Taylor Swift was never really cancelled, but she likes to pretend she was
No one wants nice songs anymore. They want a persona they can emulate, a life they can fantasize about living within, and most of all, they want a redemption story. The story of Taylor Swift, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian’s social media altercation played out in real-time. Fans and haters alike (is there much difference between the two?) were able to have a very, virtual impact on the perception and fall out between the three celebs. Swift suffered the most hate, but her emergence from “cancel culture” gives fans exactly what they want.
Taylor Swift had a rough time back in 2016. She went through that very 21st-century experience that so many of us have gone through, that of being cancelled. In Swift’s case, it was the result of pop culture faction warfare. She went up against the phenomenon then known as Kimye—Kanye West and Kim Kardashian—and lost. Their fans against her fans, he said she said, a war over who knew what when about what Kanye was going to sing in his song “Famous.” In the track, he references Swift, muses on the likelihood of them ever having sex, and also calls her a bitch.
There are sections in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that make me feel like I am not alone in the universe, that I am understood, that my fears are shared, and there is true kinship among souls. That doesn’t matter to Professor Amy Hungerford, Dean of Humanities at Yale, who decided that Wallace’s reported mistreatment of poet Mary Karr meant that he shouldn’t be read anymore. She replaced his work on her syllabus with a selection from graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, whose most important contribution is to insist that women’s dialogue in movies have a content quota system.
The argument against Wallace, and against so many of these male writers whose books are being ripped from college syllabi, is that their “genius” is no excuse for their bad behaviour. In the Atlantic article that reported on Wallace’s bad behaviour toward Karr, the concept of genius itself is derided as chauvinistic. “Genius, a male condition that inflicts its maleness on the individual soul. Genius, an object of worship. Genius, perhaps slightly demonic… Genius itself, the way we typically conceive of it, remains infused with the male gaze, or perhaps more aptly, the male haze: It is gendered by implication. It is a designation reserved, almost exclusively, for men.”
So, fuck that I guess? Great work written by male geniuses who suck at life is no longer worthwhile because … men? The article goes on to ridicule Wallace’s biographer for making Karr “a slight character” in a biography about Wallace. Perhaps Karr should have been the main character in Wallace’s biography, perhaps his reported shittiness in their relationship should have been the main thrust of the entire narrative of Wallace’s life (which Wallace took in 2008). Clearly, he was unwell, and had difficulties coping with life. But because he was such a dick, which probably had something to do with whatever demons would pursue him eventually to self-inflicted death, his work should be chucked from the curriculum.
In college, I was assigned Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There is a section where a German general hires a prostitute to defecate into his mouth, in an unflinching metaphor about the horrors of World War Two. This laid bare the atrocities of what human beings are capable of doing to one another despite the fact that it’s totally derogatory towards women, probably, to show them as whores or something. Am I getting this right? Or was it okay because the whore in question was probably a Nazi collaborator? Can’t we just read?
It was in this same course that I read Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, a difficult read for both content and style. It was about the feeling of a time and place I could only experience through Mailer’s work. But maybe I shouldn’t have read it because he was misogynistic? Am I supposed to believe that there was somewhere else, someone else, who could have given me this gift of clarity about war?
In Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, he speaks about the difficulty between trying to write and trying to live that, at 17, spoke to me so deeply I carried the book around and reread passages over and over.
I knew that Henry Miller was not a believer in women’s equality, but that perspective was irrelevant to his overall point. I knew from stories about Anais Nin, and his wife June, and his own words, that his ideas on women’s worth were entirely based in their use as objects for sex. I didn’t care. It became clear that there were loads of male authors who spoke to my heart that I would not want in my bed, or to teach my children, or even to hang out with for very long, if at all. But I spent hours reading their work, and those are hours I would never give back.
Is it that these authors don’t deserve to be read? These men who have behaved like brutes, are they to be punished for all time because of that behaviour? Are they to be wiped clean from literary history for the crime of being total assholes in their personal lives? Are we really supposed to believe that there are authors out there who are super fucking kind to puppies, volunteer at soup kitchens every week, never say mean things, or give into their worst impulses, lack vices, keep their wives and kids happy, and are still so good at writing that they can make us stop questioning whether or not we’re truly alone in the universe? Can make us weep with words? Can make us feel our hearts pounding out across the damned earth and make us grateful for it?
Or is it that the work is somehow tainted by the author’s views toward women, or in Wallace’s case, lack of self-control? Are we to believe that it is an author’s unconscious biases that are impacting negatively on the work itself, and that these unconscious biases will somehow become our unconscious biases? Are we readers and students not clever enough to tell the difference between our own thoughts and those of the author? Do profs really think the kids are that incapable of discernment?
This penchant for wiping the slate of male authors as some kind of retribution against their maleness, their chauvinism, machismo, misogyny, pick your dirty word, isn’t going to punish them, most of them are dead anyways. It’s going to punish us. We are the ones who will miss out. We are the ones who will lose for loss of these words. Maybe colleges aren’t the place to go learn anymore, maybe instead we should go back to browsing the stacks looking for kinship and recognition across time and pages. Colleges are teaching the wrong things. If authors are to be held accountable for their actions as well as their words, we should get accustomed to mediocrity. But I guess we’re already there.
Louis C.K. returned to the Canadian stage last night at Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club last night for the first of five sold-out nights.
C.K., the comedic legend who was seemingly banished from society for his “Me Too” moment (masturbating in front of women with their consent) was greeted with roaring applause from the Toronto stadium, which seats roughly 300 people.
C.K. has had tough time being re-integrated into hyper-woke society that has grown exponentially since his exile. A leaked set of his, recorded without his knowledge and mercilessly taken out of context by joyless authoritarian “fans of comedy,” made headlines not for how funny it was, but rather for how offensive it was.
The usual suspects were all at play, ready to take down C.K. for his jokes regarding Stoneman Douglas High School survivors.
“They testify in front of Congress, these kids,” said C.K. “What the f-ck? What are you doing? You’re young. You should be crazy, you should be unhinged—not in a suit saying: ‘I’m here to tell…’ F-ck you! You’re not interesting because you went to a high school where kids got shot.”
“Why does that mean I have to listen to you?” the comedian continued. “How does that make you interesting? You didn’t get shot. You pushed some fat kid in the way, and now I’ve got to listen to you talking?”
Oftentimes in comedy, it can be a bit easier for high-ranking comedians to say just about anything they want and be able to get away with a laugh. Generally, comedians who have spent most their lifetimes perfecting their craft know the pacing, the phrasing, and the general ins-and-outs of a joke, and can deliver it with a high degree of effectiveness.
I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say that joking about a high school massacre which saw 17 dead squanders all of that, potentially putting you in some real hot water. It’s lines like those that can see a set go belly up in a hurry. But alas, people laughed. Because it was funny.
C.K. walks the line of what’s acceptable wonderfully, and those who don’t understand this may just have a hard time keeping up. Taking jokes literally, and at face value is a good way to never laugh again in your life.
So when Now Toronto‘s review of C.K.’s first set started with an excerpt that reads, “the mostly white, male audience ate up jokes about sexual misconduct, Asians, gays and Justin Trudeau,” you knew it wasn’t going to be an actual assessment of C.K’s jokes, but rather an assessment of how much C.K. would kowtow to social justice authoritarians who, frankly, don’t understand stand-up comedy.
To their credit, they are beginning to develop a sense of self-awareness. ” I am exactly the kind of fake-woke SJW that people like C.K., Dave Chappelle and most recently Joker director Todd Phillips have been railing against,” writes Radheyan Simonpillai.
You can read the entire article here, but Simonpillai sums up his expectations and disappointment nicely in one sentence, “The comic performed his embarrassment right off the top without actually being apologetic about the sexual misconduct.”
Simply put, C.K. wasn’t sorry enough.
But here’s the thing. He shouldn’t be, because he’ll never be sorry enough. No matter how much he could apologize, it would never be enough for everybody.
And that’s reason enough to not do so. C.K.’s base, the people who will buy tickets and spend money on a future special, have already forgiven him. He’s apologized, and it’s time to move on.
It seemed like a perfect gotcha moment. Lyz Lenz, author, journalist, celebrated call-out culture cultist, had “Creepy Uncle” Joe Biden against the rails. It was at the LGBTQ presidential forum at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Lenz, a writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, had a heated exchange with Biden, where he revealed his misunderstanding of the difference between biological sex and gender. When it was through, Biden called Lenz a “sweetheart.” The nerve of the guy! Lenz took to Twitter to tell the world about it.
Lenz got some instant support. Articles backing her up and trouncing Biden came from Vox, Rolling Stone, Jezebel, and The New York Times. They all mentioned the sweetheart moment, noting that it was basically condescending and dismissive. Just another moment that supposedly proved the pattern of Biden being problematic.
After all, this is a presidential election, and no one but Trump is allowed to have a personality. Democratic candidates are all supposed to have the same goals then posit different ways of getting there and we voters are meant to decide which way we think is the most direct.
Throughout the thread of support for Lenz’s deft handling of “Creepy Uncle Joe,” some dissenting voices began to pop up. Apparently, while she was up there noticing Biden’s tone and vocab, other people were noticing hers. And things quickly turned ugly for Lenz.
She went from calling out Biden to being called out herself. Apparently, it was noticed that the way she asked Senator Kamala Harris a question about making sure inmates in federal prisons have access to trans surgeries and the way she asked Senator Elizabeth Warren a question about making sure inmates have access to trans surgeries, showed that Lenz was racist.
The questions weren’t about whether or not inmates of people on medicare should have their gender-affirming surgeries funded, but why Harris and Warren had ever thought they shouldn’t be. Lenz asked Harris how she thought trans people could ever trust her, after her refusal to back gender-affirming surgeries for prison populations, while her question to Warren was basically, how do we get other people to agree that these surgeries should be taxpayer-funded? The argument is that she grilled Harris, but lobbed a softball to Warren. The internet decided that this could only be explained by racism.
Lenz has a history of calling people out, and acting malicious online. She wrote a damaging profile of Tucker Carlson, decrying him for, among other things, shouting while he said he was just talking loudly. She goes on to say that “Carlson’s PR person was concerned about silencing, too. [The PR rep] demanded that Carlson be able to respond to every criticism in this piece. And then, if the people who made those criticisms had a response, that Carlson be able to respond to that.” Clearly Lenz didn’t think this was reasonable, because she didn’t acquiesce.
She piled onto author Stephen Elliott after he was listed on the “Shitty Men in Media List” for anonymous and completely untested allegations, saying that he made her feel uncomfortable. Feeling uncomfortable is a crime now, if you’re keeping track, and whoever made you feel uncomfy deserves to be publicly humiliated. When Bari Weiss wrote about Elliott’s plight in The New York Times, Lenz held a grudge that she wasn’t invited to comment despite the fact that it was a straight opinion piece and wasn’t even about her. She tweeted out her anger about it over a year later. Apparently, what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.
It’s not a surprise that she pledges allegiance to another social justice grifter, Lauren Duca, who recently was called out by Buzzfeed of all places for blatant careerism and pedagogical incompetence.
These writers do not want a revolution unless they’re leading the charge.
Lenz went from calling out Vice President Joe Biden to being called out herself for racism, all within about two hours. She’s clearly comfortable with the format of public shaming, seeing as she’s engaged in it a couple of times. Perhaps she knows the right way to respond to this kind of mobbing, since she’s been on the other side of it, and presumably knows what it takes to call off the dogs. Or maybe not. Callout culture will always take down those who participate in it; it’s just a matter of when.
There is increased attention to the phenomenon of cancel culture recently. In part, it’s because our society has reached critical cancelled mass and the people who have been taken down by their communities are refusing to stay down. There are those among this group of cancelled people who actively wish they had not done or said the thing that took them down, the not-crime but definitely sin that led their friends and colleagues to ditch them, and there are those who would definitely do it again. What no one could have known is that a new culture of the cancelled would emerge, and that there would be no way to get back what was lost.
For a while the cancelled were keeping a low profile, keeping their heads down, trying to stay out of everyone’s way for fear they would bring more shame upon themselves or the people who were kind enough to still love and care about them. The cancelling thing is rough on friendships, relationships, kids and parents. Everyone in the orbit of a cancelled person feels the sting of their humiliation. And for the person experiencing the drastic life-altering event, the weight can be difficult to bear up under. While society is intent on decreasing shame in some areas with regard to sex and sexual activity, it’s been heaping it on in others.
Speaking your mind has always come with consequences. It’s not new to the contemporary concept of “cancel culture.” Many people believe that speaking their mind is more essential than any resulting repercussions. Comedians have often been on the forefront of risking it all for a few laughs. Michael Richards, who played Kramer on Seinfeld and had a successful stand up career, lost it in front of a crowd in Las Vegas and has barely worked since. That was before cancel culture had a name, or he might have been able to push back.
There are four basic ways to get cancelled: allegations of sexual misconduct, perceived racism, speaking against trans ideology, or being friends with anyone who has been cancelled– for not shunning them when the mob tells you to. Each of these carries with it different stigmas, and while allegations (whether real or false) are probably the hardest to come back from, the repercussions and consequences are often the same. These are expulsion from the community, seeing friends and colleagues turn their backs, watching paychecks dwindle, and seeing professional offers turn to dust.
Writing for The Stranger, Katie Herzog talks about how it’s only “your own tribe” that can initiate the “personal boycott,” because a critique from the other side just wouldn’t carry any weight. It’s interesting too that she uses the term boycott. A boycott is a social action designed to encourage change. When Cesar Chavez organized a grape boycott in the 1970’s, it was to get the growers to change their labor practices. After 17 million Americans boycotted, they did. And then everyone started eating grapes again.
There are no terms given in a personal boycott. What would a cancelled person have to do to be accepted back into the fold? There are usually no demands other than an apology, but an apology is perceived as an admission of guilt, guilt is evidence of wrongdoing, wrongdoing must be punished, and so the cancelling stands as the appropriate consequence. There is no way to be redeemed because there is no penance, there is only accusation, which equals guilt, the circular logic eats its own tail.
Writer Mitchell Sunderland was cancelled for talking to the wrong person. He recently had an interesting encounter with his Uber driver:
“My Uber driver was listening to Joe Rogan. He turned it off and apologized for Rogan’s foul language. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I’m not offended. I’ve been cancelled!’ The driver’s response: ‘I’ve always wanted to meet a cancelled person in the flesh!’”
Because the cancelled tend to be talented and resourceful, they have found a way to uncancel themselves. A counterculture is emerging, and people are drawn to it. Though it’s hard to cast off shame and humiliation, it’s easier to do the more people find themselves on the other side of the woke wall. There is strength in numbers, after all, and the numbers of the cancelled keeps growing.
People such as Bridget Phetasy, Art Tavana, Mitchell Sunderland, Katie Herzog, Jonathan Kay, Stephen Elliott, Meghan Murphy, and many others have established strong voices in this culture, and their popularity is only growing. It’s not just those who have suffered the consequences of public shaming, but individuals who watch this happen and think it’s an absurd way either to treat people or to air grievances. Claire Lehmann founded Quillette in this climate of orthodoxy, Helen Pluckrose founded Areo for similar reasons. Both have come under fire for daring to take the fair and balanced view that mainstream outlets fall all over themselves to avoid, namely that innocence must be assumed until guilt is proven, and that all ideas are open for debate.
The counterculture has been established, and people are paying attention, so the cancellation specialists are trying to re-cancel their original quarry. We have been witnessing this happen in hit piece after think piece after hit piece. Whether it’s an attempted takedown of Quillette, Heterodox Academy, The Post Millennial, or a breathless broadside against Louis C.K. or Jordan Peterson, it just doesn’t work. “Wolf” has been cried too many times and it’s just hard to believe that little whiny voice anymore. Dave Chappelle won’t have it at all.
We watch these stories play out on the social media stage. Articles flourish about the person who has done wrong, how they’ve not only allegedly committed bad acts against certain other individuals, but how those acts affect the public and negatively impact the culture at large. The person is an abuser, a hater, a no-good player, and we must all point fingers.
We stand back and watch the person fall. Perhaps we think over things we have done that were not super amazing. But there is a piece missing as we see this person crash and burn, and it is the most important part: redemption.
Without a place in culture where redemption is possible, the cancelled have been carving out a niche for themselves. New media outlets have provided platforms for many talented writers and interesting personalities. Through these outlets, meetups and social media networks, the cancelled have formed new friendships and professional connections. In other words, friendships are formed and redemption is found through the building of a new, more empathetic community. As Herzog rightly puts it, the cancelled are untouchable by the “other side” now. The key will be for the cancelled to not become a new mob. That only works if we remember how we got here in the first place.
Each of these archetypes, the vigilant canceller and the repentant sinner, can be found in the Gospel story of the prodigal son. The story goes that a man has two sons, and he gives them each a substantial sum to make their way in the world. One son reinvests that cash in the family business, helps his dad, makes a family. The other one takes off, does a bit of travelling, gets into some scrapes, and ends up penniless.
Without a dime, he realizes he should probably try to get a job, then he figures why not ask his dad if he can serve as a labourer on his farm. He heads home, but his dad is thrilled and throws an insane party. The one who stayed home on the farm is pissed and declares his brother unworthy. Here we have the repentant—the son who returns home having squandered and sinned, and the would-be canceller who hates his guts. But how soon after throwing a fit does the canceller become the one in need of being redeemed?
What’s missing from the culture of persecution and unpersoning is redemption, the way back. It used to be one of our core values. It is, in fact, an essential component of our art, our literature, our own mythologies and fairytales. We need narratives of redemption so badly that we recreate them in fantasy, just as we shun them in reality.
Cancellation has replaced the redemption arc in our culture. But it’s undeniable that we need redemption. It’s what we’re missing most. Consider the reaction that Louis CK received when he was announced as a guest performer at a recent comedy festival. We called it a miracle, at the time. And we meant it. The joy they felt was transferred to those of us who observed their joy. It was release and relief. It was a genuinely human moment—god knows we need more of these.
The weight of our mistakes is too great to carry around with us all the time. Everyone knows this, we all do bad things, there’s no avoiding it. We need to know that we can come back, that our hearts are not poisoned by the public airing of our lousiest moments. We need to see redemption in culture because we need it in our lives.