The first rule about cancel culture is, don't criticize cancel culture. Because why would you criticize it unless you want to be a terrible person with no consequences? The corollary is that the only people who do criticize cancel culture have already been canceled, and thus anything they say on the topic can be immediately dismissed. You can't even reference what they have said on the topic, however insightful, or people will sneer, "Oh, I didn't know you stanned [REDACTED], guess you're a [REDACTED] like them!"
But I really think it's time to lay down a few ground rules. It's going to take some social pressure to make these ground rules stick, and the only way to make that happen is by people being gutsy enough to occasionally, mildly criticize the excesses of cancel culture.
I don't think nobody should be canceled. I think it's great when outspoken racists get uninvited from things, or people stop watching movies made by serial rapists. The trouble is that the worst people are pretty much uncancelable (about which more later) and consequences only start to stick when the person wasn't that profitable an option anyway. So, as a tool for making human society generally less cruddy, it leaves a lot to be desired.
I can't stop people from starting cancel mobs against people they don't like, and I further can't uncancel anyone after the fact. I am also, bee tee dubs, not powerful enough to cancel anyone anyway (canceling is not the organic process it appears). But I can make a few personal commitments of how I intend to behave, with regard to canceling.
1. Humans operate in teams; keep those teams big.
I tend to think tribalism is bad, and I tried for a while to consider everyone equally my teammate. But it doesn't really work. There are people with whom I have almost no common ground; pretending that isn't so is a recipe for frustration. So yes, everyone should find their team.
But everyone, the left in particular, has a tendency to shrink those teams. To eject people they don't like from their team, for slight reasons. Protestant denominations splinter till it's five people in one strip mall church and five in another, and they hate each other. I recently learned that #ExposeChristianSchools and #ExposeChristianHomeschooling can't abide each other. Same basic mission of bringing some kind of oversight to education, would be more powerful together, but there was a feud a couple years ago and now they're not friends.
I don't want to shrink my team. I want my team to consist of everyone I can find common ground with. So when a fight is going down, I try not to come in, guns blazing, on either side. I have principles, of course; I'm outspoken about those at ordinary times. But mid-Twitter-fight is rarely a good time for that. No matter who says otherwise, it's okay to sit it out.
I don't cast people off for wrong terminology or being randomly obnoxious once in a while. The autism community is very emphatic that "autistic person" is correct and "person with autism" is not correct, but I'm not the language police. If you come to me saying "what can I do for people with autism," I'm going to tell you. At some point, if our conversation goes on a while, I might mention the terminology issue, but honestly, I think most people using person-first are doing that because they were told it was more sensitive. The last thing they want to do is offend anybody, so acting like they're the enemy is unfair.
When your teams are big, you're in a better position to reach and educate people who are interested in learning. You also have more allies if you're ever in need of something. Ever-increasing purity requirements will leave you with hardly anyone on your side.
2. I don't believe in guilt by association.
Say person A does a bad thing. Then person B defends them, perhaps not knowing the full story. And person C collaborates on a project with B and didn't disavow them after A's cancelation. And person D follows C on Twitter. How guilty is person D?
Zero, zilch, nada. I refuse to play that game. We're all six degrees from Kevin Bacon, or somebody who once did a hatespeech.
Sometimes people go around on Twitter and demand that everyone unfollow [PERSON] and everyone who still follows [PERSON] is bad. That especially sucks for people who aren't on Twitter all day and totally missed what [PERSON] did. Are we all morally obligated to spend hours tracking down caps of deleted tweets so we can decide whether to alienate [PERSON] or person's enemies? Let's not. Let's condemn bad people for being bad and leave everyone else the heck alone. It's okay not to police your friend list that hard.
3. Always be polite and never, ever escalate.
I always try to be nice on the internet. Sarcasm doesn't translate, and more people than your intended audience may see it.
If you do get into a fight, it may occur to you to fight dirty. They called you a name, so you put them on blast to your larger number of followers, thus demonstrating that you are more powerful on the internet than them! Don't do this, it looks petty.
Don't ever, ever, ever, no matter how justified it seems, take things past the internet. Don't call people's employers complaining about their behavior, don't threaten to sue, don't call a swat team OBVIOUSLY. Not only because these things are almost always uncalled for, but because the other person will feel justified responding in kind. You may think they can't hurt you, but I've seen a lot of internet bullies find a way. Just don't ever do this.
If you are the subject of an internet mob, large or small, your best bet is to log off for the day. They often get bored and wander off. Whereas if you stay online, arguing however politely, sooner or later you will start to get upset and be a little less tactful. That's when they scent blood in the water. I'd never judge someone for getting heated mid-cancel-mob, but it will work out much better for you if you comport yourself with grace and/or silence.
4. No marginalization Olympics.
There seems to be a set of unspoken rules among social justice advocates that goes like this: there's some kind of ladder of marginalization, everyone knows where everyone is on it, and you can punch up as hard as you want but can't punch down ever.
Trouble is, there isn't, in fact, a hierarchy of how un-privileged you are. Which is worse, being trans or being both Black and disabled? I sure as heck don't know. I also don't know if someone is trans or gay or disabled unless they tell me, and they don't owe me that information, ever. A lot of people have come out, not because they wanted to, but because they were told they couldn't talk about [topic] unless they were [marginalization]. So they were bullied for doing so until they finally came out and said OKAY OKAY I ACTUALLY AM THAT. But that's hardly the ideal coming-out, is it?
Honestly, whoever you are, you still shouldn't be terrible on the internet. You don't know who you're talking to. And you don't know what they've gone through, personally, regardless of the categories they're in. Maybe they're a white woman (the worst thing to be, in these conflicts, so far as I can see. Because you earn zero marginalization points for it but you're way easier prey than the men) but they have a really traumatic background and are going through some stuff.
It's just really super gross when, say, A says something. B responds aggressively, so C snipes back in kind. And then C gets quote-tweeted everywhere with "look at that nasty thing she dared to say to a person more marginalized than her!" Well maybe she didn't realize? Maybe, for a second, she forgot the rules in the heat of, you know, being yelled at herself?
You should try to be nice to people who might be struggling more than than you are, that's true. But that could be anyone.
5. On the other hand, don't ignore power dynamics.
Ever notice who the Twitter cancel brigade comes for? It isn't established authors, in the book field, it's usually debut authors, new agents, people who are seen as having a little power but who are by no means top of the heap. Trans people get canceled incessantly for some reason, by other trans people. Women are canceled more than men. People of color are canceled a lot, for tiny things. I'm still a little shaken by the story of an Asian debut author being called racist against Black people (in a fantasy novel that, I believe, did not contain Black people) and her book release being pushed back. There are plenty of white authors who actually are racist!
The reason is that it's a heck of a lot easier to come for these people than the actual power brokers. You can't cancel J. K. Rowling, not really. You can cancel people a bit more vulnerable than that, though, so that's who they always come for. The most vulnerable of all are people whose entire life is online: people marginalized in so many ways they haven't been able to find a supportive community except online. To these people, an online shunning feels like the end of everything good in their lives.
6. Cancel for serious things only.
You don't have to stay friends with someone who's behaving badly, of course. When there's a cancel brigade out against someone, you certainly shouldn't reflexively defend them. (Oh my god do you want the mob to come for you? Because that's how you get the mob to come for you.)
Consider what they actually did. This can be difficult, because very often the only version you see on Twitter is something like "is a bigot," with all details elided. Personally, I think it's deliberate. It's a lot easier to get people on your side with "X is a bigot" than with "X recommended ten books and all of them were by white people." (Made up example.)
But once you do find out, it's up to you to decide if it's a big deal. I consider sexual assault a big deal, and long-term patterns of racist behavior. I don't think cussing at people who are in the middle of trying to cancel you is a big deal. If someone does something I think is a big deal, I unfollow them. Maybe I make a mental note not to buy their book. I still don't join the cancel mob. There's always plenty of people doing it, and I don't see that it's helpful to join in.
Plus, if you participate in a cancel mob, even in a mild way like "I agree X behavior is bad," it's very likely that the victim will attempt to cancel back and go for you next. As an unfamous nobody on in the internet, your best bet is to stay as far from drama as possible.
7. There ought to be some way to come back from it.
There are no rewards from cancel culture for a sincere apology. Every apology is assumed insincere; at this point one may as well double down as not. It shouldn't be like this. If you act badly on the internet (everyone has, because no one is perfect) you should be able to say you're sorry and eventually move past it. Instead, the internet seems to be keeping a permanent hit list (I mean "receipts") and you can't ever move on.
I don't exactly have an action item for this one. I don't have the power to decide when someone's changed. But I tend to ignore decade-old screenshots because honestly, odds are that whoever found them went digging for some nefarious reason. For instance, gamergate types love to do this to feminists to make their own allies turn on them. Generally that stuff is either way out of context or expresses a worldview they don't hold anymore. Obviously I'm going to come down hard on the side of not holding people to their past ideas. Half the stuff on this blog, I wouldn't stand by. I hope people would give me the grace of understanding I've changed a lot.
I've heard never to apologize because it won't placate the mob. And it's true, it won't. But it still is a good thing to do, if you see that you made a mistake. Sensible people may give you credit for it, even if the loudest voices don't.
8. Consider the why
Why do people cancel? There are tons of reasons, some of which are better than others.
- They're looking for a sense of justice, of fairness. It isn't fair if somebody does evil and isn't punished, especially if you've done less-bad things and had worse consequences. Just ask my kids about this one.
- They're angry and want revenge. (On that topic, this thread is fire.)
- They're jealous of the attention that person is getting and want to let everyone know that person isn't so great.
- They've been told their whole movement is tainted if they don't "call out" bad actors. The right loves to say this to the left, which is ridiculous because the right hardly ever calls out their bad actors.
- Likewise they genuinely don't want bad people in their movement; they worry these bad people will cause harm and throwing them out will prevent harm.
- Some people are just bullies throwing their weight about by doing this. After a while you start to notice who you're always seeing starting things. Avoid these people like [people should have avoided] the plague.
- Sometimes the actual cancel material is dug up by people completely outside the group, like when transphobes try to get the trans community to throw out a fellow trans person.
- Sometimes it's a "cancel back" attempt: someone tried to cancel them, so they try to find dirt on the person who tried to cancel them. At that point, whoever's more popular wins. (This is a good reason never ever to start or participate in these things, by the way.)
9. Basically, steer clear of internet drama.
Don't start or join internet mobs. Use twitter to plug your product or find friends but don't be on twitter all the time.
Machievelli said you should never take a person's property while leaving them alive, but instead kill them immediately. The reason is that if he's still alive, he now has nothing to do but seek revenge, whereas if he's dead you don't have to worry about him anymore.
With cancelation, the same thing is true: don't fight with people, block 'em. Block early and often. Somebody is behaving badly on the internet? Don't linger and give them reasons to remember your name. Erase them from your internet life.
These are just my personal rules; they don't have to be yours.
Here is one good video on this topic (warning: creator is super canceled). I've also watched about half of this one and it was good (warning: I don't watch a lot of YouTube so you're lucky if I watch half of anything before sharing it).