Cancelling in Public and Private

17 February 2023

This week we’re thinking about Cancel Culture, which some consider a real problem: people losing their jobs, being harassed online, their home addresses being shared—all because they said something that came out the wrong way. Others see people who do or say terrible things getting some pushback, but mostly whining about how they’ve been victimized... on their Netflix comedy special.

Let's leave aside the notable public figures, and the cases of egregious behavior: what about private citizens getting into trouble over innocent mistakes? Of course, regular folks can also say some pretty messed-up things, and in those cases they may well deserve to be called out for it; that’s not so much cancel culture as it is consequence culture. But then, who decides the consequences? Trial by social media isn’t exactly famous for being fair and proportional. What, for example, of the guy who made an off-color joke about dongles at a tech conference, where someone overheard him, took a picture, and tweeted about it? His employer decided it was bad PR and fired him. Is that just a matter of "play stupid games, win stupid prizes," or was getting fired an inappropriately severe consequence?

When it comes to the workplace, of course, even “stupid jokes” can be a genuine problem. Certain kinds of remarks can create a hostile environment for women, people of color, and gays and lesbians, so it's good that employers are finally starting to take the issue seriously. But that's behavior at work. What about things people post on social media when they’re off the clock—like the professor who tweeted about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and then had his job offer mysteriously disappear?

For cases like these—the tweeting professor, the off-color joke to a friend—maybe we've been focusing on the wrong thing. Maybe the problem isn’t cancel culture—it’s that employers have too much power. A lot of people can get fired at any time for any reason, from jobs they need to survive. In other words, your employer can now "cancel" you! We are starting to see this in a dramatic way in Florida, where laws are being written banning certain topics from university classes, and granting university presidents essentially unilateral power to enforce them.

Still, it's not just employers. Sometimes, people get their speeches and events cancelled if they defend unpopular points of view. And at a more everyday level, friends and family can shun you for having the "wrong" political opinion.

Not all of these phenomena are new—people have been boycotting things they don’t approve of since the 19th century, and people have been shunning family members since Cain and Abel—but with the internet, things have undoubtedly changed. Every offhand comment on social media could potentially reach a massive audience of anonymous, angry people who can react immediately. By the time you notice what’s happening, you’ve already lost your reputation. Some folks seem to have no sense of shame—they seem to be thriving in this so-called “age of cancel culture”!—but most of us would be horrified at being condemned publicly by tens of thousands of strangers.

Whether or not cancel culture is anything new or newly-dangerous, our guest is sure to have some strong views. It’s our old friend Adrian Daub, who’s got a new book on the topic called Cancel Culture Transfer.

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 8, 2023 -- 8:03 AM

There are fundamental issues

There are fundamental issues here that should bother people. Item: In this complex world few people think about privacy. They are willing to share anything, including dirty laundry, with anyone who will listen. Then they moan and cry foul!, when things blow up, break down, fall apart or wear out. Item: in the world of social media, discretion is meaningless. Participants go along for the ride and ' wonder what happened' when it gets bumpy. Item: i have asserted that exaggeration, excess and extremism are dismantling society at an exponential rate. THAT is, no doubt, an exaggeration. But, you get the point, right? Item: there is neither integrity nor decorum Not everyone wants or intends to be your friend. Carriers who explicitly or implicitly claim this fail to account for literally barrels full of rotten apples. Item: (the final one) people are gullible. A kinder characterization is naive. The outcomes are the same

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Daniel's picture


Tuesday, April 18, 2023 -- 12:52 PM

Is there any part of the

Is there any part of the state of affairs which you are describing for which you can claim responsibility? If a situation obtains to which a spectator can contribute and fails to do so, does that spectator share in the authorship of its structure? Or does it obtain that one who describes such a scenario, in this case a dissolution of social-norm expectation and performance under conditions of exponential widening of statement conveyance-reception, can claim partial responsibility for causing it? What role does your own freedom play in the collection of behaviors which you are content to condemn?

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