Dave Chappelle: Vocal critic of social justice
Artillery Row

Cancel the war on progressives

Cancel culture hurts most those who cheer it on

There has recently been a lot of debate over the concept of ‘cancel culture’ and whether or not it really exists. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who claim it certainly does exist and it just isn’t possible to say anything unorthodox anymore without being descended upon by outraged Social Justice activists calling for one’s firing. On the other end, we find people claiming that cancel culture is a myth and people are just complaining that they can’t say sexist and racist things without criticism. Some even suggest that being a critic of Social Justice ideas is profitable and career-advancing.

Part of this disagreement comes down to definitions. When is it reasonable to say that someone has been cancelled? Can we consider Louis CK to have been cancelled over his sex scandal now he has resumed performing at sold-out venues? What about Dave Chappelle? Is his career over and his reputation utterly destroyed by criticizing Social Justice ideas? It seems unlikely. For these comedians, “cancellation” does not seem to fit, despite the harsh criticism they received from elements of the Left.

However, the celebration of the black artist, Kevin Hart, hosting the Oscars was short-lived when his old homophobic tweets were uncovered, and the job withdrawn. Similarly, Sarah Silverman, a widely respected feminist, suffered the withdrawal of a role when it emerged she had once done ‘blackface’. Have these figures, both of them in different ways spokespeople for racial diversity and gender equality, been cancelled or have they just lost one opportunity? Was this an acceptable consequence?

What about people who have unambiguously lost whole careers they worked hard for and done so so publicly that it would be very difficult for them to find new ones? The judge in the Brock Turner case, Aaron Persky, lost not only his job as a judge but then as a tennis coach. Will he ever be able to work anywhere again or is he permanently cancelled? James Damore was fired for saying men and women have different interests on average and had great difficulty finding another job in tech, probably because employers are wary of incurring feminist wrath. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were intimidated and forced out of their jobs as biology professors after Weinstein criticized the racially specific “Day of Absence” at Evergreen College. Will other university positions become available? Despite both professors’ excellent teaching records, they might just be too hot to handle. Are they cancelled?

Some people would point out that Damore, Weinstein, and Heying have become famous within the culture wars and many opportunities to speak on this matter have been offered to them. This ambiguity makes some people insist that Cancel Culture is a myth. To Osita Nwanevu, writing for New Republic, Cancel Culture is a phantom, a con and a joke because cancelled people can be celebrated in counter-culture and find themselves sought after by alternative media. This is all very well but does not consider that they might not have wanted to be cultural commentators and would preferred to have remained in the careers they built up often over decades. James Damore is a highly introverted figure who seldom seems at ease with public speaking, and Professors Weinstein and Heying’s passion for biology is clear to anyone who hears them speak about it. The opportunities inside and outside of the systems are also not equivalent. Within, there is stability. Outside, success is often short-lived, if not ephemeral, and hands out good opportunities only to a relative few.

Dani Di Placido is another who argues that cancellation is easy to survive depending on the choices made by the cancelled. Writing in Forbes, he too asserts that such vilified figures can simply choose to change audiences and offers Kanye West and Pewdiepie as examples of people who kept large audiences. But as Helen Dale points out, not everyone who is fired or suffers a public shaming is sufficiently influential or charismatic to attract large enough sympathetic audiences to keep themselves afloat. They may also not wish to attract those audiences and herein lies the deepest implications of Di Placido being right.

Those most vulnerable to being cancelled are progressives

It is demonstrably true that whether or not a public-facing individual can be cancelled and remain cancelled depends very much on what fields they are operating within and who their audiences are. This is where it becomes most clear that Cancel Culture is not only excessive, cruel and unforgiving but counterproductive to progressive aims. Those who are immune to being cancelled on Social Justice grounds are those whose success does not rely on them expressing support for racial, gender and sexual equality in the appropriate ways or having audiences who expect them to do so. Those most vulnerable to being cancelled are those whose work does include caring about equality issues and whose audiences care about them too. That is, those most vulnerable to being cancelled are progressives.

This produces a particular problem for those of us who are on the left but oppose Social Justice approaches. While we try to prevent the left from leaking supporters to the right so that we can win elections and bring about leftist social policies again, the Social Justice left continues to offer incentives for people to go right. We humans are social animals with a need to feel in good standing with our tribe. If our tribe punishes people for different views, refuses to accept heartfelt apologies for errors and offers no possibility of good faith disagreement or way back from disgrace, another tribe which seems prepared to accept you as a good person begins to look much more attractive. Nwanevu and Di Placido would do well to consider offering leftists some other choices.

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