LOSING OUR GRIP ON MORALITY
A Sethical Argument Against Cancel Culture
DEFINING MY TERMS
(1) As I understand it, the Overton Window is a conceptual boundary that contains only currently-acceptable-in-polite-conservation ethical positions.
(2) I define Cancel Culture as a societal tendency to call for the banishment of individuals from their occupations and/or platforms due to allegedly bad behaviour or speech which either occurred during off-duty times or, if it took place while the person was on duty, is not relevant to their ability to do their work (or their co-workers’ ability to do their work). In both cases, the offending human is called to be relieved from their position due to an independent-of-their-work moral evaluation that they are intrinsically reprehensible and thus unfit for their livelihood and/or podium.
PROLOGUE: A SETHICS-SETTING ANECDOTE
This story comes with introspective homework. Please ask yourself how you would have handled the following incident; more importantly, how you would like to have remembered yourself taking it on.
In my middle twenties, I worked at a discount bread store; it was a small shop that required only one staff person on site at a time. One day, a shy-seeming, soft-voiced customer landed in the store, and he informed me that certain races of people possessed irredeemable flaws. I’m pleased to boast that I was disgusted by the man’s unexpected commentary. If you’ll excuse my sheltered life, I had not before witnessed (in person) an adult human sharing such unambiguous racial bigotry. In the shock of the moment, I could only think to tell the man that I disagreed with him; he, in turn, shook his head with a frown at me and left to star in someone else’s anecdote.
Some days later, the startling patron returned, which put me in a moral dilemma. Was it my duty as a good citizen of the world to explain to the man that he was a bad person and that he was now forever evicted from the store? Such a pronouncement would certainly provide me with some catharsis (and I had no doubt that my employer would support the eviction), but I decided that the sanction would not persuade the man to love his differently-coloured neighbours. If anything, such harshness might add to his oddly directed anger. But nor was I going to let him stay on my customer side if he hassled any other bread buyers with his racially demonizing rhetoric.
So, when the soft-spoken man of invective again concluded his purchase with more evidence of his contempt for races not his own, I told him that, while I disagreed, I would not censure him when we were alone in the store; however, if he mentioned a single syllable of his rantings when another customer shared the room with us, I would have him banned. To my surprise, the strange man consented to the conditions of his continued patronage. And, during his subsequent visits, he followed my edict. Most of the time, he purchased his bread when no other customers happened to be on site, and so he would freely publish more of his racial contempt, and I would then politely counter his hostile views.
Cruelly enough, I have no evidence as to whether my civil resistance improved the man’s character or not; nevertheless, I am confident that listening to someone’s worst and respectfully disagreeing is a more effective way to help them find their best than lecturing them on how bad they are. Indeed (and I mean not to compare my never-in-danger efforts there to one of my favourite heroes), I note that Daryl Davis—the black musician who has famously defrocked numerous former KKK members—reports that his first and constant task when talking to adherents of such racism is to openly listen to them. Of course, no one—especially the target—is obligated to spend any of our attention on such viciousness, but if our goal is to reduce hatred, throwing more hatred onto that fire is, I submit, unlikely to persuade many to reconsider their bigotry.
So, introspective reader, before I try to persuade you that cancel culture is ethically disastrous, I ask you to consider your answers to the following questions:
Did I make the correct ethical choice in my interactions with the hateful customer?
Or should I have banished the ill-beliefed man from the store?
And should I now be retroactively cancelled for not cancelling an open bigot when I was in a position to do so?
I will return at the conclusion of this essay with an epilogue to the above Sethics-setting anecdote; in the meantime, I offer you my five leading reasons for an enlightened society to resist the anti-workings of cancel culture.
1. CANCEL CULTURE IS ANTI-EXCELLENCE
By insisting that participants in workplace and creative ventures meet the moral standards of the current Overton window, the leaders of cancel culture demand the exile of humans from their livelihoods not because they’re bad at their jobs, but for being perceived as bad people. Thus, when we follow cancel culture’s punishment policy, we’re setting ourselves up for reduced excellence on the job. The next Mozart, Jane Austen, or Michael Jordan—if they’re out there—may not be allowed to show off their skills because the moral influencers of the current day have diagnosed their outside-of-work opinions to be literally “unacceptable.”
Maybe you personally bid good riddance to the problematic never-to-be greats in the arts and in sports for the sake of limiting participation to those with whom you’d like to share a meal. But what about those vocations where the difference between a mediocre-but-unobjectionable contestant vs. a highly-skilled-but-“problematic” individual might be an insight or decision that saves lives? (As ever, my quintessential example here is the firing of Nobel laureate medical researcher Dr. Tim Hunt for jokingly saying something feministly incorrect at a conference.)
Perhaps the Horatio Nelson of our time is not a vegetarian, and we currently believe that the best people are vegetarians (as a vegetarian, I’m honoured by such theoretical approval, thank you), so Admiral Nelson 2.0 who might’ve talked us out of a major strategic error in a significant conflict is replaced by Admiral Vegan who happens not to be gifted at seeing all positions in a conflict. Are we okay with that? Indeed, I understand that some have now concluded that Sir Winston Churchill and Dr. Martin Luther King did not live perfect moral lives leading up to their brilliant leadership roles in World War II and the American civil rights movement respectively. So what, cancel culturists? I don’t doubt that many heroes of history had moral failings. But is it not still possible that their particular aptitudes nevertheless made them the best people we could find for their particular daunting tasks and that, were it not for them, Britain might have been defeated by the Nazis, and the United States might have taken even longer share out equal rights? Are you sure such losses would have been worth it, cancel culture purists?
Admittedly, the difference between the best and the second best candidate for every position is often negligible to the naked eye, but with every reduction in skills-based standards for the sake of outside-of-work good behaviours, we are trimming a little more excellence off our final product. Moreover, as we continue to demote those with alleged out-of-work character issues, it’s natural that we have begun to incentivize the initial hiring of people who are more aligned with cancel culture ethics than aptitudes for the job they’ll be doing, and so we’re not just hiring the second best researcher, we’re hiring the tenth best. Not only is that unhelpful in our pursuit of a cure for cancer, it also puts the leading purveyors of cancel culture—such as the West—at unnecessary disadvantage in moral, economic, and other warfare that we may want to win.
Now one might argue that the benefits of good people at the office will improve efficiencies more than raw talent. Perhaps, but note: cancel culture is not about firing people for being bad co-workers: it is about removing people for being bad citizens or bad opinion-holders. As a cancel culture critic, I accept that, if someone is behaving anti-socially in their actual work, then, sure, the employer may have no choice but to sanction them—especially if they’re being abusive to a colleague or client. However, if the problematic person only activates their officially unacceptable behaviours or words outside of work, but is a great colleague while at their desk then it is not a yearning to protect vulnerable employees from obnoxious behaviour that is cancelling our troublemakers: it is the apparent perception of cancel culturists that “problematic” citizens are sinners who are unworthy of any office. It is not that the person can’t do the job or is disruptive while on the job: it is the hateful notion that they carry with them a poisonous soul that makes them unworthy of work.
2. CANCEL CULTURE IS UNJUST
Despite my contention that cancel culture disrupts the effectiveness of our operations, the cancel culturist might defend their demand for employment retractions on the basis that social justice is served by punishing people for their social crimes. Against that argument, I offer the alternative that we let punishments for misdeeds reside in their relevant jurisdictions. For instance, if a customer is rude to a store’s employees, the mistreatment is relevant to that business’s operations, and so it is appropriate for the store to suspend or even cancel that person’s opportunity to shop there. Meanwhile, if someone does something criminal then I contend that it is in the purview of the criminal justice system to investigate and potentially punish that person for their legal failings. (And, if a person is convicted of a crime, then it would become relevant to their employer that they couldn’t show up to work for 10-15 years.) However, I propose that it is ethically dangerous for our workplaces to police our out-of-work behaviours and opinions that don’t disrupt our ability to do our work. I have several reasons for that claim:
(A) Overton Blunders & Grey Areas
Sometimes the cancel culturists are mistaken in their assessments of anti-virtue. As you know, the Overton window once diagnosed gay as bad; most of us in the West now realize that that assessment was a moral blunder. So, unless you believe the self-appointed curators of cancel culture have since somehow become infallible ethical thinkers, they are surely cancelling at least some citizens right now to whom we’ll owe apologetic movies in the future.
Moreover, not all ethical questions have such obvious answers. Many of our moral disputes offer good-faith arguments in both directions. Is it not possible that good people (i.e. people in possession of most virtues that we would want in our friends) sometimes make intellectual errors that lead them to flawed ethical claims? Are such people really so awful as to deserve cancellation humiliation?
(B) Never-to-be-heard Counterarguments
Cancel culture is devastating to free speech and free inquiry, which is not only bad for our individual human freedom but also hinders the benefits those liberties provide society. That is, by virtue of its demonizing of those who “say the wrong thing” in ethical discussions, cancel culture scares us away from good faith commentary on legitimate moral conundrums. Consequently, even if cancel-culture-approved speakers land on the correct side of an ethical issue, the exclusion of counterargument means that those correct thinkers are more likely to settle on oversimplified and overreaching solutions to whatever the problem is. Whereas, if those on the ultimately determined-to-be wrong side of each issue were allowed to express their future blasphemy without fear of cancellation, we would improve our chances of coming to a nuanced set of principles.
(C) Demographic & Ideological Prejudice
I can’t prove this, but I can strongly suspect it: cancel culture is probably going to be practised more harshly on whichever demographics are currently most publicly disliked by the cancel culture arbiters in the time and society in which the cancel culturists are operating.
(I believe I’ve got you in a bit of a catch-flack-22 on this one, woke cancel culturist. If you suggest that such demographic bias in cancel culture is actually okay because it’s against the “privileged” straight white males then you’re forced to admit that they may not be so privileged currently, after all. But, if you claim that the leading victims of cancel culture are the opposite of the evil pale-faced patriarch, then you’re stuck acknowledging that your favourite morality is most harmful to your favourite demographics. Your move, woke cancel culturite.)
Similarly, I suspect that cancel culture is also more aggressively calibrated according to the ideological biases of the media supporting any cancel culture claims. If I’m right about that, do we trust the media’s biases to always be on the morally correct side of every dispute?
(D) Inordinate Disproportionality
Even if cancel culture ethicists did possess a foolproof method of selecting the right and wrong side of every issue, I submit that their punishment for crossing their conclusions is still disproportionate. Often cancellations are called for public figures who have simply had a momentary lapse in phrasing. Even if the wrong-worded person did clearly produce language worthy of offence, the cancel culturists do not accept apologies, clarifications of intent, context, or previous good moral works.
(E) Mindreading Evil
Sometimes a person is removed from polite celebrity not for their words exactly, but for the presumed intent behind them. There is no independent adjudication process that allows the accused to dispute the charges against their private thoughts. They are guilty if cancel culture assessment officers have presumed them to have been motivated by unspoken hatred.
(F) Cancel Justice System
Sometimes the alleged infraction of a citizen would—if proven—be a crime, but unlike the judicial process, cancel culture does not then follow the notion that an accused is presumed innocent of that illegal behaviour until proven so. Such a rendering of pre-judgment is a bastardization of due process such that a fear of public opinion (i.e. the threats of cancel culture) allows employers to act as police and jury over allegations against their employees. Indeed, various North American sports leagues have been known to announce that they are suspending certain members of their workforce, pending their own “independent investigation” of alleged off-the-job criminal conduct by their workers.
(H) Trial by Media
The media’s coveting of public accusations actually decreases both the alleged victim’s and the accused’s chances of acquiring justice. While, yes, cancel culturists increase their opportunity to eviscerate a person’s reputation by skipping the justice system and going straight to media-run jurisprudence, they undermine the work of due process and in turn reduce the legal system’s chances of proving their cases and thus protecting society from future crimes.
(I) Incentivizing False Accusations
In our current cancel culture of demonizing the accused, we simultaneously lionize their accusers independent of the quality of their evidence, which surely increases the incentive to make false accusations. (See political scientist Wilfred Reilly’s book Hate Crime Hoax on false accusation culture.)
(J) Cancel by Association
Cancel culture seeks not only to cancel the alleged wrongdoers but also anyone associated with them. Sharing a stage (even to debate) with a demonized person makes you a demon too. Being friends or family with such a person is also not okay as public citizens are asked to denounce the people in their lives accused of doing something wrong. So not only are humans required to be perfect fits for the current Overton window, we are also not allowed to associate with those below the window sill.
3. CANCEL CULTURE IS ANTI-HUMAN
Beyond being anti-excellence and unethical, cancel culture is also unnecessarily cruel. Putting people in prison is, admittedly, cruel but sometimes necessary to protect society from direct harm, such as physical violence. But cancel culture attacks those who have not committed a crime (and/or have not been proven to have done so) and attempts to dismantle their search for happiness anyway. I’m a sucker for schadenfreude against jerks as much as the next author of How to Cure Yourself of Narcissism, but cancel culture asks us to go beyond the natural consequences of alleged misconduct and goes for a lifetime ban on any attempt by the noncriminal misbehaver to recover their hopes and dreams.
As I’ve said, supposed wrongdoers and wrongthinkers are not simply sanctioned for their infractions in the context of their occurrence. A celebrity who is rude to a waiter is not simply asked to leave the restaurant—which would be proportionate to the infraction—the cancel culturist will also attempt to oust the famous person from their career as if the flaw in one arena has any relevance to their fitness for the other.
Yet extrapolation-based demonizing goes even further: consider how cancel culture advocates not only attempt to punish public figures for their currently acknowledged perspectives but also for supposedly dumb and/or hostile things they might have said decades earlier. I don’t like dumb and/or hostile statements either, but I’m pretty sure at some point in everyone’s life we’ve said something unworthy of our best character. So, based on their philosophy of zero tolerance for phrases that offend, cancel culture should cancel everyone, but instead it is the luck of being discovered saying or doing something problematic—and the bias of who cancel culture most dislikes at the time—that decides who is to be removed from their positions in society.
Moreover, cancel culture is fond of attacking not just speech expressed in public—where people have no expectation of confidentiality—but also for utterances they are recorded or reported saying in the privacy of their own friends and family. Imagine how it would feel to see your most embarrassing private statements or jokes suddenly published for the consideration of everyone you’ve ever met or ever could meet.
And if any of the supposedly disgraced person’s friends or family are public figures, cancel culture will call on them to make public statements of contempt. The viciousness baffles me. If we can agree on the flaws of McCarthyism—in which that senator and his demonizing colleagues attempted to purify society of anyone accused of being inclined towards communism—then how can we not recognize that cancel culture is an equally maniacal demand for control over our thoughts and associations?
(4) CANCEL CULTURE IS ANTI-SOCIAL
Independent of my pro-excellence, pro-ethics, and pro-compassion arguments against cancel culture, I also don’t see how it can achieve its alleged goal of creating a kinder more tolerant society. Unless we have capital punishment for wong-thinkers, they have to go somewhere after their cancellation. If they’re not allowed to be among the elite morally pure people then their only choice is to fraternize with other lesser people.
I don’t see how such tribal boundaries will do anything but further tribalize us. As the saying (from John Stuart Mill) goes, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So if we segregate our society into the worthy, the unworthy, and the unworthiest (each hating those above and below them), I’m not sure what incentive any of the groups have to try to understand the perspective of their accusers/victims.
In the mid-tier, the offences that provoke cancellation are minor (from making an awkward joke to sharing a stage with a bigger cancellable fish). Treating those people as morally unfit for polite fame is, I think, not only terrible for social cohesion, it also—like McCarthyism before it—scares people into agreeing with and consenting to policies and trainings to which they would otherwise object.
But I also think it’s unethical to dehumanize those on the lower rungs of decency. That is not to say that I approve of racism and other bigotries—and I certainly accept that if such anti-social folks harass their co-workers with their corrosive notions, their employers should respond punitively. But if we don’t give fallible humans a path to redeem themselves, they’re less likely to take it.
(5) CANCEL CULTURE IS ANTI-PERSPECTIVE
Finally, I contend that cancel culture is not only anti-progress, unethical, cruel, and anti-social, it also, ironically—given its black-and-white thinking—damages moral clarity. By conjoining the artist with their art (cancelling the one for the flaws of the other), and firing people for alleged misdeeds outside of and/or irrelevant to their work, we have opened up an industry of morality officers (such as DEI trainers) whose job it is to promote the search for such offences. This hostile incentive to demonize means that increasingly small sleights against the moral preferences of cancel culturists can lead to a person’s reputational demise.
See the New York Magazine editor who was fired for letting Jian Ghomeshi write an essay about life on the cancellation trail. The result was a cancellation ricochet: for the crime of giving us a peek at the claimed experience of someone on the wrong side of the Overton window, the editor of the magazine was cancelled too! Or recall Matt Damon who asked for a smidge of perspective in the MeToo branch of cancel culture: he suggested that we would be best not to conflate the worst (i.e. criminal) offenders with those making much less severe moral errors. The result was a cancel culture attempt on Damon’s career for blasphemously calling for moderation. So cancel culture includes in its victims those who even consider there might be a dark side to cancellation.
The absolutist tenor of cancel culture—where you’re either a perfect citizen of their approved moral opinion on every subject or you’re a horrid person worthy of excommunication—reduces our understanding of and willingness to publicly consider nuance and shades of grievance. Whenever a celebrity apologizes for alleged word crimes, they nearly always talk about the people they’ve “hurt” as though individuals definitively suffer psychological harm because a public figure said something that they find offensive. As anyone who has ever been a victim of a violent crime can tell you, words are not violence, but they are treated by cancel culture as though they are. Such an over-inflation of injury is bad enough, but it also means that when something actually demonic occurs (such as an unfathomably torturous terrorist attack in Israel), our collective recognition of the barbarity is watered down by the fact the cancel culturists have already been using so much of the demonizing language that should puncture our souls when it actually applies. Cancel culture sorts us all into either perfect villains or perfect angels, which means that truly evil actors are mixed in with half of the population, and thus it is more difficult for us to clearly identify true villainy when it unleashes itself.
In short, cancel culture has caused us to lose our grip on morality by anti-virtue of its opposition to excellence, ethics, compassion, social cohesion, and perspective. So I contend that it is time for anyone of goodwill and occupation to say No to this modern-day McCarthyism.
EPILOGUE: CONCLUSION TO THE SETHICS-SETTING ANECDOTE
So, returning to the scene of the racial-slur-wielding bread store client, I reiterate that I do not know whether my strategy of talking to him instead of demonizing him provoked him to reconsider his dreadful philosophy. However, I can report that one day while the bigoted customer was shopping, a nice lady and her daughter came into the store sporting the sort of skin pigmentation that did not match their rival customer’s preferences. He looked at me with an urgent face as if to say, ‘But they’re right there. Surely, I can insult them when they’re that close to me!’ I gave him a small but sharp shake of my forehead, and he slumped over like a teenager told he couldn’t have a coke; he then completed his transaction and left the store without even a racist glance at the customer.
Perhaps he was bluffing when he indicated via gesture that he would say something racist if I authorized him to do so. Perhaps, but I’m still delighted by the moment because at least in theory I had created a sanctuary where the friendly neighbourhood racist was neither dehumanized nor able to demonize others.
So my renewed question for you, dear introspective reader, is this:
Would it have been better if I had cancelled the racist customer from the start, or is it possible that there could be a benefit to erring on the side of assertive but compassionate disagreement over hatred when encountering words that we find to be despicable?
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