Another day, another overwrought article bemoaning “cancel culture.” The most recent entry in panicked mainstream journalism comes from Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic—and it has all the hallmarks of a feature bound to go viral.
Opens with a quote from The Scarlet Letter? Check. Laments the loss of ‘jokes,’ ‘flirtation’ and the ability of professors to marry their students? Check. Excited headline naming this new, horrifying phenomena (“The New Puritans”)? Check, check, check!
But the most important component of any cancel culture write-up is its victims—and the slick evasion of why exactly they were ‘canceled’.
The stories Applebaum uses to demonstrate the unfairness of the ‘mob’ (a word she uses 17 times) are largely incomplete, often dismissive—and sometimes downright false.
For example, Applebaum writes that former New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma lost his job even though “he was not accused of assault, just printing an article by someone who was.” It’s true that Buruma allowed Jian Ghomeshi—accused by more than 20 women of brutal assaults, acquitted of charges brought by 3 of them—to publish a self-pitying piece that downplayed the allegations against him.
But he wasn’t let go from his position after publication; Buruma resigned after defending the decision in a devastating interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner. He told Chotiner, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.” When Chotiner pointed out that Ghomeshi was accused of punching women, Buruma responded, “as we both know, sexual behavior is a many-faceted business.” (Uh, what now?)
Applebaum also mentions philosophy professor Peter Ludlow as an example of this ‘new puritanism.’ She writes Ludlow was “[forced] out of his job for two alleged instances of sexual harassment, which he denies.”
What really happened? Ludlow was accused of sexually assaulting a student, and resigned after being found guilty of violating Northwestern’s harassment policy. In a suit filed against the school by the accuser, the student says Ludlow coerced her into drinking, took her to his apartment and fondled her as she drifted in and out of consciousness—even as she “begged” him to stop.
Applebaum similarly plays down the details around the firing of former Georgetown University professor Sandra Sellers. She writes that Sellers was let go after comments she made about Black students were caught on video, and that “there is no way to know from the recording alone whether her comments represented racist bias or genuine concern for her students.”
What Sellers actually said, however, leaves a lot less doubt: “I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks—happens almost every semester...You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom.”
I could go on. The point is, if Applebaum is so certain these people were wronged, or that the consequences of their actions were somehow disproportionate—why gloss over what was actually said or done?
Could it be because when fully spelled out, their actions are indefensible?
Here’s the thing: There is absolutely a conversation to be had about the way that online discourse flattens nuanced issues, and how social media pile-ons are a poor alternative to real life accountability. And while I’m sympathetic to the idea that there needs to be a way forward for those seeking social and personal redemption, that’s not a conversation we can have until someone actually tries.
There’s no way to make proper amends if you insist you’ve done nothing wrong.
But Applebaum’s article, and the vast majority of conversations about cancel culture, are not really about seeking those complicated answers. They’re about maintaining power and privilege. That’s why these pieces would never mention, for example, the Black principal in Texas who was fired because he mentioned systemic racism in a letter to parents. He doesn’t fit into their worldview of who counts as canceled—because to them, he doesn’t count at all.
I am not above quoting myself, so a little something from a column I wrote earlier this year:
[W]ho gets called ‘canceled’ has become shorthand for whose lives and happiness matters. That’s why I often think about the people that cancel culture forgot. I think about the women who have lost their jobs because they complained about harassment, or the Black reporters who were banned from covering racial justice protests. No one called them canceled.
So please, a request to The Atlantic and any other publication thinking about dusting off yet another cancel culture argument: Don’t.
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