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The low cost of cancelling someone
The other day I was scrolling through my Twitter feed (a dangerous pastime, I know) when I came across someone not-so-casually mentioning how another person had organized a cancelation campaign against them—based entirely on a lie.
This rang particularly familiar to me because I too had found myself in a similar situation. Many people like to lament about “accountability” culture and how those who find themselves in the eye of the storm have done something to deserve it—perhaps occasionally there’s even some truth to that (though when people like speak out about cancel mobs and cancel culture we tend to refer to cases where people not deserving of such wrath). But here, it was black and white: The person being accused of the things that the mob had deemed offensive never even had done them.
When it had happened to me, I found it so utterly incredulous that someone would just make something up. It wasn’t a matter of interpretation, or perception—it just didn’t happen. I just couldn’t understand it. Why would anyone do something like that? But worse, what truly hurt me was that the words of this person were enough to turn an entire group of colleagues—and even some people who were becoming something closer to friends—against me. It hurt me professionally and it hurt me personally. Almost none of these people bothered to ask me if any of this was true or discuss it with me—they just ostracized me immediately. All of this based on a lie.
The few people who did not behave that way—I’ll be grateful to forever. They had integrity and honor. And at the very least, curiosity.
But this points to a bigger problem. When this person had lied about me, I had little recourse. I actually had considered legal action at the time. Not because I enjoyed the idea of suing someone or was keen on revenge, but more so because I felt that there should be some consequence for telling a damaging lie. There should be some sort of repercussion for going after someone in the way that person has. And, in my case, it was even provable. Ultimately, I was talked out of it…the legal cost would be significant, so would the time investment, and the person involved might have had some mental struggles to begin with that have led to these actions (though it does not justify them). I let it go.
And yet, part of why 'cancel culture' has been so successful is that there's virtually no cost for those going after people—whether the ‘bad actors’ are making up blatant lies, snitching, feigning outrage, or actively piling up in mobs. There is no price to pay, social or otherwise.
Those who are being targeted, however, have lost their jobs, reputations, and even their lives.
So how do we change that?
Do we publicly call out people when they engage in such behavior? Even doing so politely (and perhaps especially so), might shift that culture. If it becomes socially unacceptable and not well tolerated, perhaps less people will do so. Consider bullying in high schools…doing so outwardly, is not considered a ‘good look’ these days. But back when I went to high school, it was the norm.
How about investing in organizations that support people who lose their jobs or are threatened in their workplace due to policies of intolerance? It’s very difficult people to fight alone, or take risks alone, but having the backing of an organization or legal fund can make a big difference. Not to mention, there would be a literal cost to the business engaging in poor practices.
Organizing an anti-cancelation social media campaign could also be an option. For example, if someone is being targeted—instead of letting them take the heat alone, it mobilizes like-minded people together to come to their defense. Again, it’s much scarier for individuals to jump in to defend someone alone, but when they see others doing it, they are more likely to find the courage within themselves too.
What other ideas do you have? What, in particular, would increase the cost for someone to be part of the mob—or the head of the mob? Let’s crowdsource some ideas. Leave your comments below.
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Who am I? I’m a writer with an overactive imagination and a random mind. Outside of Substack, you’ll find my work in publications such as Newsweek, WIRED, Variety, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Esquire, Playboy, Mashable, CNN Travel, The Independent, and many others.
Here, you can expect to see little essays on topics ranging from self-censorship, how to have better conversations and word misappropriation to whimsical thoughts about losing imaginary friends and insomnia. Anything goes. Here, there’s no “left,” “right,” or even “middle”. Just random thoughts. And everyone’s welcome to be part of the conversation—in fact, it’s encouraged.