Cancel culture—which I’m loosely defining here as a climate that encourages disproportionate social and/or work-related punishment for speech—doesn’t exist. Well, OK, it exists on the right: Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks and Colin Kaepernick and that assistant principal in Mississippi who read the picture book I Need a New Butt to his students. Conservatives are always canceling people. But on the left? That’s just people holding you accountable for some awful thing you said. What could be wrong with that? Besides, no one is seriously, irreparably hurt. Look at J.K. Rowling: Despite the best efforts of Twitter, she’s still a billionaire and one of the most popular writers ever.
Those who argue that cancel culture is a myth claim that no one has really been injured by it. A few people might lose their jobs, but they get new ones. Bari Weiss claimed she was bullied out of The New York Times, and now she’s the Queen of Substack. The columnist Suzanne Moore, who left The Guardian after 338 of her colleagues signed a letter clearly aimed at her, accusing the paper of producing “transphobic content,” soon surfaced at The Telegraph. Yes, someone might lose a prize or an opportunity to give a talk or be on a panel, but no one has a right to those things. After the lesbian memoirist Lauren Hough praised her friend’s forthcoming novel, which some tweeters accused of transphobia, and then got into an expletive-filled Twitter fight about it, she was either not nominated or de-nominated for a Lambda Award. But hey, she can always write another book.
The journalist Adam Davidson responded to a rather woolly New York Times editorial decrying cancel culture: “Can one of you believers in cancel culture just write one piece that gives evidence and doesn’t just speak to a feeling you have? Maybe some data that helps your readers know the size and scale of this problem? Also, some examples of people actually fired?”
It’s true that numerous writers have published pieces about “a feeling they have,” i.e., a fear of dire consequences for expressing themselves freely. A lot of people responded to Davidson with specific examples, though, including me. His response: The supposedly canceled are doing fine, and anyway there aren’t very many of them. But in fact, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has documented hundreds of cases across the political spectrum in academia alone—firings, demotions, lengthy investigations, and so on—which is more than enough to make others wary. And pace Davidson, not everyone sails happily on. Here’s a small sampling.
Donald McNeil Jr., a prizewinning science journalist with a long career at The New York Times, took some high school students to Peru on a Times-connected summer trip. When a student asked his opinion about a classmate’s use of the N-word in a video, McNeil uttered the word. He says he was asking if the classmate had said the word as a slur or was quoting a rap song or similar. The use/mention distinction beloved of analytic philosophers cut no ice with management. He is now writing the occasional piece on Medium, where he recently described himself as retired.
Gillian Philip, one of a group of writers producing popular children’s books under the pseudonym Erin Hunter, put #Istandwithjkrowling in her Twitter bio, for which she was subjected to a storm of online abuse and fired by her publisher. Whatever you may think of Rowling, Philip isn’t her. Without the security that comes with unparalleled wealth and celebrity, she’s just a person with an opinion—right or wrong, that’s what cost her her job. She now works as a truck driver.
Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine, made its prestigious pages more inclusive and diverse. But that didn’t help in 2020, when he was attacked for publishing a long poem by Matthew Dickman that included a racial slur uttered by the poet’s demented grandmother. (That pesky use/mention distinction again!) Share issued a self-abasing apology and left. I’ve been unable to find out what he’s doing now.
Gary Garrels, the top curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, led the sale of a Rothko to raise funds to buy the work of women and artists of color. He resigned in 2020, after an uproar kicked off when he said, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists” and that to not collect work by white men would be “reverse discrimination.” He is now an independent curator.
David Edelstein, a veteran film critic, was fired from his longtime job with NPR’s Fresh Air after he made a tasteless joke on his Facebook page referring to the butter scene in Last Tango in Paris. Furloughed by New York magazine at the start of the pandemic, he is now a freelancer.
April Powers, a management specialist, resigned as equity and inclusion chief at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Editors after being furiously attacked for a statement condemning anti-Semitism because it did not also mention Islamophobia. She’s trying to make a go of consulting now.
These are just a few of the better-known cases. But then there are the ones you don’t hear about, because the person on the receiving end isn’t well-known, or no journalist picks up the story, or the cancellation is more subtle: the offer never extended, the assignment that doesn’t come through.
The role of social media is crucial. Without the lightning speed of Twitter campaigns, of which so many employers seem deathly afraid, there would be time to step back and think. Instead, from allegation to punishment is often a matter of days. There are hardly ever consequences to calling someone out, especially anonymously, and the Internet makes any claim prone to virality.
You can say these people—and there are many more like them—got what was coming to them. You can say, and many do, that a cancellation was a convenient opportunity to get rid of a problematic boss or colleague. You can say it was a proxy for other problems in the institution: underpaid young staffers, overprivileged higher-ups, hidebound ideas and practices, racism. You can say these incidents are part of a general social transformation that will leave us better off in the long run, and that might even be true.
What you can’t say is that no lasting, measurable damage was done to individuals. You can argue that the damage is worth it, but you should at least admit it’s there.