Cancel culture—the phenomenon of deeming someone or something worthless, irrelevant, and over in response to transgressions big, small, ephemeral, and chronic—is our buzziest catchphrase as of late: There have been calls for canceling Saturday Night Live’s Shane Gillis, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and comedian Dave Chappelle in the past month alone. President Trump told the U.N. General Assembly on September 24 that “a free people must never, ever be enlisted in the cause of silencing, canceling, or blacklisting their own neighbors.” (RIP, irony.) And on the Emmys red carpet, Sarah Silverman described cancel culture as “righteousness porn.” I get where she’s coming from, but I don’t think canceling is a bad thing.
It’s also not a new thing, and before we were canceling people, we were canceling brands—at least my family was. One of my earliest memories involves me walking up to the guy restocking the vending machine at my dad’s tennis club and informing him that he shouldn’t be putting in Nestlé Crunch bars because babies in developing countries were dying and it was Nestlé’s fault. We were boycotting Nestlé to stop its aggressive marketing of formula to women in developing nations, which it eventually did (for a time). And so my parents stopped their boycott (for a time).
Canceling and boycotting are related but not the same, I want to make clear. After Nestlé changed its tune, Crunch bars were back on the menu for us because the purpose of a boycott is to effect change, and if it works, it must be followed by a reversal. When you cancel something, it’s for reasons personal and symbolic, and entails refusing to acknowledge that thing you’ve canceled—maybe you won’t watch Chinatown anymore because it’s a Polanski film—but has literally no effect on anyone but yourself.
When you cancel something, it’s for reasons personal and symbolic, and entails refusing to acknowledge that thing you’ve canceled—but has literally no effect on anyone but yourself.
After Nestlé, German cars were my family’s top nemeses—and this was a canceling, not boycotting situation. I’m Jewish, grew up in a predominantly Jewish area, and many of the Jews in my town drove Mercedes, which, once upon a time, helped provide wheels for the Nazis and used forced concentration camp labor to do it. And though Daimler-Benz has admitted its past (peep this creepily straightforward page on its website) and given millions of dollars in restitution to the families of the laborers, my parents have canceled the company forever.
To some, this kind of cancellation might seem like pointless grudge-holding, especially since practically no country is more vigilant about and intolerant of anti-Semitism now than Germany. But I understand my parents’ point of view, and I’ve adopted it. (Know who else does? Sarah Silverman, via her hilarious song about it. Sample lyric: “Jewish people driving German cars—what the cock is that shit?”)
A recent brush with cancel culture for me came with the news that Stephen Ross—billionaire investor in (among other businesses) SoulCycle, Momofuku, Bluestone Lane, and Equinox—would be throwing a fundraiser at his Hamptons estate for Donald Trump’s re-election. Despite public outcry from ordinary citizens and celebrities alike, the fundraiser went off without a hitch, and Ross and his cronies raised $12 million for the president.
My feeling after the Ross news broke was that I wouldn’t have bought a cycling class or a cold brew from someone who’d held a fundraiser for Adolf Hitler, so I sure as hell wouldn’t do what feels to me like the 2019 equivalent. My rejection of anything Ross-related before the fundraiser was a boycott. (You stop dining at Momofuku so the company severs ties with Ross or Ross calls off his fundraiser.) But the fact that I still haven’t returned to any Ross-related businesses is a cancel, a choice that holds no meaning beyond my personal experience: I do not want my money benefitting the agenda of a man whose ideals are abhorrent to me, even if I know withholding my money might not stop him.
Harvey Weinstein can’t un-ruin the lives women he raped. Louis C.K. can’t un-masturbate in front of unwilling participants. Chris Brown can’t un-beat Rihanna to a bloody pulp and then get a tattoo of her battered face on his neck.
If you, like me, are someone who believes in canceling despite its inherent complexities, you apply the practice to those who have committed wrongs so atrocious, there is no action they could take to undo the damage. Harvey Weinstein can’t un-ruin the lives of so many women he raped. Louis C.K. can’t go back in time and not masturbate in front of unwilling participants. Chris Brown can’t change his mind about beating Rihanna to a bloody pulp and then getting a tattoo of her battered face on his neck.
There’s a gray area, of course, and that’s where personal choice comes in. Humans are complicated and if not inherently hypocritical, easily made so via rationalization, which is why anyone looking for holes in my dedication to cancel culture will find them. For example, I get monthly iron infusions to treat my anemia in a swanky hospital building that came to be through a generous endowment from conservative billionaire David Koch, whose work against climate-change advocacy was unforgivable. I have had other unsavory associations that some would categorize as more problematic than others. In a corporate society, we all do. We rationalize the decisions we make based on a combination of what behavior we can morally tolerate and just how complicit our associations make us. Maybe we tell ourselves that a transgressor’s crimes were the result of extreme emotional duress, mental illness, or addiction (the image of John Galliano, drunk, ranting about the greatness of Hitler comes to mind). In these gray-matter cases, I say this: There is no we, there is only you.
Let’s stick with Louis C.K. I get into one particular argument a lot when I talk about #MeToo with men—even super-progressive men—who seem to think that there is a spectrum of bad behavior and only so much comeuppance to go around. “What Louis C.K. did wasn’t as bad as what Harvey Weinstein did,” one might say, to which I respond, “Duh.” But not being as bad as someone else doesn’t get you off the hook, at least not for me. C.K. might have ended up absolved in my eyes had he stayed away and reflected; had he dedicated his time and money to helping the women he harmed and women in general; had he taken steps to level the playing field for women in comedy, who are at a distinct disadvantage in an industry that still (even if it says so in more whispered tones now) thinks men are funnier.
Instead, he took the stage at a club on Long Island after a brief hiatus and worked out material that targeted the children of Parkland, Florida. That night moved Louis C.K. from the “boycott” column into the “cancel” one for me. He could go on an apology tour for the rest of his life and I wouldn’t trust it—but someone else might. What warrants undoing a cancel (cancel cancel, if you will) comes down to your comfort level. After proudly joining the Women’s March the day after Trump’s election, I canceled the march the following year, after members of the board repeatedly defended their admiration of transphobic, homophobic anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and bungled their apology when public pressure finally forced them to give one. Now most of those board members have stepped down, and time will tell how the new leadership does in protecting all its sisters in arms. I am eagerly anticipating (or at least hoping) to cancel my cancel.
My cancel cancel policy isn’t liberal enough for everyone; psychologist Pamela Paresky, PhD, wrote an essay for Psychology Today called The Apocalyptic Cult of Cancel Culture, which argues that society’s penchant for canceling requires perfection, destroys the possibility of redemption, and represents a nihilistic worldview. In a cancel culture, we appoint ourselves the arbiters of right and wrong and also the judge and jury, because thanks to social media, we get to dole out punishment, at warp speed, scattershot. In Dr. Paresky’s view, by crossing people out—it’s worth noting private citizens are her focus, not celebrities, politicians, corporations, or other public entities—we not only discourage them from learning from their mistakes but sometimes ruin their lives for relatively minor and/or fleeting errors in judgment. Her point—and Silverman’s—is a worthy one: We are too quick to judge. We are too schadenfreudey when it comes to wanting to see people suffer. I definitely agree that only good could come from every one of us taking a deep breath and maybe a walk before tweeting anything ever, for we are never so eager to share as when we are riled-up and thirsty for revenge.
People are surely fallible, and redemption is a valuable principle—but it’s not always that simple. As I continue to struggle to understand my own feelings about cancel culture, redemption, and what we gain (and lose) from such a punitive practice, the example that has clarified things the most for me is the story of someone far less powerful or nefarious than Stephen Ross or Louis C.K. or even Paris Hilton (I seem to be the only one who recalls that time she was caught on video giddily bragging that she was “dancing like a [n-word]”—only she said the word): It’s Lauren Duca. I was a fan of her Teen Vogue work and her funny-but-biting tweets. But in the wake of some bad press and in the lead-up to her upcoming book release, BuzzFeed published a piece that led me to reconsider my stance. The most salient details to me were the old tweets the author hyperlinked in order to flesh out Duca’s character and evolution.