Revoking support or a platform from someone who is perceived to have behaved badly has recently been dubbed “cancel culture.
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.