Why are people so afraid of being cancelled?
It’s not a social death sentence. You can see plenty of supposedly cancelled individuals rambling about the hot topic of the day on their social media timelines and getting lots of engagement. Sure, some people might get fired, but it’s not uncommon for somewhat contrarian institutions to take back those who have been swallowed and spit back out by the cancel mob. Some would argue that you can actually reap benefits from cancellation, if you play your cards right!
So why is it so scary? Why do we laypeople, without public platforms, feel the pressure to choose our words so carefully? Why do we rush to delete anything that could be interpreted uncharitably? Why do I think thrice before liking a post I agree with?
I don’t want people to hate me. I don’t want to feel like a bad person. It terrifies me that the only way to be seen as a decent human being might be to shut down whatever thoughts the others deem unacceptable. Hence, I mostly keep quiet.
I have, however, two lines of defense.
First and foremost, when I discuss controversial issues publicly, I try to do so only under my pseudonym. That doesn’t mean that I have any social capital worth protecting under my real name—I’m an aspiring musician with a tiny following who are unlikely to abandon me because of any moral backlash—but I also have friends and acquaintances who might turn against me if push came to shove—and that would really hurt.
Second, I identify as non-binary. Getting here has mostly felt like an organic process of questioning my identity and dissociating what I see myself as from what I think I’m expected to be—but there’s a tiny, cynical voice in my head that doesn’t buy that narrative. It insists that I just want to shield myself from the implications that come with being a cis guy. And I can’t, in good faith, prove it wrong. I might just be a cowardly little man.
Were it not for that voice, I might use my identity as leverage to speak my mind more freely. I’m still white and able-bodied, sure, but as long as I stay away from race and disability debates, my being non-binary would put me roughly at the summit of gender-based oppression—a position that can be weaponized at will. In other words, I would be allowed to spew morally justified hate.
I have seen it happen. I won’t forget the way Contrapoints was dragged. I thought she was safe. After all, she’s a trans woman who has been incredibly transparent throughout her process, wrestled with all kinds of problematic ideas in public and still almost unfailingly pushed the culturally accepted ideas, including the legitimacy of non-binary gender (even identifying as non-binary herself at one point).
None of this protected her from being viciously attacked the moment she tweeted about an internal conflict regarding pronoun circles—despite the fact that she described her plight as a “minor expense” compared to that of non-binary folks.
You’re not just expected to endorse a certain narrative, then: you need to do so wholeheartedly. Being openly torn about it is equated with secretly believing the opposite and trying to deceive the zealots, which calls for punishment.
This punishment comes, at the very least, in the form of mob bullying, which shares the core of its DNA with hate speech.
There’s one caveat: you can’t attack anyone for (most of) their immutable characteristics, since that would make it actual, legal hate speech. Everything else is pretty much fair game.
You don’t want strangers to throw verbal feces at you? Just change your views. You can’t do so in earnest? That just means that you deserved all that vitriol in the first place, so stay quiet and perform repentance. Oh, and educate yourself. Everything would be so easy if people just educated themselves.
The mob acts as if every sociocultural debate has been settled, and then labels the act of debating those settled matters as violence against whomever those topics concern. All inquiry is transgression.
Of course, there are dangers in moving the Overton window, the need for basic human rights is surely undebatable, but there’s nothing to be gained by relegating every conversation we consider distasteful or triggering to the private sphere. Even from a strategic point of view, it’s in your best interests to have a glimpse of your opponent’s real ideas and motivations—otherwise, you will have a very hard time predicting their future movements.
The conversation about how best to accommodate trans athletes in sex-segregated sports is a good example. It’s a sensitive topic but it needs to be addressed, as the system wasn’t put in place with trans people in mind. Exploring the ways in which cis and trans participants could compete most safely and fairly is not the same thing as threatening trans people’s human rights. Dedicating energy and attention to finding the optimal way to do this is not transphobic. You can’t avoid a problem and solve it at the same time.
For a social movement so focused on accountability, there are some rather sophisticated deflection tools at play here. You might feel that it is not acceptable for someone to address you in a furious manner, but that would be tone-policing. You might try to make it clear that your interlocutor is misinterpreting your original point, but that would be gaslighting. All the while, everyone denies the fact that there is a climate of fear and self-censorship around social debate.
But there is one very positive side to the phenomenon: it gives individually powerless civilians a way to hold the elites responsible for their actions, bypassing the public institutions that are too often rigged in their favor. This is potentially a very good thing and if we push back too hard we risk losing it.
What do I propose, then? Something very simple but rather unfashionable: moderation.
Yeah, I know. It sucks. It’s not exhilarating. It’s not cathartic. It’s fair, though. Isn’t that what this whole thing is about?
If you see clear signs that someone is being disingenuous, voice your concerns and explain your reasoning. If you encounter credible proof that someone is abusive or dangerous, by all means, share that fact. If someone is using their position to discriminate or exploit people beyond a reasonable doubt, inform their superior. If a company is harming their employees or acting against the public interest, boycott it. These are all reasonable, measured responses. These are all good things.
What needs to be avoided is excessive force and self-righteous overkill. Don’t ever underestimate how ugly things can get. Back in 2017, the mob got such a kick out of trashing August Ames that not even her suicide placated them. Hundreds of ragelings kept on insulting her well after the tragic outcome was known. Dehumanization is a slippery slope.
Make sure that what you’re fighting is a monster, rather than your own shadow. It doesn’t take that long for the abyss to gaze back.