Feature 04.26.2021 5 minutes

Life After Cancellation


Everything we do can be recorded. What now?

We all have bad moments. Plenty of us also have moments that just look bad when taken out of context. These instances used to break the surface of public attention only briefly, if at all. When they lingered, they did so only as painful personal memories.

But over the past decade, all that has changed. “Cancellation” has become a regular occurrence, and the threat of it hangs over us all. High-quality video cameras are everywhere, and anything can be recorded. Thanks to social media, even the most trivial interaction can be captured and broadcast to the world.

So you lose your temper in traffic, or at the store. You make a tasteless joke, you say something intemperate, you behave badly in a relationship—and suddenly these unpleasant social missteps are memorialized. They become part of the historical record.

The dumbest and most inane fragmentary gestures can now destroy lives. Justine Sacco, a PR executive, found this out in 2013 when, prior to boarding a flight to South Africa, she tweeted to her 170 followers, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” In the 11 hours while she was in the air, her remark—obviously meant as sarcastic, “woke” commentary on white privilege—was retweeted tens of thousands of times and taken in the least charitable way possible. She was excoriated as a clueless racist and fired from her fancy job.

In late May of 2020, right before the death of George Floyd, a white woman and a black man had a trivial argument about her unleashed dog in a quiet area of Central Park, where the man wanted to watch birds. According to his own account, Christian Cooper told Amy Cooper (no relation), “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it”—a statement that sounds like a threat no matter how you parse it. In response, Amy Cooper told Christian Cooper, who was filming her, “I’m calling the cops…I’m gonna tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She did call 911 and reported that a black man was threatening her. It’s not clear if the police ever showed up, and in any event the pair quickly left the scene.

In an ideal world, an idiotic exchange between two high-strung neurotics would have received no comment. However, because every exchange where a white woman (a “Karen”) annoys a black person is now considered evidence of systemic racial oppression, this minor flap became international news and the subject of hundreds of pages of opinionating. Amy Cooper was fired from her job and shamed. Briefly, her dog was taken away.

Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone will eventually be famous for 15 minutes appears to be coming true, in the worst possible way. Our culture is rapidly hurtling toward a vanishing point where a primal narrative about white oppression of “black bodies” is played out on an eternally repeating loop in the national consciousness. Two figures—the white oppressor and the black victim—must be fed through this sacrificial machine in order to create a scapegoat and expiate the sins of the community, which is besotted with the myth of its own racism.

The thirst for sacrificial victims is so intense that the process constantly demands new players. The dopamine rush wears off so quickly that people must be shoveled into the sacrificial maw at an ever-faster rate. There is no time to tease out context in a badly filmed interaction: all the characters are slotted into their familiar roles.

Even subsidiary narratives which ostensibly dramatize a different set of demographic injustices—narratives about sexual intemperance, for example—are patterned according to the same compulsive script. Doesn’t matter if it’s about #MeToo, or #BLM, or #StopAsianHate: the oppressor (the bad guy) shows his prejudice (sin) and must be ruined. The high-profile versions of this story play out emblematically across the nation, broadcast over every established channel. Then countless subsidiary dramas, involving private individuals within smaller communities, play across the country to reinforce the same general themes in miniature.

The actual facts of the underlying case may or may not be accurately reflected in the narrative—it doesn’t matter. The complicated reality and tensions of human life disappear when flesh and blood human beings are treated as symbols in a sacred narrative written and directed by our cultural high priests. If it later turns out that the white drill sergeant who appears to be brutalizing and harassing a black man for walking on the sidewalk was actually attempting to stop a sex maniac and baby snatcher from assaulting a neighbor—well, that’s interesting. But the passion play has already been cast, and its false narrative expresses a set of moral convictions that matter much more to those who hold them than the facts of who these individuals happened to be or what they happened to be doing.

This dynamic has taken on such a central role in our society that we at The American Mind decided to feature a set of reflections from people who have been squeezed through the sacrificial wringer. We wanted to see if they could offer any counsel or specific advice to those of us who are waiting our turn. Their narratives are, despite the varying details, remarkably similar. Caylan Ford describes her experience as a politician in Canada whose words were twisted out of context into an expression of racial animus; Thaddeus Pryor was an undergraduate who made an off-color joke that will now follow him forever. Joseph Massey was judged guilty not of racial but of implicit sexual violence. 

In each of these cases, the effort to explain only tangled the subject deeper into the ritualistic narrative. They each suffered unbearable shame, self-loathing, and a wish to disappear. But at the same time, each discovered for themselves the Stoic value of understanding that there is a freedom in being stripped of everything—of losing one’s reputation and experiencing total ego loss. As Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away….” Or in the words of Bob Dylan, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Two other items in our feature are less personal, but equally instructive. Katya Sedgwick compares the recent shunning of a popular musician who praised a book that criticizes Antifa, to the mechanics of Stalinist persecution in her Soviet birthplace. And Emile Castorp elegantly parses the difference between “cancellation” and “political correctness” in our contemporary discourse.

Our current mania will hopefully pass before we devour ourselves in this fit of righteousness and shame. But in the age of permanent digital records, it is unclear how our victims will ever recover their good names. The French have codified le droit à l’oubli—the right to be forgotten—and demanded that criminal convictions be expunged from Internet searches after a period of time. It may be a sign of mercy once sanity has returned to America if we extend a jubilee to all those who were forced to inhabit the role of sacrificial victim in our demented drama of expiation, and let them, too, be forgotten.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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