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The Cancel Mob Is Coming

Ask not for whom the cancel mob is coming; it comes for thee.

Pixabay Image ID 5355817
Source: Pixabay Image ID 5355817

For the past year or two, it’s a regular occurrence for me to be contacted by friends and colleagues, under attack online from mobs of haters and critics. Having experienced numerous such attacks, and been fairly vocal about surviving them, friends reach out to me for advice and support. There are numerous articles, books, and resources out there giving advice on how to survive such experiences. Colleague Lee Jussim has an excellent article on 10 things to do when you're under attack here. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is another resource. Numerous colleagues and past victims of such efforts have shared that they also frequently receive such respect from their own friends and colleagues, leading me to invite us all to consider that eventually, the cancel mob is likely to come for each of us too.

As I’ve discussed the rise in online cancellation movements, there are a standard variety of reactions:

What are they being canceled for? This seems like a fair question, except that it implies that so-to-speak cancellation is a fair response, to some things. “Maybe this is accountability, not cancellation,” goes the reasoning. The challenge is that this assumes that cancellation efforts work in a rational manner, responding to facts, and that, sometimes, it’s “deserved.” I think we can all now acknowledge that these movements are far from rational, but instead are knee-jerk, reactionary, and heavily influenced by cherry-picked misrepresentations. If we want accountability, then we need rational processes that allow for the evaluation of evidence and provide (and respect) due process.

Just get offline and off social media. Unfortunately, while cancel culture starts online and in social media, it isn’t confined there. Many people have experienced significant career impact, loss of jobs, lost contracts for work, speaking, training, and writing, from attacks that started online and gravitated into “the real world.” As I wrote here, some cancel efforts have weaponized ethics complaints against licensed professionals, filing complaints against their licensing or professional organizations, for things said in social media. Many such groups are currently still struggling to figure out how to respond or investigate such complaints, and whether they are even under their jurisdiction. Following such experiences, many people reduce their online presence, simply to reduce their exposure, but unfortunately, this doesn’t prevent these things from reaching out and affecting them.

This too shall pass. There’s a hope that cancel culture is a phase or a blip, and that our society will come around and move on. There’s also a hope that if a person under attack just keeps their head down, that the storm will pass.

Unfortunately, at this point, I have to suggest that neither of these is true. Indeed, the power of the mobs almost seems to be increasing, now spreading into new areas and industries, and across political groups. I certainly hope that at some point there’s a governor switch on outrage reactions that somehow slow things down until the facts are in, but as long as clicks are monetized, this seems unlikely. Tech and financial companies are now stepping in and engaging in their own forms of cancellation; for example, to dissociate themselves from sex workers, or from alleged transphobes. At the micro-level, it’s my experience that even when the storm passes for a certain person, and the mob moves on, there are future recurrences and blips when the attacks resume. They may not last as long the second or third time, but sometimes, past complaints get added to new ones, starting new cycles. As Bret Stephens writes in The New York Times, "Woke me when it gets over," but get comfortable because there's no evidence this trend will end anytime soon.

This is only an issue for the “woke left.” Perhaps these social responses gained most steam in more liberal circles, but the strategy has clearly been adopted by extremists of all stripes. One only has to look at the hyperbolic response to the Netflix film Cuties to see how some cancellation efforts can even bring people across the political spectrum together into one howling mob. Sexual issues in particular have become a big target for conservative and religious groups, as they go after everyone from Pornhub to Catholic school moms with Onlyfans accounts. Yay for bipartisanship?

An insightful and humble piece on the social phenomenon of cancel culture and online mobs was published in Quillette, a platform that has itself suffered numerous attacks. In 2018, it published the post, "I Was the Mob Until the Mob Came for Me." It describes the experience of a self-described social justice warrior who got a huge rush out of attacking others until his own past mistakes and statements were exposed. The author’s comment stayed with me: “A fear of being targeted by the mob induces us to signal publicly that we are part of it.” But being part of the mob offers no protection from them turning on you next.

A similarly scathingly insightful essay is "Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice," in which a self-described queer trans person of color explains how they found themselves self-censoring in their own community, pulling back from social media and their own colleagues. The author concludes by committing to step outside these circles, to learn even from those with whom they disagree, and to trust in their ability to act justly.

A colleague and fellow victim/scholar of cancellation Alice Dreger (author of Galileo’s Middle Finger, itself an accounting of numerous cancellations through history) recently posted an excellent Twitter thread in which she described a late-night phone discussion with someone contemplating suicide in response to the controversy swirling around them. Touchingly, Alice shared how she contemplated suicide herself, but that she gains comfort by helping others going through the same experience, trying to save them from the pain she herself feels so deeply.

The question is no longer “Is cancel culture real?” Instead, it’s “When is it coming for me, or someone I love?” We all have long footprints on social media and in the world, and histories of saying and thinking things that might be out of step with modern “sensibilities.” Such kerfuffles pop up in reading groups, quilting groups, and across our social lives. Our lives bring us into contact with people with whom we disagree, about politics, about COVID, about social issues from abortion to the effects of racism. Perhaps the near-universality of being canceled is the only thing that can save us. When we divide the world between those who are canceled and those who are not, but then proceed to cancel everyone, at least we may grow in empathy for those currently under attack, knowing that the bell will ring for us one day, if it hasn’t already.

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