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.