Cancel Culture: The Exercise of Arbitrary Power

 This continues my discussion of Anne Applebaum’s piece on “The New Puritans,” i.e., the woke.

Applebaum identifies four things that occur when a person is targeted by cancel culture.  First, that most ancient of punishments, shunning.

The phone stops ringing. People stop talking to you. You become toxic. “I have in my department dozens of colleagues—I think I have spoken to zero of them in the past year,” one academic told me.


Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession. If you are a professor, no one wants you as a teacher or mentor (“The graduate students made it obvious to me that I was a nonperson and could not possibly be tolerated”). You cannot publish in professional journals. You cannot quit your job, because no one else will hire you. If you are a journalist, then you might find that you cannot publish at all.

So, actual wrongdoing isn’t necessary to be targeted by the mob.  Only let “J’accuse!” be uttered and all else follows.  Needless to say, for people who’ve invested their lives, their educations, their every achievement in their careers, the loss of relationships and outlets for their work constitutes a kind of walking death, even sometimes an actual one.

Important too is the entire absence of proportionality.  In law, we try to “make the punishment fit the crime.”  We don’t punish petty theft the same as we do armed robbery, for good and obvious reasons.  Not so the mob.  Cancel culture deems even a minor infraction of the rules (whether known or even knowable) to merit the most draconian punishment available.  Donald McNeil had been a New York Times foreign correspondent and science writer for 24 years when he made the unforgiveable mistake of discussing the use of the “N-word” with a student.  Two years later, he was forced to resign despite having, of course, not used the word in a derogatory manner.

The third thing that happens is that you try to apologize, whether or not you have done anything wrong…  One of the people I spoke with was asked to apologize for an offense that broke no existing rules. “I said, ‘What am I apologizing for?’ And they said, ‘Well, their feelings were hurt.’

This is one of the keys to cancel culture – hurt feelings, whether feigned or real.  As such, cancel culture is retrospective; unlike the law, that’s known in advance, the woke “standard” of behavior doesn’t come into being until after the “offense” has been committed.  The unknowable response of a perhaps unknown person becomes the “standard” to be, in some unknown way, met.  One professor at USC was suspended for having uttered a Chinese word that sounds vaguely like the “N-word,” but has nothing to do with any aspect of race.   How could he have known that his job and reputation were conditioned on his refraining from uttering a single, entirely benign word?

Punishment according to a previously unknown moral standard is punishment whose goal – again, unlike the law’s - is not and cannot be the channeling of behavior into socially acceptable norms.  Therefore, it cannot be said that cancel culture seeks improved behavior.  If it did, it would tell us in advance what it demands of us.  Cancel culture is nothing but a demonstration of power.  Applebaum makes that entirely clear.

Even after the apology is made, a fourth thing happens: People begin to investigate you.

A single “offense” may not be sufficient to the mob’s needs, so the target of the original complaint is targeted a second time by an “investigation” into whatever the investigators desire. Then it’s off to the races for the eternally self-righteous.

Often enough, those investigations have ulterior motives.

One person I spoke with told me he believed he was investigated because his employer didn’t want to offer severance compensation and needed extra reasons to justify his termination. Another thought an investigation of him was launched because firing him for an argument over language would have violated the union contract.

Woke-ism offers a potential benefit to employers, then, at the expense of the employee’s rights under the law and whatever contract may be in place.  The woke like to think of themselves as “progressive,” but there’s nothing progressive about handing extra power to employers.

The word “investigation” suggests fact-finding, but in the world of the woke, an investigation can just as easily be fact-creating.  When novelist Steven Galloway was targeted by the mob at the University of British Columbia, part of the “investigation” of him consisted of the university’s loudly encouraging students, faculty and staff to come up with as many instances of his “wrongdoing” as possible.  Sure enough, one graduate student proclaimed on social media that she knew 19 people, in addition to the original accuser, who were willing to testify to Galloway’s sexual depredations.

For months, her claim was taken as true and friends, colleagues and foes alike shunned Galloway like a plague carrier.  In the event though, the student produced just seven people, all of whom were her friends and none of whom even alleged any form of sexual impropriety on his part.  One student’s complaint was that Galloway had refused to give credit for poetry in a fiction-writing class.

A real investigation, conducted by the former chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court, exonerated Galloway and all but called the graduate student a liar.  But by then it was too late; the damage to Galloway’s reputation had been set in stone.  Unable to find a publisher or another job in academia, the former star novelist now cleans swimming pools for a living.

In the end, the question is “why?”  Why do the woke behave so destructively and why do major institutions abet them?  I’ll get into that next time.



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