University of Virginia (UVA) student activist Zyahna Bryant is back in the news again, after facing backlash over a partnership with Dove. The 22-year-old announced in August that she was working with the soap company to promote "fat liberation."
Following coverage from the New York Post, the Daily Mail, and even a comment from Elon Musk, calls to boycott the company have been growing, and "#BoycottDove" was trending on Twitter as of Friday afternoon.
It's not surprising that Bryant would be an online target. As Reason revealed in an April investigation, she made serious accusations that ruined a young woman's life without sufficient evidence. But canceling her is still both wrong and unhelpful—as are nearly all instances of cancel culture in action.
In 2020, Bryant publicly accused fellow student Morgan Bettinger of telling a group of Black Lives Matter protesters that they would "make good speedbumps"—sparking a social media firestorm that resulted in widespread calls for the university to expel Bettinger.
For her own part, Bettinger has consistently claimed that she never spoke to protestors, instead saying that a truck driver who had been sent to block the road during the protest had begun a casual conversation with her, during which she quipped something to the effect of "it's a good thing that you are here, because otherwise, these people would have been speed bumps."
A university investigation later found "insufficient evidence" for Byrant's claims, even concluding that it was "more likely than not" that Byrant never even heard Bettinger make a "speed bumps" remark at all. Despite the inquiry's results, the university allowed Bettinger to be punished anyway, holding to the results of an earlier student-run tribunal which expelled Bettinger in abeyance and forced her to complete a litany of other sanctions. The previous student tribunal found Bettinger guilty of "threatening" UVA students, despite appearing to agree with Bettinger's facially nonthreatening version of events.
Last month, Bettinger filed a formal lawsuit against the university, claiming that school officials violated her First Amendment rights and that administrators "purposefully tampered" with the numerous investigations into Bettinger's conduct to ensure she would be punished for obviously protected speech.
"Despite their personal knowledge that multiple University investigators had concluded that Morgan was innocent of the charges against her," the lawsuit reads, "[University officials] persecuted, prosecuted, and punished Morgan Bettinger."
Now that Bryant has received a Dove sponsorship, those outraged by her baseless accusations against Bettinger have been fomenting an internet firestorm by attempting a Bud Light–style boycott of the company's products.
Reason has consistently argued that internet mobs are a terrible way to find the truth and get justice for those who have been wronged. What's happening here is blatant cancel culture—a concerted effort to destroy someone's personal and professional prospects over a single past incident or comment without any capacity for forgiveness.
Witnessing how an internet pile-on utterly shredded a young woman's life and reputation offers little evidence that these kinds of outrage campaigns can do any good. If anything, this mob will only leave Bryant feeling justifiably aggrieved. While Bryant did far more than mere political wrongthink—she actively lobbied for another student's expulsion and displayed little remorse once the reality of the situation emerged—viciously attacking her (or mounting a boycott of a soap company) won't help Bettinger repair her tarnished reputation.
In fact, if attempts to boycott Dove work, they will distract from what actually happened to Bettinger. They turn her story into a culture-war meltdown and lump her in with online trolls who consider attacking someone's physical appearance a key component of political discourse.
Yes, Zyahna Bryant thoughtlessly ruined Morgan Bettinger's life by slinging baseless allegations in the public square. But getting to the truth of what happened that day in July 2020—and getting justice for Bettinger—won't be accomplished by a nasty, tribalistic internet mob.