A Leftist Battles Cancel Culture

For its power, woke culture utilizes mob rule – the public defenestration of anyone for the slightest of misjudgments, real or fictional.  Cancellation can mean anything from public humiliation to the loss of a job, the loss of a career, the loss of friends and colleagues, etc.  Often as not, the infraction is minor; sometimes it’s non-existent.  When the well-oiled machinery of woke-ism begins to turn, the outcome is all but inevitable. 

Much of the Left is anxious about the monster it’s created, primarily, I suspect, because leftists are the great majority of its targets, damaging mostly leftist institutions in the process.  In July of 2020, 152 people, most of them politically to the left of center published an open letter in Harper’s calling for an end to woke mob rule.  Numberless articles have made similar points.  Leftists like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan routinely post the most scathing criticisms of the mob.  Those two actually quit their jobs to avoid being rendered hors de combat.

In the same vein comes Anne Applebaum’s article in The Atlantic.  (She also signed the Harper’s letter.)  It’s generally a fine piece whose core is the experiences of journalists and academics who’ve had their lives and careers ruined for little or no reason.  Her readers may conclude that American culture is under assault by the forces of illiberal hatred and intolerance that no one knows how to stop.  In that, Applebaum gets it right.

Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all.

Bingo.  It’s not only that the destruction of the lives of perfectly decent people is so terrible and so unnecessary, it’s that there’s no way for them or anyone to know in advance which word or act will be considered deserving of that destruction.  These are no abstract concepts; they devastate real lives of real people, of whom Applebaum interviewed over a dozen.  For obvious reasons, some preferred to remain anonymous, but others she names.

[N]o one quoted here, anonymously or by name, has been charged with an actual crime, let alone convicted in an actual court. All of them dispute the public version of their story. Several say they have been falsely accused; others believe that their “sins” have been exaggerated or misinterpreted by people with hidden agendas. All of them, sinners or saints, have been handed drastic, life-altering, indefinite punishments, often without the ability to make a case in their own favor.

And that is the very core of cancel culture – the power not only to cancel, but to do so for any or no reason, for offenses real or unreal, important or unimportant, to damage careers, reputations and livelihoods, not for a specific period of time, but potentially forever and all with no right of appeal, no tribunal to which to turn to right the wrong.  It is the exercise of power – the power to injure another - for power’s sake.

[Journalist Stephen] Elliott contemplated suicide, and has written that “every first-hand account I’ve read of public shaming—and I’ve read more than my share—includes thoughts of suicide.” [Poet Joseph] Massey did too: “I had a plan and the means to execute it; I then had a panic attack and took a cab to the ER.” David Bucci, the former chair of the Dartmouth brain-sciences department, who was named in a lawsuit against the college though he was not accused of any sexual misconduct, did kill himself after he realized he might never be able to restore his reputation.

Real people, real devastation.  And what about the families of those targeted by the self-righteous mob?  What about the wives, husbands and children who’ve done nothing wrong, who aren’t even accused, but who depend on the target for financial support and who suffer terribly when his/her mental health deteriorates?  If they think about those people at all, the woke consider them mere collateral damage, just the usual broken eggs required for the omelet.  Applebaum doesn’t mention them, but they’re there.

And what about the institutions that are deprived of real - in some cases topnotch - talent?  Can the David Buccis of the world, the Steven Galloways, the William Voges, etc. simply be replaced?  Top talent isn’t some cog in a wheel, a part, identical to thousands of others that can be removed and replaced at any time.  It is one of the many oddities of cancel culture that the institutions that discipline or fire their best and brightest are damaging, not only the lives of their targets, but themselves. 

And what exactly is that omelet?  What is the end that’s so valuable to the woke that they believe it justifies such arbitrary, capricious and destructive means?  It’s hard to say.  What they’ve accomplished are campuses and workplaces in which people are every day more afraid to speak with anything like candor or associate with each other unchaperoned.  Gone are the free flows of ideas that are the lifeblood of dynamic, entrepreneurial business and the very essence of the academy.  So much is simply off limits that science and technology, as much as art and literature, have been hamstrung by the prospect of seeing the pitchforks and torches of the woke outside one’s window.

Such in any case is the result – the chilling of speech, the limitation of human interaction.  Whether that’s the goal or not, I confess I don’t know.

Applebaum has much more to say.  I’ll get into that next time.




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