The Cancel Tit for Tat

Eye for an eye and the world goes blind. Tooth for a tooth and the world eats only muesli. Cancellation for a cancellation and the world ceases to work, with everyone spending every waking hour in their pajamas scanning Facebook histories for wrongthink.

I know, I know—despairing over cancel culture is so 2019. Nobody even remembers the ur-victim of cancellation, Justine Sacco, and her AIDS in Africa quip from 2013. And that white Central Park dog walker who snitched on the black birder? She’s apparently doing podcasts with Bari Weiss—so all’s well that ends well. Right?

Cancel culture was a massive threat to the freedom to think and speak without becoming a forsaken “other.” But surely we’ve come to see the light by now.

The New York Times publishes egghead colloquies on the pitfalls of nixing anyone with a racy opinion. The most popular comedian on earth inverted cancel culture, turning his societal pink slip into a massive publicity campaign. Even Kim Kardashian, the Penelopean paragon of ancient wisdom and tact, thinks the entire erasing heretics thing is “ridiculous.” As a famed political power-broker once said, if you’ve lost the bosomy ex-wife of an egocentric rapper, you’ve lost Middle America.

Yet here we are in the second month of the two-thousandth and twenty-second year anno Domini still crucifying verbal deviants. Just this past week, two high-profile cancellations took place. And in perfect Thanosian synchrony, the personnel abeyance was in perfect political balance: a conservative and a progressive were stuffed in the penalty box.

Caryn Johnson, otherwise known by her stage name of Whoopi Goldberg, was temporarily booted from “The View” for All Lives Matter-ing the Shoah. Whoopi—who, if childhood memory serves right, is a full-grown adult—described Hitler’s ethnocleansing as “white people doing it to white people.” The “doing it” being a blithe reference to the mass concentration and incineration of millions of innocents. Despite being one of the few EGOT actresses in Hollywood history, Whoopi apparently believes Jewish and white are synonymous races. Were that true, it would come as a surprise to many 20th century Jewish Americans who were barred entry to white-only clubs and neighborhoods. It would also shock Der Führer who emphatically rejected any similarities between Aryan and Jewish blood.

Despite issuing a rote apology, Whoopi is reportedly het up over her timeout, and may opt to join her intellectual brethren, passing out brochures on West 66th Street on God’s divine plan to whisk black Zionists away in an interstellar craft.

In a dyadic bit of serendipity, while Whoopi was being shuffled off the stage, a Jewish lawyer found himself in the same position. Ilya Shapiro was due to start as the administrator of Georgetown Law, until he seemingly tweeted his foot in his mouth. A long-time libertarian legal eagle, Shapiro criticized President Biden’s pledge to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court. Biden’s sop to his party’s identitarian base is de facto racial and gender discrimination, effectively signaling that non-black men need to apply. That used to be something legally prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. Now it’s electoral fodder for people who think solely with their skin and reproductive organs.

“Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identify politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?” Shapiro tweeted. He followed up with: “Because Biden said he’s only consider[ing] black women for SCOTUS, his nominee will always have an asterisk attached.”

Twitter’s concision causing rampant grammatical gaps is the real offense here. But, of course, Shapiro’s thoughts sparked a five-alarm fire among the left, because racially and sexually blind objectivity are now, in fact, racist and sexist. The progressive left has now categorically adopted Kendi’s maxim “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” In picking a “powerful,” “proud,” and “iconic” black woman (quotes included for the inevitable adjectives the media will affix to the nominee) to serve on our highest court, Biden will force whites to think extra hard and feel extra bad about all that Jim Crow-slavery-separate-but-equal-busses stuff.

That’s the progressive line of thinking that Shapiro objected to. He has since futilely apologized for his injudicious phrasing, which his Georgetown bosses treated with all the delicacy of a bored child playing with bubble wrap. Shapiro’s been temporarily sacked while the law school’s dean did a full-on self-castrating struggle session before the school’s Black Law Student Association.

Whoopi remains defiant of forced leave; Shapiro is maintaining a politic posture, likely waiting for the pro-forma investigation to conclude. If you’re betting that Shapiro resumes employment before the Whoop, you probably lost quite a few FanDuel credits laying odds on the Chiefs going to the Super Bowl.

Cancel culture bulldozing down our political divide shows how unwieldy and tyrannical the practice has become.

We know it’s bad to hound people out of their livelihoods for expressing idiotic, ill-informed, off-color, and discomforting thoughts. We have countless examples to point to of online mob-rage ruining careers and tarnishing reputations. We know nobody is safe: from iconic authors to celebrities to modest craftsmen to Harry freaking Potter. Even children aren’t out of bounds.

So why do we keep doing it? Why is every public remark still in danger of being cited as cassus cancellatus? Why do we all have that quiet urge to self-censor lurking in the back of our head before typing something out on the internet?

Even the Holy See is decrying cancel culture, officially elevating the trend to a spiritual concern. Yet we cancel on. But why? Is it just invidiousness? Bad faith politicization of everything to wipe out ideological enemies? An outgrowth of digitally enhanced mimetic rivalry? The logical end point of the Hegelian dialectical tug-of-war between thesis and antithesis in determining all known reality???

(Marx’s parents may roll over in their grave if the last one is true. It would mean their shiftless son was right about technological capitalism’s inherent trajectory, and didn’t waste all that time scribbling out treatises instead of getting his hands dirty in a real job. And we don’t want to lose the image of Marx as a soft and petulant B.A.-holder. Boomer meme stock would plummet.)

The actual explanation for threat-cancellation still being a sticky part of our culture is that it’s easy to do. It takes all of five seconds to blast out a tweet demanding walking papers for anyone violating polite orthodoxy. The internet allows for the seamless compounding of complaints and voilà, an easy, breezy, cancel campaign in seconds.

America’s Puritan roots may also have a lingering effect on our sensitive irritability. Women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony used to be canceled for wearing too much lace on their sadd-colored smocks. Now scantily-clad plus-size women with pink cornrows and septum rings cancel retirees who post hydroxychloroquine COVID cures. Progress!

As Philip Rieff wrote, every culture cancels and censors. It’s just a matter of limits and how much grace should be extended to offenders. That icky G-word, and its attendant synonymic acts like forgiveness, empathy, and humility, is what used to balance social-bound marking. The attenuation of charity has made norm enforcement cold and unrelenting.

Cancel culture can’t be tamed without caritas. Until we start saying “there but for the grace of the Twitter gods go” when witnessing the latest squirming target at the bottom the other-izing dogpile, the cancellation notices will continue to be issued.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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