The debate over cancel culture is ingroupist and stupid

The rumblings started a few weeks ago. People tweeted rumors that some NYT reporter was digging for dirt on the rationalist community. Get ready to get canceled. Then Scott Alexander, a blogger at Slate Star Codex and friend of the rationalists, announced he was taking down his blog because a NYT reporter was going to publish his full name (dox him).

I’ve seen many a take on “cancel culture,” the phenomenon where someone brings a lot of attention to some other person’s untoward behavior and the masses decide to “cancel” them, aka try to get them fired or try to get people to not buy or consume their content.

Aziz Ansari got canceled after he acted badly on a date. Louis C.K. got canceled after pulling his penis out and masturbating in front of multiple women who did not consent to see that. While celebrities are more likely to get canceled than nobodies, nobodies do get canceled. A white woman named Amy Cooper lost her job after a Black man filmed her threatening to call the police on him (and also filmed her calling the police) and telling them he is Black. He was birdwatching. A family court supervisor in Philadelphia got fired after he tore down a Black Lives Matter sign and snarled “Not to me they don’t” on camera.

Perhaps the quintessential “rando getting canceled” story is that of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a stupid joke about Africa and AIDS and got internationally infamous and fired from her PR job.

I’m not a full-throated supporter of cancel culture. Not because I’m crying ANY tears for people who got pushback for behaving in snarling, violently racist way on camera.

I don’t support cancel culture because who gets canceled is determined by the masses. The difference between “canceled” and “not canceled” is arbitrary and unpredictable. It’s a popularity contest, essentially. The problem with using majority/mob rule and popularity contests to determine who gets canceled is that progress is unpopular until it’s popular.

If Twitter had existed in 1950 and you’d tweeted that interracial marriage should be legal, you might have lost your job. You damn sure would have gotten ratioed. Same for gay marriage in 1980. Progressive ideas are by-definition unpopular. If they were popular, they wouldn’t represent progress. They’d represent the status quo. What’s popular is, by definition, the status quo.

I don’t support cancel culture for the same reason I support free speech. Free speech isn’t necessary to support popular speech. No one is going after that. Free speech, as a principle, exists to protect unpopular speech. Some speech is unpopular because it sucks. Some speech is unpopular because we suck. Free speech allows space for radical, progressive ideas. Free speech protects the minority from the majority.

Cancel culture protects the majority from the minority. It fights against behavior that is already unpopular. Violent, obvious racism is already unpopular. It’s still wayyy too common. But it’s frowned upon by most people. We feel good canceling people for unpopular behavior that genuinely sucks. But what about unpopular behavior that doesn’t suck? What about ideas that are extremely valuable, but a little ahead of their time? What about the idea that sex offender registries are actually bad? Or the idea that sex work should be decriminalized? Or the idea of open borders? A principle that says that it’s good for the mob to bully people who have unpopular opinions into silence will not be a principle that leads to progress, on net. Sure, it feels like progress to cancel violent racists. But it’s not progress to silence dissent. Giving the majority more power to silence the minority rarely works out well for the marginalized.

Despite not supporting cancel culture, of all the takes I’ve read about how cancel culture is out of control, I never see two points made that I think are really, really important.

The first point I’d like cancel culture opponents to acknowledge is that cancel culture is an understandable response to a very real problem. Amy Cooper threatened to weaponize police racism, literally threatening Christian Cooper’s life, for no reason. She could have easily walked away. The video makes abundantly clear that he posed zero threat to her.

Everyone who’s upset about cancel culture pretends everyone who gets canceled was just going about their business, operating in good faith, and didn’t deserve in any way what was coming to them. Sure, there are people who get canceled that shouldn’t have. But the bigger problem, morally and quantitatively, is that for every time a Black man can film a white woman’s violent racism, there are literally millions of instances of violent racism that don’t get filmed. Somehow in all the endless takes I never, ever see anyone really grappling with this reality.

What recourse does a Black person have in America when someone is violently racist towards them? If you think that cancel culture isn’t the right response to violent racism, and I think I agree, then shouldn’t you have a better option than “suck it up?”

I don’t, which is part of why I’ve delayed writing about it. But I’m head-and-shoulders above anyone else I’ve seen weigh in in that I’m asking the damn question.

The second thing no cancel culture objectors that I’ve read seem to acknowledge is that canceled isn’t forever. Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari are still touring, still filming specials, still making plenty of money as comics. Justine Sacco’s old PR firm rehired her. I’ve had angry mobs contact my employer and try to get me fired. My hobby is sharing my unpopular opinions on the internet. I don’t like to get harassed or fired anymore than anyone else does. But the vast majority of the time a canceling last a few days at most and then everyone gets bored and moves on to the next victim. The thing that tends to extend it is doubling down. Cancel culture is a disincentive to saying unpopular things, and that’s unfortunate. But let’s not pretend that it’s a bigger deal than it really is. If I had the choice between A. being canceled once and B. a lifetime of being Black in America…

The conversation around cancel culture is frustrating. Someone called me a racist because I popped into a thread about canceling racists saying I wasn’t unreservedly on the side of canceling everyone who isn’t sufficiently woke. And then people were blocking me and calling me out on the other side because I brought up that violent racism is real and bad and maybe there should be some social or economic cost to violent racism.

In the end, both can be true. Violent racism is real and bad and should have some social or economic cost AND cancel culture may not be a principle we want to endorse because it’s likely to work against the marginalized and against progress over the long-term and on the whole.

Again, I don’t have the answer to several really important questions. I don’t know where the line is on behavior that’s simply unpopular versus behavior that’s worthy of public condemnation. For the behavior that’s worthy of public condemnation, I don’t know what the social and economic costs should be or who should impose them.

But I do feel strongly that these are the questions we should be asking about cancel culture. And that we’re not asking them because questions are uncomfortable. What’s comforting is to have your position dictated by your ingroup: team “woke” or team “free and open inquiry.” Loyalty and certainty feel good. Once you start asking questions like, “Is it really pro-progress to disincentivize sharing unpopular opinions?” or “Don’t we have a moral responsibility to at least acknowledge that most violent racism still goes unpunished?” then people start wondering if you’re really part of the ingroup. People don’t like to think about what they don’t know. So they write op-eds to signal to their ingroup that they’re all right about this thing and the other team is wrong. And no one makes any progress on getting closer to truth.

I’m tired of it. I think violent racism is a real problem and I’m not sure cancel culture is the right solution and I don’t know what the solution is. That’s step one to finding some truth. I would love your suggestions. I don’t care what team you come from. As long as you’re open to the possibility that violent racism is a problem and mob rule might not be the best solution, let’s work to find a better solution.

*the original version of this article used the word “tribe” and “tribal.” A friend pointed out to me that this is offensive to Native groups. I wasn’t sure how else to describe the human tendency to identify with and adapt the practices of people they consider part of their racial, religious, ideological, professional, etc. “tribe.” Tribalism inhibits one’s ability to think rationally, adapt new information into their worldview, and treat people outside the tribe equally. Tribalism isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just often counterproductive to pluralism and other enlightenment values. Tribalism describes how people choose how to see an issue like cancel culture based on their ideological tribes. After some thought and debate I decided to switch it out for “ingroup” and “ingroupist” because those words get pretty close to the same meaning without being offensive to a marginalized group. Open to suggestions for better terms.

3 Comments

  1. Nicholas Weininger

    I would be much more in favor of cancellations, call-outs, and other sorts of public shaming if they were limited to people whose actions demonstrably harmed, or at least recklessly endangered, an identifiable other person. This doesn’t necessarily mean criminal harm– emotional abuse and other kinds of harm that we’d never want prosecuted can count, and we don’t need to adopt a court-of-law standard of proof either– and it would leave all of Ansari, C.K. and Cooper as “fair game.” I agree that a big part of the motivation for cancel culture is frustration at people being able to inflict harm with impunity, and to the extent people are motivated by that, they ought to be able to accept that limitation.

    But the most egregious misdeeds of cancel culture seem to revolve around:

    — people who get shamed/cancelled for guilt by association, i.e. not because of anything they themselves have done but because of whom they have defended or even just spoken to in an insufficiently critical way.

    — people who get shamed/cancelled because of civilly expressed, good faith beliefs about difficult empirical questions, and/or difficult values questions about the scope and boundaries of human rights. Typically these are positions that the shamers/cancellers have convinced themselves that no well-meaning, well-informed person could possibly hold.

    Stephen Hsu is the most recent case I’m thinking of in both these categories (largely because of SSC’s attempt to defend him, natch), but it seems pretty common for cancellees to fall into one of them without having done any identifiable harm. And I get that the motivation is still frustration arising from a real problem– but Communist espionage was a real problem in the 1950s and that didn’t justify McCarthyism.

    • cathyreisenwitz

      Agreed on all points. I think demonstrable harm is a decent starting point for which behavior merits cancelation. And yes, Stephen Hsu should not have been canceled for the reasons you pointed out. It’s strange how the people who are talking about Hsu and the people who are talking about Amy Cooper are never the same people. It’s like everyone is in an information bubble where they only hear stories that support their priors.

  2. David Kaplan

    You boiled it down pretty brilliantly with “Some speech is unpopular because it sucks. Some speech is unpopular because we suck.” I’m probably going to use that.

    I do think it’s important to draw a distinction between Aziz Ansari and Louis C. K. You do accurately describe what each of them did, but you also lump them together. I think it’s important to more clearly distinguish sexual assault and sexual harassment (which are also different from each other) from things that would rightly make a woman not want to date a guy or be in a relationship with him.

    And while I think it’s oversensitive to consider “tribal” offensive, as every inhabited continent has groups conventionally referred to as tribes and tribes are just a developmental stage of civilizations predating nation-states, it’s good to have the option of “ingroupist.”

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