Cancel Culture

When Cancel Culture Comes for the Person With the Pitchfork

The leader of the mob follows the victim to the gallows.


The Teen Vogue cancel culture news cycle reached its inevitable denouement earlier this week after social media sleuths discovered that Christine Davitt—a staffer at the publication who was involved in the successful effort to oust incoming editor-in-chief Alexi McCammond due to her decade-old insensitive tweets—had also tweeted bad words a long time ago.

While McCammond had profusely apologized for offensive and racist remarks she had made about Asians at the age of 17, she was nevertheless forced to resign—something that prompted Davitt to exhale "the deepest sigh I've ever sighed." But now it's Davitt's turn in the hot seat.

This is utterly unsurprising. Attempted cancelation of the person involved in the initial cancel mob has become a recurring feature of these stories. People who rejoice that their least favorite celebrity, media figure, or children's book author is finally being held accountable for some past wrongdoing are soon forced to remember that they, too, have done and said things they regret.

A facilitator of this phenomenon is the recent, relative ubiquity of social media. When I was 17 years old, in 2005, it was unlikely that any offensive comments I might have made would be preserved for later embarrassment. But just a few years later, it became the case that virtually every teenager had a smartphone, and their insensitive utterances would exist forever in text, tweet, or snap form.

This is one of the few points of agreement between myself, Will Wilkinson, and Jane Coaston, with whom I engaged in a spirited debate about the existence and extent of cancel culture for a recent episode of The Argument, the podcast of The New York Times' opinion pages. Coaston, formerly of Vox, is now the host of the podcast; Wilkinson was a senior staffer at the Niskanen Center until he tweeted himself out of a job.  Wilkinson is arguably a victim of cancel culture, but doesn't believe the concept has tremendous merit; I nevertheless defended him when he was fired. It made for an interesting conversation, yet we both expressed concern that social media has made it harder for teenagers to escape their worst moments.

Our major disagreement, on the other hand, is that Wilkinson believes the phenomenon we are broadly referring to as "cancel culture" is a method for historically marginalized groups to shift social norms such that people who malign them are held accountable. I'm skeptical of this claim, and the Teen Vogue incident does not make me less so. It is simply not true that the people who canceled McCammond—the progressive staffers at Teen Vogue—are obviously engaged in good faith anti-racism but the people now trying to cancel Davitt—various folks in the media who find the irony newsworthy—are engaged in bad-faith trolling. Rather, both sides have weaponized a new form of social sanction—one made more convenient by social media, but ultimately deployed not by bots or algorithms but by real human beings—to punish someone for a slight.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that this weapon does not belong to progressives: People on all sides of the political spectrum are capable of using it; indeed, cancel culture even occasionally strikes at people for reasons that aren't particularly ideological. We are currently witnessing a vast co-opting of the very term "cancel culture" by conservatives, who have described everything from the second impeachment of Donald Trump to the criticisms of QAnon-interested Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) as cancel culture run amok. Even South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose rising star among the MAGA set came crashing back to earth after she irritated religious conservatives, lamented that she is a victim of "conservative cancel culture."

I suspect that part of the reason the right is leaning so hard into appropriation of the term is that the American public is broadly sympathetic to those who are canceled, and Republicans want to associate themselves with the objects of such sympathy. This circular firing squad—where the leader of the mob follows the victim to the gallows—only creates more opportunities for them to do so.