“Cancel culture is driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism,” President Trump said in a recent speech. (He actually said “totalitaritanism” but we know what he meant.) “And it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.”
Plenty of the people who pontificate most vociferously about “cancel culture” would agree with him—including those who typically don’t agree with him. That’s because cancel culture is like the elephant in the parable of the blind men and the elephant; the definition of what it is depends very much on the person describing it. To some, cancel culture is a medium like agar-agar, a censorious climate we’re all marinating in that threatens truth tellers and heterodox thinkers and nuance-providers into silence and punishes them for speaking out. To others, cancel culture is a loaded term (like “politically correct” and “woke”) used primarily by people who have long held power and microphones and who are now unnerved by the notion of letting previously unheard voices speak out and having to listen even if it makes them uncomfortable.
It’s odd, though, that the people bellowing most loudly about the threat of being canceled, of being denied a voice, are the ones with the biggest and most prestigious platforms. (Like, say, Harper’s, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and um, Tablet.) The fact is, many folks who have been purportedly canceled are doing great!
Andrew Sullivan quit New York Magazine because of its supposedly prevalent attitude that “any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.” But in his resignation note, he announced the formation of his new writerly venture (i.e., not pumping gas) with Matt Taibbi and Jesse Singal. If a cancellation falls in a forest of empty complaints that one is being silenced, does it make a sound? Then there’s Amelie Wen Zhao, a writer profiled in a Tablet story called “How a Twitter Mob Derailed a Young Immigrant Female Author’s Budding Career.” She was purportedly canceled (“Blood Heir isn’t being released at all—she has decided not to publish it, and Delacorte has agreed,” Tablet wrote) but guess what? It was merely delayed, while Zhao pondered the charges of anti-Black racism leveled at it. “I took a step back, and I reread my book,” she told NPR when the book was published, five months after its initial publication date. “And I went back through all the research that I had done at the time … I also wanted to be respectful to the feedback that I was hearing, so I dove in to make sure that I really fleshed out these issues of indentured labor, human trafficking throughout my world. I made them even more nuanced to make sure that this is an even stronger story and even more faithful to what I set out to write.” So … she felt that paying attention to the criticism and reworking the book made it better. (It also got her an appearance on NPR and a feature in The New York Times, true rarities for a young adult novel. Some cancellation.) Earlier this week, Nicholas Sandmann (the teenage boy in a MAGA hat who was filmed in a confrontation with an elderly Native American man at a pro-life march in Washington, D.C., last year) noted that he had been “canceled, as in annulled, as in revoked, as in made void.” He delivered his remarks about being silenced at the Republican National Convention.
Harper’s Magazine ran a letter signed by many writers on the left and the right (but mostly the right) bemoaning cancel culture. The text of the letter was so unspecific, though, so full of high-toned rhetoric about “open debate” and “justice” and “toleration of difference” and the need for “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation and risk-taking” that it was all but meaningless. What reasonable human could disagree with these sentiments?
No one likes to be criticized or called out. It’s not fun. But when people in comfortable positions complain about being canceled, what they’re usually complaining about is being challenged.
Soaring rhetoric plummets to earth without specifics. Who, exactly, were the unnamed editors “fired for running controversial pieces”? (Maybe James Bennet, who solicited a New York Times op-ed that called for the illegal deployment of the U.S. military against Americans demonstrating their First Amendment rights, then acknowledged that he hadn’t actually read the piece before running it?) What books, precisely, were “withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity”? (Not Zhao’s. And surely not American Dirt, a widely criticized book about Mexico by a non-Mexican writer that was purportedly filled with errors, but which was not, in fact, withdrawn, but rather an Oprah’s Book Club pick and a bestseller?) Which “journalists are barred from writing on specific topics”; which “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class” (that sounds terrible!); which “heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes”? There’s a reason “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental principle of both fiction-writing and journalism. How can we assess whether “cancel culture” is A Thing without examples of it in the real world?
Some true centrists signed onto the letter. But there were also a lot of names that raised eyebrows; several of them are associated with anti-trans rhetoric and bullying. J.K. Rowling, for instance, has repeatedly tweeted misinformation and dismissive comments about trans women not being women. She has been yelled at a lot on Twitter. (More on that later.) Still, no one is abridging her free speech. No one is taking away her bazillion dollars and boy-wizard novels and movies and theme parks. She’s at no risk of being whisked out of print anytime soon. Another signatory, Lucía Martínez Valdivia, a Reed professor, wrote about her regret in signing the letter; when she’d asked to see who else was signing it, she was shown only the names of people of color from across the political spectrum. “Should I have asked to see more names? Possibly—some would say absolutely—though that would seem incommensurate with my agreement with the statement itself,” she wrote. “In what seems to have been a failure of imagination, a trans-exclusionary attitude didn’t even strike me as a possible interpretation of the text, let alone a likely one.” (Trans author Jenny Boylan also tweeted her regret in signing on.) As Martínez Valdivia noted, “Someone on Twitter rightly, I think, diagnosed That Letter as a Rorschach test, one generic enough that everyone who signed it probably thought it stood for whatever most mattered to them. Some would take this as a virtue, a site of common cause; others would take this as vagueness, as a symptom of weak thought.” Mmm.
Meanwhile, a pioneering work about cancellation, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, hasn’t aged well. Most of the careers Ronson said were destroyed by social media pillorying ... weren’t. One of Ronson’s examples, Jonah Lehrer, who repeatedly plagiarized and made stuff up, later got a six-figure advance to write a whole book about how he’d been canceled.
Social media is a big force in amplifying previously unheard voices. Which is fabulous! But also terrifying to some, because amplification can lead to accountability.
No one likes to be criticized or called out. It’s not fun. But when people in comfortable positions complain about being canceled, what they’re usually complaining about is being challenged. Claims that cancel culture is anti-Jewish are another example of “cancel culture” meaning whatever a writer says it means. Holding up the example of debating Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai as evidence that Judaism welcomes dialogue doesn’t fly. What about all the smart people—like, you know, women—who never got a seat at the Talmudic table to begin with? And as Tablet contributor Shaul Magid points out in a piece for Jewish Dispatches, the Talmudic era was actually chock full of excommunications, accusations of heresy, and, well, cancellation. The name of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, he notes, was essentially expunged from the Talmud for reasons unclear; Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated for saying that God was a philosophical construct. Boy, did the Jewish leadership of Amsterdam in 1656 give Spinoza a zetz, as my dad would have put it! “Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.” No other Jew was allowed to talk to him or come within 4 cubits of him. Now that’s cancellation.
But here’s the thing. What’s undeniably changing is that new voices are being heard in the public square. Black Lives Matter is a potent movement and voice for change. And change is uncomfortable for a lot of people. My Jewish siblings who bemoan cancel culture (and even call it “lynching,” which is rich given that one white American Jew was lynched, compared to between 3,000 and 5,000 Black people) seem reluctant to note that a wider tent means making room for marginalized voices. Such voices often address unsavory aspects of American history while noting that racism and misogyny are still alive and well. They note biases embedded in our social institutions. They point out the media’s overwhelming whiteness and maleness. They make clear, by openly comparing salaries and pointing out stuff like editors doing blackface and putting the few staffers of color in every bit of promotional material to seem more diverse than they are, that bad stuff has been going on for years, sometimes overtly and sometimes in a subterranean way. And people in power—including people helming Jewish institutions—are paying attention, and finding it discomfiting.
So yes, social media is a big force in amplifying previously unheard voices. Which is fabulous! But also terrifying to some, because amplification can lead to accountability! Social media, though, also involves white people extremely eager to show how progressive they are by yelling at other white people to prove they’re Not Like Other White People. Sometimes they engage in magical thinking, subconsciously believing they can prevent ever being yelled at or screwing up on social media themselves (ha) if they go on the attack frequently enough. It is wearisome.
And never forget, Twitter is a drug. (One study found it was more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol.) It’s not made for nuance; it’s quick-moving and high-impact. I don’t want to completely demonize it; given the inequities of traditional media, it’s become a means of democratizing discourse. But its very nature encourages users to desperately seek likes and retweets, as overwrought and depressed and hungry and desperate as rats pushing levers for pellets. And a good way to get noticed is to call someone else out. Even better if you can be a total dick about it. Being an asshole, whatever your politics, is being an asshole. Maybe try not to be an asshole? It’s facile but true that being a jerk to someone’s face is harder than being a jerk to them on Twitter. My colleague Liel’s politics are anathema to me; mine are anathema to him. The only thing we have ever agreed on is the fact that Phineas and Ferb is an awesome TV show. But we see each other every week (or did, back in the before times) and have never threatened to kill each other. That’s good. But that’s an awfully low bar.
All that said: Right-wing Twitter is a hell of a lot scarier than left-wing Twitter. The former is the side regularly telling Jewish users to get in the oven, for instance. And in real life, the former is the side that shoots up synagogues and drives cars into peaceful protesters. And despite the handwringing of the right-wing intellectual class, the left is still more meaningfully, regularly canceled … in ways that cancellation matters. Look at the list of most frequently banned and challenged books from last year: Three kids’ books about trans kids, two kids’ books that contain gay male characters, one picture book about gay penguins, one picture book about a gay rabbit in a loving relationship, and The Handmaid’s Tale (“vulgarity and sexual overtones”). Children’s books are a barometer of where our culture is headed; children’s and young adult publishers have been wrestling with issues of accurate representation and long-suppressed storytelling for far longer than their grown-up counterparts (and yes, they’re still flawed).
Capitalism, too, is a force a generally unreckoned with in this whole conversation. When bosses have all the power, the people are screwed. (This is why lefty Jews started the labor movement.) As writer and lawyer Jill Filipovic noted recently, people are terrified that being criticized will lead to being unemployed; their job insecurity keeps them from focusing on the fact that for generations other people never had the chance to work in their field at all. “The concept of ‘employment at will’—that your employer can fire you at any time for any transgression, or no transgression at all—is just not a thing in the saner democracies to which we often compare ourselves,” she writes. “In America, we are so used to this that many of us hardly even notice it or question it.”
Unfettered capitalism—which increases regular folks’ economic insecurity while helping the richest Americans to get even richer, something that’s been especially true during the pandemic—makes us turn on each other. People who are afraid of losing their jobs resent those they perceive as putting their jobs at risk. Which makes them terrified of saying or writing or tweeting something that might get them criticized, for which they blame the bogeyman of cancel culture rather than the wider economic system that puts their livelihoods at risk.
And of course, in general it feels tone-deaf to be dwelling on one’s own anxiety about cancellation when so many of one’s fellow Americans are more focused on endemic racism, police brutality, the lack of federal response to COVID-19, voter suppression, the failures of remote learning, and the equity gap in schooling and the risks of returning to classrooms too early and killing our teachers.
But OK, go ahead and drey loudly about how “you can’t say anything anymore.”
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.