) her employer’s website, promising to stop if she’d be let go. She was, that very day. “I cried a lot during this time, journaled and escaped by watching movies,” she confessed to the NYT. Her employer “threw me under the bus. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.”

Another example is that of Jayne “County” Rogers, Stonewall rioter and transgender punk and Rock icon. A friend of counterculture celebs such as Andy Warhol, David Bowie Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, she was banned off Facebook for 24 hours for using the words “tranny” and “shemale”, that have been become to be considered as transphobic (Nivhols, 2014). Therefore, we have a rioter that fought for LGBT+ rights in the late 60s and a trans person herself being banned for “transphobic language” in the 2010s.

Screenshot via Archive.is.

More recently, YouTube personality Abigail (formerly Oliver) Thorn got into trouble after a tweet that some considered transphobic (Orchard, 2020). Others came to Thorn’s aide, arguing that they shouldn’t be cancelled (Slepian, 2020). After Oliver announced his transitioning and new identity, everyone was suddenly okay with that joke.

So… should you go after people saying stupid shit online? If the answer’s yes, then which words are ok and what are really bad? And in what contexts. Nowadays some consider “geriatric” or “retarded” as bad in themselves, regardless of context. But when you come to think of it, it’s the social stigma and use by bigoted people that gave them these connotations.

‘Karen haircut’ meme via BuzzFeed.

Furthermore, some are offended even by “boomer” (Spector, 2019) or by “Karen” (Khorsandi, 2021). Even though they are used to designate groups of people or certain behaviours — are they that offensive? Perhaps, for some.

Then, should they be considered slurs? At least one reporter argues that the answer is no for “boomer” (Wang, 2020). A Karen goes one step further and explains why the term that results from her name is neither sexist nor racist (Attiah, 2020).

I tend to agree wholeheartedly.

A more recent example is “cracker”. The word was used by Twitch personality and lefty socio-political commentator Hasan Piker in one of his streams. He got booted for 24h because of that. Social-libertarian streamer Vaush got an even rougher punishment, getting permanently banned. The problem? “Twitch has not clarified whether it believes cracker is a slur. According to Twitch’s Terms of Service, ‘using hateful slurs, either untargeted or directed towards another individual,’ is grounds for removal from the site” (Jackson & Gault, 2021).

Finally, and closer to home, the progressive left-wing meme page Dezarticulat was banned on Facebook for different stupid jokes, such as using the swastika in an ironic context (Rogozanu, 2021). At the time of the permaban, the moderators have told me that the page had 21k followers, with hundreds of reactions per post.

All of these events led to the rise of the ‘anti-woke left’ (Myers, 2019). Woke authors and linguist professors criticize cancel culture for its excesses (Deutsche Welle, n.d.). I only see these as a natural reaction to the nauseatingly woke attitudes and commercials of some of the most powerful institutions in the world, such as the CIA (The Central Intelligence Agency, 2021) or PepsiCo (Hyde, 2017). These serve as mere distractions from the dirty deeds they do or the tons of money they bring in, while trivialising ordinary people’s suffering or legitimate social movements.

4. Conclusions

❝ We should prefer the honest boor, as polite euphemism is constantly used to mask atrocities. ❞
(A’Lee Frost, 2016)

In this paper, I’ve argued that cancel culture has its own merits when it comes to calling out sexual predators or people that have committed serious acts — whose crimes and felonies remain unaccounted for.

Nevertheless, the Twitter mob sometimes goes after the wrong people or for the wrong stuff. As exemplified, people that are already wealthy and that get cancelled usually can live off of their already accumulated treasure or find a new fanbase among conservative supporters.

Were my conservative relatives right last year? Well, for sure not in the way that they imagined.

That’s why, when it comes to language, you should judge jokes and words in relation to the context and intention in which they were made. Because, for the ordinary person, it can have drastic consequences.

In short, don’t cancel people for stupid shit they say online.

Don’t be a prick. Nor a cunt.

5. Bibliography

Dictionary.com. (2020, July 31). cancel culture. From Dictionary.com: https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/

BBC News. (2020, March 11). BBC News. From Harvey Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in jail: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-51845268

Dale, M., & Durkin Richer, A. (2021, July 1). EXPLAINER: Why Bill Cosby’s conviction was overturned . From AP News: https://apnews.com/article/why-was-bill-cosby-conviction-overturned-2a65ec25c153fbd1c24b1c58a2b6e583

Bacon, P. (2021, March 17). Why Attacking ‘Cancel Culture’ And ‘Woke’ People Is Becoming The GOP’s New Political Strategy. From FiveThirtyEight: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-attacking-cancel-culture-and-woke-people-is-becoming-the-gops-new-political-strategy/

Weiss, B. (2018, May 8). Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web. From The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/intellectual-dark-web.html

Vice News. (2020, July 9). Trump Thinks ‘Cancel Culture’ Is ‘Totalitarianism’ — But He Secretly Loves It . From Youtube: https://youtu.be/YIazQJKTxQk

Greenwald, G. (2018, March 8). NYT’s Bari Weiss Falsely Denies Her Years of Attacks on the Academic Freedom of Arab Scholars Who Criticize Israel . From The Intercept: https://theintercept.com/2018/03/08/the-nyts-bari-weiss-falsely-denies-her-years-of-attacks-on-the-academic-freedom-of-arab-scholars-who-criticize-israel/

Cole, J. (2005, April 22). The new McCarthyism . From Salon: https://www.salon.com/2005/04/22/mccarthy_5/

Cotton, T. (2020, June 3). Send In the Troops. From The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/03/opinion/tom-cotton-protests-military.html

Saad, N. (2020, July 14). Journalist Bari Weiss skewers New York Times in her resignation letter . From LA Times: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-14/bari-weiss-new-york-times-resignation

Parkman, D. (2021, October 21). Bari Weiss HUMILIATES Herself on CNN . From Youtube: https://youtu.be/C7jKIbHuIUg

Romano, A. (2020, August 25). Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture . From Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate

Dry, J. (2018, October 30). Protestors Turn Out for Louis C.K.’s First Publicized Comedy Cellar Set . From IndieWire: https://www.indiewire.com/2018/10/louis-ck-protests-comedy-cellar-1202016568/

VanDerWerff, E. (2018, May 29). Why ABC had to cancel Roseanne . From Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/5/29/17406210/roseanne-canceled-abc-valerie-jarrett-roseanne-barr

Owens, E. (2019, January 7). Kevin Hart’s Oscars controversy feeds the stereotype of the black homophobe . From Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/12/11/18134366/kevin-hart-resigns-homophobic-tweet-oscars-2018-ellen-degeneres

Orchard, L. (2020, November 17). Status 1328579426171449344. From Twitter: https://twitter.com/lilian_orchard/status/1328579426171449344

Slepian, S. (2020, November 17). Medium.com. From https://shainslepian.medium.com/please-dont-cancel-philosophy-tube-31f30b67ced0: https://shainslepian.medium.com/please-dont-cancel-philosophy-tube-31f30b67ced0

The “Harper’s letter” signatories. (2020, July 7). A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. From Harper’s Magazine: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

Ronson, J. (2015, February 12). How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life . From The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html

Spector, N. (2019, November 6). ‘OK boomer’ is dividing generations. What does it mean? From NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/ok-boomer-diving-generation-what-does-it-mean-ncna1077261

Khorsandi, S. (2021, July 23). The problem with calling someone a ‘Karen’ . From The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/karen-meme-sexism-ageism-women-b1889486.html

Wang, A. (2020, May 5). Is “Boomer” a Slur? From The Science Survey: https://thesciencesurvey.com/editorial/2020/03/05/is-boomer-a-slur/

Attiah, K. (2020, April 28). The ‘Karen’ memes and jokes aren’t sexist or racist. Let a Karen explain. . From The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/28/karen-memes-jokes-arent-sexist-or-racist-let-karen-explain/

Rogozanu, C. (2021, May 21). De ce a închis Facebook Dezarticulat? From Teletext: https://tltxt.ro/articol/de-ce-a-inchis-facebook-dezarticulat/

Myers, F. (2019, July 4). Meet the anti-woke left. From Spiked: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/04/meet-the-anti-woke-left/

Jackson, G., & Gault, M. (2021, December 14). Hasan Piker Banned From Twitch for Saying ‘Cracker’. From VICE: https://www.vice.com/en/article/4awxjw/hasan-piker-allegedly-banned-from-twitch-for-saying-cracker

Deutsche Welle. (n.d.). Deutsche Welle. From Criticizing cancel culture as a ‘woke’ author : https://www.dw.com/en/criticizing-cancel-culture-as-a-woke-author/a-59165136

The Central Intelligence Agency. (2021, March 25). Humans of CIA. From YouTube: https://youtu.be/X55JPbAMc9g

Hyde, M. (2017, April 6). Diet Woke: how Pepsi’s ad backfired for Kendall Jenner. From The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/lostinshowbiz/2017/apr/06/pepsi-race-luther-king-kendall-jenner-lindsay-lohan

Nivhols, J. (2014, April 17). Jayne County, Transgender Icon, Allegedly Banned From Facebook For ‘Transphobic Slurs’. From Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jayne-county-transgender_n_5169324

A’Lee Frost, A. (2016, August 25). The Necessity of Political Vulgarity. From Current Affairs: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2016/05/the-necessity-of-political-vulgarity

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Vlad-Marko Tollea

Vlad-Marko Tollea

Ferească Pulitzer ca jurnalismul să fie nu doar ascuțit, ci și ilariant! // Libertatea, VICE România, TLTXT, MS și Asociația DREGEM (in.TM.ro). Uneori: altele.