Mike and Sarah have big feelings about an enduring debate. Digressions include “Carrie,” party planning etiquette and Whole Foods cafeterias. Sarah’s sound quality changes midway through because she moves from a McDonald’s parking lot to a Hardee’s parking lot.
Special thanks to Meredith Clark and Allissa Richardson for helping us with the history section of this episode!
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Sarah: That's like saying if I got fired for like masturbating in the workplace being like, I got fired just for having a vagina. And it's no, you had a vagina and you got fired for what you did with it.
Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where I'm trying to keep my headphone from slipping into my soda. No, that's not it. Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where we try and understand what words mean.
Mike: Ooh, that's very good, actually. It turns out they mean everything and maybe nothing.
Sarah: Or just like everything, so it's just hard to pick one. It's like when you're trying to choose a tee.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall.
Mike: And if you want to support the show, you can find us on Patreon at Patreon.com/yourewrongabout.
Sarah: And you don't have to, or you could buy…we haven't mentioned the shirt in a really long time, and I think it's our best shirt. You could buy our denouement shirt. Or you could say “denouement” in solidarity with the program.
Mike: Today we are talking about cancel culture.
Sarah: I feel like this is the single most stressful episode we've ever done from my perspective, like I think in advance, I just I'm just going to go in and talk about all my feelings, and that's my promise to you. I don't know if I'm going to figure anything out, but I'm going to tell you how I feel and what I am scared of.
Mike: So this is the thing, I've been researching this for over two months. I have 189 pages of notes. I genuinely do not know if this is going to be one episode or two episodes. Me and Sarah are just going to talk through it. I have some structure, I have some stories I want to tell, but we just both have very deep feelings on this issue, and we want to work through them basically as the goal for this.
Sarah: Yeah. To me like, this episode will just feel fake as hell if I do not say at the very beginning, like I am interested. And not like I find this interesting, but like my future is part of this topic.
What I would say is I think that the term ‘cancel culture’ applies to many things. It's a term that has been co-opted by the right, but also, I think to me it feels real. And I'm afraid of everyone on the internet getting mad at me one day, or not everyone, but some amount that feels like everyone to me. Not because I think my livelihood would go away, but because it would hurt me psychologically and I have a hard time liking myself. And it's hard to like yourself when everyone has escalated a rhetoric. If even like a dozen people come at you from a place of you're harmful, you're dangerous, we can never accept your apology, you’re toxic waste, I don't want that to happen to me. It would suck.
Mike: Are there specific cases that jump out at you of times where something's happened to somebody and you're like, oh my God, this could happen to me?
Sarah: Well, yeah. To me, the situation Natalie Wynn has gone through is really terrifying. And she talked on the media, she said, “I've been sexually assaulted, and I've been canceled. And the cancellation was more traumatic to me personally.” And that's terrifying to hear someone say. She does important work. Her channel is ContraPoints. And the right loves to act like the left is this unified political force, and we're not. And we often aren't because we are fighting with each other the whole time.
Mike: To me, the central challenge of all of this is this huge mismatch between the scale of the internet and online feedback. Like I think all the time about, we have a couple episodes of this show that have a million downloads. And if 1% of our audience like fucking hates them and wants us to never record a podcast again, 1%, that's 10,000 people. If 10,000 people decide to email us, decide to leave replies on every single one of our social media posts. If you're on the receiving end of that, the fact that 10,000 people are only like 1% of your audience, doesn't fucking matter. Like you are experiencing that as this like avalanche of abuse.
Sarah: Your brains aren't calculators, unfortunately. That's why a computer keeps beating us at Jeopardy.
Mike: You have to constantly remind yourself that this does not represent my audience. Like this does not represent everybody. But it doesn't feel like that at all.
Sarah: Or like how the people in my life feel about me because of more people than you are friends with, and reality are mad at you, or are doing something else that you're having a hard time processing. You're just like, oh my God, this is what I am to people. I'm not saying that happens to everybody, but like I have insecurity. I am the one person in America who's insecure, and it affects that way.
Mike: Oh, totally. Me too. I don't do this anymore, but when I used to check our iTunes reviews, my eyes would just skip over all of the five-star reviews as if they didn't count and go straight to the one star reviews.
Sarah: I do that, too. And I don't know why it's so weird. It's like why? They grow on trees.
Mike: And also, the vast majority of reviews are positive. But it's like something in my brain is, oh no, those don't count.
Sarah: You're like moron, moron, oh, person who hates me.
Mike: It affects me. And I feel about it.
Sarah: I think that the reviews that you have actually taken the time to complain about on Twitter have been ones that are critical of me. I think you actually, you get mad on my behalf in a way maybe you don't on your behalf. And that's hard, too.
Mike: Yeah. Those are like the ones where it's like, “My dad can beat up your dad”. Like some of them criticize our guests and I'm like, give me your fucking address and I will be there in 15 minutes. I'm like the most peaceful guy, but as soon as somebody goes after you or one of our guests or like somebody who we like, I am like ready to crash my car into their living room. I'm like so mad.
Sarah: And if anyone ever crashes their car into the living room of an acrimonious listener, than like this would be your Sharon Stone types, Basic Instinct alibi.
Mike: I also think that another really important structural element of this, is that it looks to the outside world like everybody hates you. Because other people will be like, oh shit, like her Instagram comments are a bloodbath. Everybody must be really mad at her.
Sarah: Yeah. And then they're like, what's wrong with her? Should I avoid her?
Mike: And then articles start appearing in the press that are like, “Twitter's really mad at Sarah Marshall. You're Wrong About podcast really stepped in it”, even though that doesn't actually represent that many people.
Sarah: Or they're going to be like, “I don't think that we should cancel Sarah Marshall.” But then by everyone being like, “No, don't cancel Sarah Marshall”, ‘cancel Sarah Marshall’ trends harder.
Mike: Yeah. And also, my sort of like meta comment on all of this, especially after reading so much about it for the last couple of months, is it took society something like a hundred years to fully adjust to the printing press. It was this new invention that changed education, it changed politics, it changed religion, and it took a long time and a very tumultuous time for that transformative new technology to a worm its way into all of these institutions. And I think that we're in the middle of that period with the internet.
You know what number I came across this morning?
Sarah: Seven? No.
Mike: No, I was so shocked by this. There are 22,000 people with more than a million YouTube subscribers. To me, the most relevant tranche of this to people like us, is this Cambrian explosion in the number of public figures. And the blurring of the lines between private individuals and public figures. Because of the internet, because of Twitch streamers, and Instagram influencers, and YouTubers, you have this massive tranche of people who have all of the exposure and the risk and the burden of being a public figure. But a lot of them don't actually have the resources to deal with that.
Sarah: 22,000, look this up as the population of Middletown, Delaware. So what if there was just the town in Delaware that was all big YouTubers?
Mike: That's LA basically.
Sarah: Oh yeah.
Mike: We already have that.
Sarah: But it's not in Delaware yet. One of the things that we talk about a lot on this show, and that I think is really apparently consistently relevant to how human beings assimilate information, is we will have a term like ‘cancel culture’, or ‘human trafficking’, or ‘hipster’ back in the day, and people will walk around with a fairly specific idea in their head of what that is. And then they'll encounter that word and they'll be like, I know what that word means. And really that word means like at least 25 things. And it's just hard to clarify in a public conversation or like a breaking news item of some kind or another, what iteration of that word, are we using here?
Mike: Yeah, exactly. I think the perfect parallel to the cancel culture panic is human trafficking, where we have this term that refers to arranged marriages. It refers to undocumented immigrants who are working in bad working conditions. It refers to children being kidnapped and murdered. If you want to actually address or understand any of the components of that problem, lumping them all together doesn't really help you.
Sarah: Right. And there's like different human rights violations happening, and each of them deserves to be addressed individually. And also, and then I would say the parallel continues because the far right was like, “Okay, yeah, it can be all those things. And that's already confusing and we're going to make stuff up that has never happened. And then we're going to say that's what that phrase means.” And it's what? Like we're already having a hard time.
Mike: We're sort of engaged in this like years long debate now of, is cancel culture real, it's fake, it's real. It's this completely asinine binary because it entirely depends on the definition. But so in the interest of trying to untangle all of this vast array of definitions and good and bad faith, I am actually going to try for this entire episode to not use the word ‘cancel’.
Mike: I don't actually think it's a useful way to look at this. I think most of what we're actually talking about in the cancel culture panic is things that we already have terms for. Like perfectly reasonable terms for like people being fired ,or like people being criticized widely. I just think it's actually very easy to talk about all of the phenomena within cancel culture, all of the anxieties underneath it without actually using the term. And if it's that easy to talk about it without using the term, then what do we actually need the term for? So Sarah, do you have a definition of ‘cancel culture’ or canceling?
Sarah: Oh God. So when I think about the part of what all gets lumped under ‘cancel culture’ that I personally find worrying, not just because I fear it, but because I feel like it's not helpful to us where we're at as a country. And Natalie Wynn described this in her interview and on the media and also in her video canceling, is basically the process by which you make some kind of, you speak insensitively or in a way that people read as insensitive, or you make a genuine mistake which you then attempt to apologize for or some kind of relatively small misstep. And then people get excited, and people decide that like this misstep is proof of your true nature, you don't deserve to be contributing to the discourse. And everyone has to disvalue your work, it can no longer be consumed. Like everything you do is now free to the poison tree. Like I think that is what we talk about to some extent, when we talk about cancel culture, I think that is a more specific thing that we can find better language for.
Mike: Absolutely. And I think that's what we're going to end up doing for the rest of this episode is talking about how we got here, and then trying to break up this term into more manageable pieces.
Sarah: Let's split this atom and see what's inside of it.
Mike: Yes, let’s. So I realized this is like a very middle school essay thing to do. The Merriam Webster definition of cancel is, “canceling and cancel culture has to do with the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinion.” Which I think is a pretty good definition.
And the Fox News definition is, “when individuals or groups are removed from platforms or lose their livelihoods because their opinions are deemed the offensive.”
Sarah: Hmm, that use of the passive voice is the first thing that snags for me.
Mike: And also, ‘deemed offensive’ is an interesting phrase because that's coded as ‘left’.
Sarah: Yes. Because who finds things offensive?
Sarah: The right just finds things dangerous.
Mike: Or seditious, or not supporting the troops, or whatever. So you probably already know this, the word first appears in a 1981 Chic song. It's a disco song.
Sarah: Our old friend, Nile.
Mike: Yes, Nile. It's called, Your Love Is Canceled. It seems like one of those words that probably even before the song, was just floating around the black community. like it was used. And then throughout the decades, it pops its head above the parapet and shows up in various places in pop culture. So in 1991, it shows up in the movie, New Jack City, where there's a drug dealer and he says, “Cancel that bitch.”
Sarah: Oh, so everyone stopped following her on Twitter.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. In 2005, 50 Cent uses it in a song, in 2010 Lil’ Wayne uses it in a song. It appears that the sort of the modern resurgence of ‘cancel’ as a commonly used verb comes from a 2014 episode of the show, Love and Hip Hop New York, which is this VH1 reality show. And a man and a woman are fighting, and she says things that he doesn't like, and he gets up from the table and he says, “You’re canceled.”
Sarah: What that first makes me think of is Michael Corleone in The Godfather to being like, “You're dead to me, Fredo. You're not a brother. You're not a friend.” It's interesting that it starts relationally.
Mike: Yeah. This is really interesting to me too, is that it's withdrawing support for someone who, you know, and who you have a pre-existing relationship with.
Sarah: Or not even support, but like interest. You're like, this relationship is canceled. Like you're canceled in my life. Like I will not be having reruns of you.
Mike: Yes, exactly. I just want to stop here and read something from this really excellent piece from Clyde McGrady in the Washington Post. I think it's like a longstanding frustration that sort of like normal-ass terms that go around the black community and have been around for ages, ended up getting scooped up and get totally demagogued.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. And we move in, and we ruin them and render them useless, and then we go gentrify another word once we're done.
Mike: So this is from climate McGrady's piece, “Terms, such as ‘lit’ and ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek’, or if you're a little older ‘fly’ and ‘funky’ and ‘uptight’, have been mined by white people for their proximity to black cool. The word ‘cool’ itself emerged from black culture. I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, James Baldwin wrote in 1979, but they would not sound the way they sound with ‘cancelled’ and ‘woke’. There's a twist. Not only have these words been appropriated from black culture, they have been weaponized to sneer at the values of many young black liberals.” I mean, this is really the trajectory of what has happened with this poor word.
Sarah: Yeah. I'm picturing it like Oliver and Company now.
Mike: I know.
Sarah: Little canceled.
Mike: So basically, I have tried to piece this together from old posts and various academic articles and things that I was able to find on Twitter. I'm not going to say that this is like the definitive account, but to me there are three milestones on the road to cancel culture becoming the moral panic term that it is now.
The first milestone is the emergence of call-out culture, which I'm sure you remember that phrase.
Sarah: I know that phrase, but I couldn't say when it appeared or when people started talking about it or why.
Mike: It's basically the same as the way that we use cancel culture. Now the term basically shifted in 2018. We'll talk about it.
Sarah: Yeah, you're right. God. It's like when they remodel a McDonald's, and you can't remember what the old McDonald's looked like because he never really looked at it, you were just always inside of it.
Mike: So two of the people who I interviewed for this, one is Meredith Clark, who's a University of Virginia professor who's working on a book about Black Twitter. I also interviewed Alyssa Richardson, who's a journalism professor at USC, and she is working on a book about cancel culture.
Both of them mentioned that there's a lot of analog antecedents to members of marginalized communities doing call-outs. In the 1970s you would have black feminists who would make pamphlets and distribute them, about how white feminists were ignoring their concerns.
Sarah: Which they were.
Mike: Yes, this is a tool that has been used by marginalized populations throughout time. Because oftentimes you're not in the rooms where decisions are happening, so your only option is to go public.
Sarah: You use what you have. And one of the options when you don't have the choice of appealing to legitimized power structures that you don't have access to, is just to call on the public in the hopes that like quantity will be the forest that you need in this case, I think.
Mike: Yeah. So the first instance I could find of the word cancel being used as like a main rallying point for one of these campaigns is in 2014. Do you remember Stephen Colbert used to be doing a bit, he would be like satirizing Bill O'Reilly for years.
Sarah: Yeah. And you couldn't do it now, but you could do it 10 years ago or whenever the hell that was.
Mike: Yeah. Speaking of things you couldn't do now from the sort of official Colbert Report Twitter account, they send out a tweet - get ready, this is terrible - it says, “I'm willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” It's clearly satirical, but it's also, just don't do that.
Sarah: I feel like the closest comparison I can think of in like the structure of that joke, is to like whip your hand towards someone as if to slap them and then stop at the last second. And be like, I didn't hit you, and it's, yeah, but you really did a good impression of hitting me. So like you can't really fault someone for feeling all of the adrenaline of an oncoming slap.
Mike: Just after he sends this tweet, there's a woman named Suey Park who sees this tweet and she tweets, “The Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #cancelColbert”.
Both Alissa Richardson and Meredith Clark said that hashtags are a really important structural component for Twitter that makes it easier for marginalized groups to be seen by people in power. Because all of a sudden, you have this giant swarm of people all using the same message, and it shows up on the trending.
Sarah: It's like the part in Newsies where Jack goes to talk to Mr. Pulitzer, and he's like, “Look at all those kids out there. And they're all yelling at you.” And it works.
Mike: A really important structural element that starts to appear at this time, is that as more people start using this #cancelColbert hashtag, news outlets start writing about it. So there's an article in The Nation, there's an article in the Wall Street Journal. Suey Park is actually asked on TV, she gives interviews on TV, about why she started this hashtag. And so it's not only that Twitter becomes an organizing space, it's also that mainstream journalists are seeing these conversations happen. They're sort of now a pretty well-established genre of story on HuffPost, Buzzfeed, that basically people on Twitter are mad about whatever.
Sarah: And do you know why that is? It's because you wake up in the morning as an editor and you have to get a certain number of pieces on your website every day.
Sarah: Because you have to keep showing people ads about the one vegetable that this doctor says you should never eat if you want to live to be 97.
Mike: Yeah. I don't blame journalists for this. Like these are the incentives of digital journalism. Even if you're like the 90% of Americans who have nothing to do with Twitter, you're seeing these stories that are essentially just a compilation of what is happening on Twitter.
Sarah: And just the whole, the economy of online journalism, it's incredibly focused on clicks. And A.) writer's hardly ever got to pick their own headlines. I only ever got to pick one headline of anything I ever wrote, and it was a travelogue to Graceland that I called “Elvis, himselvis.” And B.) stories don't get written because a writer is sure that this story is important. Stories get written because a writer needs to make $300.
Mike: Yes, exactly. Yes. I also think another really important aspect in this particular controversy is that after a couple of days of this becoming this big thing and becoming controversial, Suey Park starts getting death threats, and eventually she gets doxed, and she has to leave Chicago.
Another sort of thing that I think is really important to keep in mind. For all of this cancel culture nonsense whatever, is that it's never just one thing happens and then it's over. It's always like a process and there's always echoes of these online mobs that affect everybody involved. She talks about how she went to stay with friends in New York after her address got leaked. And then they're out at a bar and there's other people in this bar taking photos of her and following her around. And she said sort of since that, ”I didn't actually want to cancel the TV show.”
It's also partly a function of the medium, right? Twitter is for just like idle bitching right here. Like you’ve got five minutes in the grocery store line, you see some dumb thing and you're like, oh, this is bullshit. You're not necessarily like starting a nationwide campaign to actually cancel a TV show over a single tweet.
Sarah: That tweet, it was important that someone say it. Like the fact that she faced such incredible and terrifying backlash for being like, “That's racist.” Because it was.
What's also hard is that a lot of people just never have a trending tweet. And I think that there is like on the part of people who have never been the focus of that kind of attention, it looks really cool. Like even if it's scary, you're like, everyone wants attention. We like to imagine that if a bank of people are all paying attention to you and not explicitly all trying to kill you at once, then like, there must be some kind of value add to your life. There must be a sense of, I'm empowered by this. And it's, no. Like people can't control how liked, or retweeted, or engaged with, a tweet is. There are little ways that people try and do it, but there's a reason why ‘influencer’ is still a real job that takes work and skill. And one of them is that it's not innate to know how to get attention or to know what to do with it. In fact, it's very hard. And I think more often than not, it just crashes into people's lives like a comet.
Mike: Another really important sort of hashtag campaign that happens the year later. Do you remember in 2015, Oscar's So White.
Sarah: I do remember this. Yeah. I remember that being something that was getting attention in the non-Twitter sphere.
Mike: Both Meredith Clark and Alyssa Richardson mentioned this as a demonstration of the way that Twitter was changing the way that minority groups interact with the rest of the culture.
So in 2015, the Oscars as they always do, they announce all of the nominees. That year, all of the acting nominees, all I believe 20 were white people. So there's a woman named April Rain, who is not like a famous person. She's a campaign finance lawyer, but she happens to be a relatively prominent person on black Twitter. At the time she is watching this on TV getting her kids ready for school and she just tweets out, “Oscar's so white they asked to touch my hair.” And this becomes like a meme. Other people start iterating on. So they use “#OscarsSoWhite they have a perfect credit score”. “#OscarsSoWhite they wear Birkenstocks in the winter.”
Sarah: Okay. As someone who literally has been wearing Birkenstocks with socks around for like the past week, yes, that is a real burn, and it is true.
Mike: See, this is our culture. Yes.
Sarah: I accept.
Mike: Once this became this meme and became this thing that people were iterating off of, a really fascinating thing happened that prominent, actual filmmakers, started using this hashtag. So spike Lee was tweeting about it. And interestingly, Ava DuVernay, whose movie Selma was not nominated for the acting nominees.
Sarah: Oh my God. Oh.
Mike: She was tweeting about it. It's this fascinating thing where it's like a sort of an argument, or a meme, or a take, can bubble up from the bottom and actually end up at the top.
Sarah: Yes. And in a way that's necessary because the Oscars have been making terrible choices for my whole life and have continued to do so afterwards. Green Book.
Mike: That's what Alyssa Richardson mentioned to me. She calls the social listening that what specifically Twitter did, was it basically allowed groups to organize in a way that they could be heard by journalists, by mainstream journalists.
Sarah: And by the Oscars, even.
Mike: Exactly. And what she said was, of course this is not the first year that the Oscars were super white, and this was not the first year that black people were mad about it. But in previous eras, what you would have had is you would have had this sort of one-to-one communication, right? That the Oscars broadcasts their nominees, and then you can sit down and write a letter that says your nominees are bullshit.
Sarah: And they’ll be like, whatever, I don't even watch these movies
Mike: As a letter writer, you have no way of knowing if 25,000 other people are writing exactly the same letter, right? You have no way of organizing all of that anger. Whereas what starts to happen on Twitter, Twitter is a many to many medium. So you can actually see in the replies to the Oscars perfunctory, ‘here's the nominees’. You can see dozens of black people being like, this is bullshit, this is bullshit. And you're like, oh, everybody's pissed off about this. And very importantly, it allows journalists to see them.
Sarah: And there's something important about the anger of a marginalized group being deemed newsworthy. And the fact that it's easier for that to happen now.
Mike: Yes. And they're also able to affect the actual institutions involved. So another thing that Alyssa Richardson said was that, public figures, massive celebrities, big institutions, they've always been judged on moral norms. But typically those norms would have been the norms of their peers. If you're a movie star, you're being judged by other movie stars, or Hollywood studios or whatever. But what social media was able to do was shift the moral norms to their audience. Like all of a sudden, they were accountable to their audience, and their audience was more visible to them.
It's never useful to talk about technology as like a good thing or a bad thing. It's oftentimes just a shift that includes both things. And I think that what we see with social media, especially with Twitter, is that it makes it very easy for a vocal minority to make themselves visible. And sometimes that vocal minority is black people with genuine concerns about the Oscars being shitty. And sometimes that vocal minority is a bunch of fucking Nazis that go after a female journalist.
Again, this is another reason why cancel culture is the wrong way to look at this, is we have a platform that allows small groups to make themselves seen. That's what's really going on. And sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad.
The second milestone on the way to cancel culture becoming a moral panic, is the 2015 release of So You've Been Publicly Shamed.
Sarah: I have not read it. I think it has a pretty pink cover and I liked that they did that.
Mike: Yes. It's adorable. So this is a book by Jon Ronson. That is basically a series of case studies of people who've been publicly shamed. The main thing that travels from the book and is featured in a bunch of magazine articles and excerpts. Like the main thing that comes out of this book is the story of Justine Sacco. Do you remember this?
Mike: This was in 2013. Can you walk us through what happened?
Sarah: Okay. So Justine Sacco, who was a PR person, was on a plane to South Africa and she tweeted something like, “Going to South Africa, hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding, I'm white.”
Mike: Wow. That was it word for word, Sarah.
Sarah: It's a pretty short tweet. She tweeted this and then her plane took off, and she apparently didn't want to spend $9 for oingo boingo in-flight wifi or whatever they call it. And then it started trending, and it trended for 12 hours before she landed. And I feel like that's really integral to that.
Mike: There's also, you can't overestimate like how big it was, right? It was the number one trending topic worldwide. Her job fired her very quickly. And somebody went to the Cape Town Airport to film her opening her phone. Part of the reason I do think that part of the reason this got so big, was this uniquely hilarious thing that she tweets this indefensibly racist joke and then gets on an airplane where she can't see what the internet is saying about her for 11 hours. Like the main hashtag was, #hasJustinelandedyet? And I think like the comedy of like somebody who there's this giant firestorm around them on the internet, but they are on an airplane, and they can't see any of it, is just inherently funny. If it didn't have that structure, I don't think it would have been that big if she just said it while she was like waiting at a red light and then everybody yelled at her, and she was like sorry and she deleted it. It never would have gotten to the scale that it was at. I think Justine's joke was really bad, but I also think that the response to it was wildly disproportionate.
Sarah: Well I feel like you can recognize something as like inappropriate and bad, and also recognizably a joke. You're like, eh, I wouldn't do that buddy. But yeah. I recognize the structure of a joke when I see it.
Mike: Yes, exactly.
Sarah: I feel comfortable saying regardless of the intent behind it, like that scale of a response is because something that I don't think that a person deserves for remark, unless it is like overtly, intentionally, agenda-fully hateful. And I can't think of anyone who used Twitter to do that for years and years, without any significant pushback by the platform.
Mike: And what's actually totally amazing to me, is that the reason this became so big is that there's a writer for Gawker who somehow noticed this tweet and was like, “Hey, look at this lady saying this dumb thing”, and then it exploded.
What's amazing is you can find somebody with 170 followers saying this earnestly. I am 100% sure that you could have found somebody at the time, just like straightforwardly saying, “I hope everybody in Africa dies of AIDS”. There's really odious people online.
Sarah: So why is it that's less compelling? What's that about?
Mike: This to me is it's something fascinating about specific dynamics of Twitter, that sort of smugness is much easier to blow up than actual wrongdoing, right? Because it would seem like if there's some random guy who's just like, “I hate black people in Africa and I hope they all die.” It would be like, what's the news there. There's nothing. There's nothing hypocritical about that. Whereas with Justine Sacco, it was like her smugness or oh, she's congratulating herself for being so woke, but she's not.
Sarah: Okay. So I was just rereading Carrie, and that book opens famously with Carrie getting her first period in the school showers, not knowing what it is. And the other girls, like being kind of shocked, like starting to advance on her and throw Tampax and pads at her and chant, “plug it up, plug it up”. I think that bullying is part of our nature as pack animals. Like humans are pack animals. We like to feel comfortable that we're a member of the herd, and it is part of our identity as being so if we see someone who is shameful, it feels good to shame them. And it only feels good if they react. If you go after someone who's just a racist, and if you're a racist, we'll be like, “you're a snowflake”, and then go on with their day. Then it doesn't compare to throwing a tampon at someone does it.
Mike: Also, we feel the need to police the norms of groups that we belong to. Those are the waters that I'm swimming in. Those are the people that I see. Those are the people that I feel like I can influence.
Sarah: Those are the people you feel represented by also. So you don't want someone going out and like by proxy making you look like a dick wheel.
Mike: It is really remarkable to me how many of these “cancellations” are just fucking Twitter. It's like these specific dynamics of Twitter. It's not cancel culture, like Americans are different now than they used to be. It's not like the left is more punitive, or censorious, or less capable of nuance than we used to be. It's fucking Twitter. Twitter incentivizes people to collapse, nuance, to gang up on people, to take people out of context, to save their ten-year old utterances as if they are canonical. It is very notable to me that people do not really get canceled on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat.
Sarah: Yeah. But like Twitter is like the Texas panhandle, in terms of like hospitability for fire. And Instagram is like, yeah, you can start a fire there, but it's not like perfectly primed to start fires if you have one errant cigarette butt out of window.
Sarah: Take this with a salt bay size sprinkling of salt, because I'm just quoting like something I read in National Geographic 15 years ago. Throughout time, you can consistently find people and remains of civilizations where people were living in groups of about 200. Because 200 seems to be, if not the number were evolved for, then a number we do really well at. Because there's enough people where the genetic pool doesn't get compromised, I assume. And you don't feel like you know everyone super well, but I think we're able to maintain maybe 10 close friendships, something like that.
But these people aren't strangers either. On a fundamental level, I think all of us all the time are punching way above our weight in terms of the beings that we evolve to be. I want us to give ourselves credit for how hard what we're asking ourselves to do is.
Mike: Oh yeah. And this to me is the fundamental paradox, is that very little of the American population is on Twitter. It's only one in five Americans has a Twitter account, and of those, the median user of Twitter sends two tweets a month.
Sarah: And they have 33 followers, I bet.
Mike: Yeah. And a lot of people don't tweet about politics, they tweet about sports ,or they tweet about music, or they tweet about D&D. There's other studies that show that 80% of the tweets are sent by 10% of the users. It's a tiny percent of the U.S. population, but it's a vast percent of the American journalism apparatus.
Sarah: It sure is Mike, because none of us have any job security. And we’ve replaces it with Twitter.
Mike: And also, and this is like from a purely self-interested perspective, like this is where the editors are.
Sarah: Yeah. And this is how you get people to approach you and be like, “It seems like you really love Jigsaw”. And you can be like, “I really do.”
Mike: Exactly. A lot of people get messages on Twitter being like, “Can you expand this tweet into a op-ed? Can you expand this Twitter thread into a piece for us?” It's this place where the cultural consensus is forming, and it's a place that is perfectly designed to take things out of context, to blame you for things you didn't say to have a mob go after you.
So to me, it's one of my central beefs with this entire cancel culture thing is the word ‘culture’. Like nothing has changed in America. You can look at public polling data, you can look at all kinds of actual population-level surveys that show that most people are actually really uncomfortable with people being fired for old tweets. There's no evidence that Americans are less capable of nuance or more punitive than they used to be. It's just all of the nation’s journalists spend time on this platform.
Sarah: Yeah. And then if you're an op-ed columnist or just any kind of a journalist or trying to be a public figure, and therefore tell people what you think the temperature of the country is, and if you are feeling attacked for whatever reason, then you will be like, “Oh my God, Americans just want to attack everyone all the time.” And it's funny because I'm like, this is cause for concern. I am scared. I want to protect my hurtable feelings. I am doing my best and I'm trying, but I want people to approach me in a way that implies they want me to learn and get better, and not that they want me to shut the fuck up. I think that people take that feeling way too far. And I think that a lot of them work for the New York Times op ed section.
Mike: Exactly a lot of this really does come down to people feeling attacked ,and casting that or perceiving that as a national crisis. And I think that conversation by definition is being led by public figures. Like it's being led by people like us who have a podcast ,or people who write for national outlets, or people who work on YouTube. When actually, the vast majority of Americans aren't public figures.
Sarah: But there are 22,000 YouTubers with a million subscribers or more. Which probably means that there's more people who are as a job YouTubers than there are coal miners in this country.
It does stress me out that like becoming a public figure of some kind, to some kind of audience online, is one of the more viable economic options available to young people now. And that's one of the things that they have to deal with.
Mike: Absolutely. You know, most moral panics have some nugget of truth at the center of them. And I think the nugget of this one is that it is a lot harder to be a public figure than it used to be. The expectations of celebrities have completely changed. We now have expectations of access, expectations of authenticity, people are forming these para-social relationships with the YouTuber whose video they watch or whoever.
And that's this double-edged sword where there's this extra access, there's this extra level of intimacy. But that intimacy can sour really quickly. And the same platforms, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, where you're supposed to form this intimacy, are also the platforms where the intimacy can turn on you.
Sarah: You learn how to communicate in the forum that you're in. And I think that's part of it, too.
Mike: That's true. Yeah.
Sarah: I don't know. I think it's good that I can have a larger conversation with people I don't know personally about that. But I don't think that like every conversation has to happen in that forum. And I think lately we feel like they do, and often they really do because we're all alone.
Mike: Yeah. The fact that we're all trapped inside, and that the world has gotten this unprecedented injection of anxiety is not helping. But I also think that sort of understanding these dynamics and being anxious about them is actually a pretty new thing.
When I was looking back at early understandings of the dynamics of online abuse, most of the anxieties for the first like 10, 15 years of the internet were around cyber bullying. This idea of sort of teenagers texting each other with abuse, or like setting up a mean Facebook group dedicated to hating somebody. But this idea of a normal person being plucked out of obscurity, and then mobbed by thousands of people on Twitter, this stuff wasn't really very well known until 2014, 2015. And Justine Sacco kind of became this like totemic example of what could happen to anyone. This idea that we're all one tweet away from losing our jobs.
And I've always been kind of annoyed at the centrality of the Justine Sacco story, to kind of the rise of cancel culture. Like whenever you watch a sort of cancel culture documentary, or somebody talking about like the origin of the term, there's always like the Justine Sacco section. And there's two reasons why it's always bugged me.
The first is that it isn't actually happening that much. It isn't actually something that's all that common. I actually interviewed a labor lawyer about this, a guy named Alex who's worked for civil rights commissions in a couple of states. He said that he's worked on something like 550 cases throughout his career. He's seen two where social media was involved at all. Most employers don't monitor employee's social media accounts in any concerted way, because that would be an insane use of their time. Most companies have hundreds, thousands of employees, they're not going to hire people to look over what are they posting on Instagram? It makes no sense. And when social media is involved in somebody being fired, it's almost always something like somebody adds their boss on Facebook, they forget that they did that, they call in sick on a Wednesday, and then they post on Facebook, “Hey, I just ran 10k” or something like that. Like it's directly related to work.
What's amazing is there's actually a lot of extremely unfair reasons that people are fired in America all the time. And social media posts, social media mobs is like not in the top 10 or the top 20. And of course there have been Justine Sacco-style cases where these huge internet mobs form, and people are bombarding an employer with emails, and eventually the employer caves and fires their employee. But there's no iceberg of those underneath the surface when there's an internet mob as large as Justin Saccos. or even like a fraction of that large. People notice, journalists notice, because journalists are on fucking Twitter all the time.
It reminds me of the kidnappings during the stranger danger panic, where the sort of the meta narrative that we were getting was it hundreds of thousands of children were disappearing and being murdered and we weren't hearing about it, right? That the media wasn't reporting on it, when in fact, small children being kidnapped and murdered by strangers is a story almost every time it happens. And I think it's the same thing here where it's like internet mobs getting people fired is rare enough that this becomes a thing almost every time it happens.
Sarah: Right. I feel like the kind of conservative take on cancel culture is, we have no way of knowing how many thousands of people are fired by Twitter mobs every day. And it's like, no, we know. The main thing Twitter is good for is preserving every single fucking thing that happens or doesn't happen on there.
Mike: Yes, there's a fossil record f like everyone who's ever shouted at you. And this is actually one of the other reasons why ‘this could happen to anyone, everybody needs to be worried about this’ narrative bugs me so much. Is that if you look at the kinds of people that are actually facing online harassment, the people that are actually losing their jobs and being hounded off the internet, it is almost always women and people of color.
Sarah: I was reminiscing yesterday about a curvy wife guy. Do you remember this?
Mike: Oh my God, yeah.
Sarah: The guy who was like, “I love my curvy wife.” “I love my dead, gay son.” He wrote this thing that was like, “I love my curvy wife, like she's unconventionally attractive”. And then there was a picture of her and she's just like super-hot. Essentially what the internet decided was that he was asking to receive approval for being attracted to his hot white.
Mike: Yes, exactly. Like look at what my wife is. And also, I’m a good person for being attracted to my hot wife.
Sarah: Yeah. Which, none of you jokers are. And then everyone just made fun of him for several days. And I'm sure that sucked for him, or maybe it didn't. I don’t know. But I don't recall that being a conversation that was like, “He has to apologize. Let's find his employer.” You don't see this happening to adult men on the internet the way you see it happening to most other people.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. There isn't a sense of like punishment. Yeah.
Sarah: I do feel just the way that power functions on the internet, like it's able to do new things because of technology, but it's still power cutting across the lines that we have and within the society that we bring.
Mike: Exactly. That technology. Yeah. That's a good way to put it. So that's the second milestone basically, there's just this sort of bubbling anxiety about like normal people can get targeted by mobs.
The third milestone is the ‘Me Too’ movement. Everyone knows this story already, but just the broad outline. The phrase ‘Me Too’, was coined by a woman named Tarana Burke, who was a community organizer and sort of racial justice advocate. She started using the phrase in the 1990s, basically because she noticed that all of the women that she was working with on like various other unrelated issues had all experienced sexual abuse. And she started using the phrase, “Me Too”, as a way to build solidarity between survivors of abuse. Like we've all gone through this, this is a common thread that links us. And so she started an NGO in 2006 whose sort of tagline slogan was, Me Too”. There weren't hashtags then, but this was a phrase that went around MySpace.
Sarah: Oh, really?
Mike: Yeah. It was like a thing. But I think this was like before we had like news feeds and stuff. So it was just like on people's profiles, but there was no way to organize those thoughts.
Sarah: It's so weird. It's like watching, it's like evolution. It's like watching a single celled organism l slowly evolve into something bigger as the primordial soup gets less hostile towards.
Mike: And also such an example of like how these structural elements of these online platforms are like very important for what gets discussed and like the views of reality that we come to hold.
And so of course the phrase re-emerged in 2017 on October 5th, we have the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the first New York Times article comes out 10 days later. The actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted, write #metoo as a reply to this tweet.” I remember this week on the internet.
Sarah: Yeah. I have a very clear memory of that. I remember I was in mid to late October in Texas doing some reporting and was just kind of stressed out and exhausted at the end of the day. And I like went to a Whole Foods, because I find the cafeteria of a Whole Foods very soothing. That's when I remember reading about the whole Weinstein saga.
That story in itself I think was also unprecedented because some things stuck. But also it was so clear to me that like he was operating in a culture where of course you go into being a producer because you can assault all the young actors as you want, and basically it's fine. And I remember his defense was like, “It was the seventies”. And you're like, I know everyone now is able to say that makes no sense, but 20 years ago you could have said that and probably it would have worked out. And then the kind of #metoo hashtag turned movement, they felt like two hands ripping apart the fabric of the universe at that moment in a really great way.
Mike: And one of the things I can't get over is, I started looking into a bunch of timelines of this, and within a month you had accusations against 200 people. Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., Al Franken. It all happens in this extremely short amount of time.
Sarah: This reminds me of one of my favorite things we talked about on this show on a very early episode where we discussed Francine Hughes, the burning bed, the concept of battered woman syndrome, and basically this weird cultural moment and kind of the late seventies, early eighties, where a couple of women in relatively high profile cases had received what the public deemed to be rather lenient sentences for killing their abusive husbands. And over and over again, you began to hear in editorials and speeches the phrase, ‘open season’, it's going to be ‘open season’ on men. Okay, do you think that all men deserve to be murdered, or do you think that all women are murderers? Which is it? It's got to be one. And I feel like we have something similar in the moment of ‘Me Too’, this idea of yeah, please take this ball and run with it.
Mike: This entire episode is sort of a biography of the anxieties underneath the cancel culture moral panic. My, I'm sure, inaccurate memory was it like 10 minutes after we found out about Harvey Weinstein and we like gave a name to the ‘Me Too’ movement. We started getting these “Has the ‘Me Too’ movement gone too far” articles. Immediate explosion of anxiety among, especially men, but everybody at the head of any of these institutions that they can come after anyone, and they can ruin your career and these huge consequences.
And my impression from going back and reading a bunch of these old articles, is that we got the re-emergence of almost exactly the same discourse that we had around date rape in the 1990s. This idea that sort of the feminists are coming for you, and they are not subject to any reason whatsoever.
We have, Caitlin Flanagan who says in the Atlantic that the ‘Me Too’ movement covers everything from rape to bad dates. She says, “Apparently there's a whole country full of young women who don't know how to call a cab. They're angry and temporarily powerful. And last night they destroyed a man who didn't deserve it.”
Sarah: This was in response to the Aziz Ansari article.
Mike: Yeah. You knew where I was going with this. This, I think looking back, this was actually a huge linchpin. Because the Aziz Ansari allegations were the case that the ‘Me Too’ fretters were waiting for. They were waiting for something that they could pin this, “Me Too has gone too far” argument on. And as soon as that happened, you had dozens of articles saying, “Whoops, that's the one. Let's shut this whole thing down.”
Sarah: Right. It's like when you're throwing a party with someone who really doesn't want to have a party, and then someone double dips a pretzel and they're like “Okay, everybody out, we can't have a party anymore. It's gone too far.”
Mike: This is me at every party. I'm like, “Oh, somebody is a vegetarian. We better just cancel the whole party, it’s too hard.” Like any excuse, but yeah.
Sarah: Can you take us through this narrative, because I think we need to hear this story.
Mike: Okay. A couple months after the Weinstein allegations and this avalanche of other dudes going down, we get an allegation in babe.net by a woman named “Grace”, that's a pseudonym, who met the actor Aziz Ansari at a party. And they were flirty and chatty and fun, and they were texting, and he invites her to dinner, and they go to dinner and it's fine. And then they go back to his house and according to her, he has denied all of this, as soon as they walk into his house, he starts like making out with her. He sits her up on the kitchen counter. He starts just like going very fast in a way that she's uncomfortable with. And she semi sort of goes along with it, but at two different points, she tells him to stop.
So after they do various, like making out foreplay stuff for a while, she goes to the bathroom, stays there for five minutes, comes back out and is like, “Hey, can we just slow down? I don't know if I want to do everything tonight.” And he's like, “Yeah, of course.” And then they sit down and then he starts making a move on her again. He goes down on her at various points. She goes down on him at various points, that sort of as far as it goes. And then again, she's like, “Can we please just stop? I really don't want to go this far. Let's put our clothes back on and watch TV.”
And so they sit there, and they watch TV. And again, he starts initiating this again. And for the third time she's, “I'm really uncomfortable.” And eventually she just says, “I'm leaving”, he calls her an Uber, she goes home.
The thing that frustrated me about it was that as soon as it comes out, we get this massive wave of articles that basically say we can't conflate what Harvey Weinstein did with what Aziz Ansari did.
Sarah: It's like, well who was doing that, though?
Mike: No one was doing that. If you read what actual feminist, like prominent feminist commentators were saying at the time, they were all insisting. They were like, this is not the same as what Harvey Weinstein did. This is also bad, but they are different levels of bad. And no one was actually doing the thing that like dozens of articles immediately started scolding people.
Sarah: So I haven’t read this article since it came out, but I followed it closely at the time. And what I went to me was the takeaway from it was that the publication and the journalist hadn't adequately protected their source. Because I think the article does position it as this is part of the cultural wave we're having now and look at this fucking guy.
And I think that something that a lot of people suspected was part of the editorial process for that story, and I think also helped create the response that people ultimately had, was that this website that nobody had really heard of had perhaps cynically seized on this cultural moment to try and come out with a blockbuster allegation against someone important. And if that's the case, then that is a flaw in journalism. Yeah. That's a problem with an industry. That's not a problem with a movement.
I think the way that the Caitlin Flanagan article, and others like it, that responded to this piece with the idea of it's so terrible that these young women expect to not be attacked all day. It's no, it's not. I want people not be attacked on dates. I want young people to be able to go on dates, especially with famous people. I want them to enter situations where their affirmative consent and they're excited consent is expected by someone.
This whole concept of sex being treated like you have stolen something that belongs to someone and they're going to take it back from you tonight, it's not good. And I think that we could have had a much better conversation about why older women were scolding younger women for not wanting to have dates like that.
Mike: Yeah. It's also one of the first appearances of this sort of panicky aspect of the cancel culture panic, where Flanagan says in her piece that this woman had destroyed Aziz Ansari. You've destroyed this man.
Sarah: Okay. We let's see how things play out, Caitlyn.
Mike: Yeah. As many people have pointed out Aziz Ansari was, I believe, the top paid stand-up comedian in 2018. The year after this allegation came out, his TV show was renewed. He continues to do stand-up. I do think that it's worth taking seriously the fact that this did materially affect his reputation. You can't act like it had no effect, just because it didn't seem to affect his finances it didn't affect him at all. Of course it did. But what in these articles is this constant invocation of you've destroyed this man's career, and that's just not true.
Sarah: This is the kind of verbiage that you hear in families that want to hush up child abuse or institutions that want to hush up child abuse. It feels like putting someone in a position like familially. Or like at a university, say you're sexually assaulted by someone who's about to get the big football scholarship. And it's you could tell that you could come forward about what Chad did to you, but you'd be ruining his entire future, do you really want that? And it's, don't put people in that position. Like as a society, it is our job to have more speeds than nothing and the life destroyed.
Mike: So we get a Bari Weiss column in the New York Times called, Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader. And it says, “Yes, Mr. Ansari is a wealthy celebrity with a Netflix show. But he had no actual power over the woman professionally or otherwise. And lumping him in with the same movement that brought down men who ran movie studios and forced themselves on actresses, or the factory floor supervisors who demanded sex from female workers, trivializes what me too first stood for.”
Sarah: Well you know, when a guy takes you to his house, that's a power differential. When a guy is a guy, that's a power differential. When someone's famous, when someone's rich. I'm so sick of it. I was so sick of this at the time, this idea of “don't complain, little lady, cause other people have it worse, and we can only talk about that right now.” It's like, okay. And it really, to me, is demeaning to the whole long lasting concept of ‘Me Too’, which was not invented to describe film magnates.
Mike: You immediately have this idea that because Harvey Weinstein, because Aziz Ansari, because Kevin Spacey, anybody can accuse their boss of sexual harassment, and that guy will be taken down by the media. And it's that's not how it works.
Sarah: Yeah. The media doesn't care about Kevin.
Mike: Exactly. If you're a low wage worker at a Wendy's and your boss is like a fucking creep who's groping you, and you go to the local newspaper about that, they're not going to write about it. There's not going to be a Twitter hashtag because no one has heard of Kevin.
Sarah: It implies a very sweet worldview to believe that consequences anywhere mean consequences everywhere. Which they don't.
Mike: So there’s an op-ed by Margaret Atwood, a kind of infamous op-ed now. She says, “The ‘Me Too’ movement is a symptom of a broken the legal system.”
Sarah: Margaret you're Canadian!
Mike: Women and other sexual abuse complainants couldn't get a fair hearing through institutions, including corporate structures, so they used a new tool, the internet. This has been very effective and has been seen as a massive wake-up call. But what next, if the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? In times of extremes, extremists win.
Sarah: I feel like this is just Margaret Atwood writing a column that she could have just written in one sentence. And that sentence was, “I feel old.”
Mike: I know, I think this is a really important aspect of the current cancer culture, panic. This idea that there's like a mob right at the gates. They have no sense of proportion, they have no understanding of evidence, and they can go after anybody at any time. That becomes the construction that eventually becomes cancel culture.
Sarah: We don't like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us. This monster is mysterious suddenly.
Mike: I know, I was hoping you were going to do that.
Mike: I had the animated, like I had that scene in my head while I was heading out. I wanted you to bring Gaston into this.
Sarah: And every last thing should be covered with hair. No, I mean, fear mobs. I do think that the mob is real. And I think there's something true about our attempts to communicate in large groups about that, too. We're just like, so much of the show is about how politicians cynically create public misunderstandings to push their agendas, and misleading journalism, misleading studies. So people are dangerous when they're misled.
I guess my feeling is that if, as a society, we have more ways of dealing with credible accusations of sexual assault than like this person is inhuman let's throw them into an abyss. I guess feel like there should be room to say like a lot of men are raping people, and a lot of other men are fucking creeps. If we're so afraid of criminalizing or pathologizing behavior that's so widespread we're worried about if we're going to run out of men. Then it's, Jesus Christ, let's have men not be like this. Let's work on that.
And there's this whole field of misconduct where maybe we need to learn to ask for something more than just, I don't know, like we need to learn how to recognize misconduct and teach people to be less dangerous. That's what I think.
Mike: I also, part of me feels like the entire concept of cancellation is itself counterfeit. Because to cancel someone, you have to take away something that they had. Whereas a much larger problem in society is people never being given something in the first place. It's basically impossible to cancel a transgender executive of a Fortune 500 company, because there are no transgender executives of Fortune 500 companies, right? Because when you come in for the interview, they see that you're trans and they don't hire you.
And part of me feels structurally the entire construction of the cancel culture, moral panic is people in power who are afraid of losing that power. So the reason I picked these is because I think each of these milestones illustrates a very important set of anxieties among people in power.
First of all, we have the rising prominence and power of left wing social movements, especially online. And we have this sort of inchoate sense among the population at large, that the internet can come for people, right? That like normal people can lose their jobs. Normal people can get targeted by mobs. And then we also have, after ‘Me Too’, we have this construction that like there's a mob waiting to pounce on any perceived slight, right? If you flirt with a coworker in the wrong way, you two are going to be targeted by this witch hunt.
Sarah: It's also, I got to say, the misuse of the term ‘witch hunt’. Witch hunts, this is a bit of trivia from an ex-Puritan scholar, hunt witches. They are not posses of witches that down men.
Mike: Sometimes you have to clarify that.
Sarah: It's not Hocus Pocus. Like they don't sing a song to enchant you and then put you in jail. I wish.
Mike: I also think, but what's interesting to me about the mixture of these three milestones, right? These three social anxieties, this is where we get the vast conflation of completely different things. Something like ‘Oscar's so white’ has nothing to do with canceling.
Sarah: No, the whole point it's like we would like to keep the Oscars and therefore they maybe could live up to some standards once in a while.
Mike: Yes. It's just basically like left-wing people have concerns. This to me is a process that really accelerates around 2018, 2019. This is when Republicans, I think realize, that they can just fucking call anything cancel culture.
In the 2020 election campaign, the RNC, the official Republican National Committee put out a resolution condemning cancel culture during his impeachment. One of Donald Trump's lawyers calls it “constitutional cancel culture”. And the one that bugs me way more than it should, is Republican elected leaders start referring to these debates over Confederate statues as cancel culture. They're trying to cancel Robert E. Lee.
Sarah: Okay. You can't cancel a statue. It's not a person.
Mike: So to me, it's these are just completely normal debates about historical memory. Like every country is engaged in a debate at all times about its history and which historical figures to commemorate.
Sarah: It's also really interesting that like in America, we assume that statues just are of generals on horses, and it's like, there are all kinds of people you can make statues about. I feel like we've been selling ourselves short in our statue game.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. 2017, 2018, 2019 is also when we have the resurgence of the over-sensitive college liberal. So in 2018, there's this woman, Christina Hoff Sommers. She's one of those people who is very clearly a conservative. She works for a right wing think tank, but she does this shtick where she's, “I'm a Democrat and I'm a progressive and a feminist, but the gender wage gap doesn't exist. But campus rape is overblown.” She just says conservative things, but she always prefaces it with this fake, “I'm a Democrat”.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. And also like anyone can self-identify as a feminist. So like you can say I'm a feminist and all kinds of stuff.
Mike: Exactly, so in 2018, she is on the campus of Lewis and Clark - in your backyard - and activists like people, before she gives a speech, they circulate an open letter saying that she's a fascist for these right wing beliefs. And during the lecture there, 10 or 15 students stand up and chant her down. She actually is able to give most of the lecture, but they essentially demand. They're like, “You're going to keep talking and there's not going to be a Q&A period. And we want to ask you tough questions and you're stalling for time.” So they stand up and yell and they're like, “Why aren't you getting to the Q&A period? We want to have some discussion about this.”
There are videos of this incident that go viral, and it becomes this massive rallying point on the right, “Look what the left-wing students want to do. They can't handle any debate, blah, blah, blah.”
This is from a GQ article called The Free Speech Grifters. It says, “The news of summer's slightly curtailed lecture was hyped in at least 11 outlets, including Breitbart, The National Review, and two separate opinion pieces in the New York Times. Sommers herself tweeted about the events coverage at least 70 times and scored a Wall Street Journal piece out of the ordeal.”
Sarah: The New York Times ones always hurt the most because you really expect journalism from them. I think that we're taking for granted in these editorials the idea that it is unproductive to be shouted at by college students. And I don't think that's necessarily true. Like I have a friend, Phyllis Schlafly came to their college when they were there, she was still alive at the time. And I think there was some amount of protesting. I would not say that it would be a bad or unnecessary or unproductive thing for Phyllis Schlafly to be shouted at by college students a little bit. Sometimes when college students shout at you, it makes you think a little.
Mike: This is speech. Like maybe you don't like it, and maybe you think it's rude. But standing up in the middle of somebody's speech, or standing up and turning your back or chanting them down ,that's speech. Like no one's throwing beer bottles at her.
It's also fascinating to me as a case because first of all, Christina Hoff Sommers gave dozens of lectures at various colleges around the country throughout the course of that year with no incidents. So it's not like her free speech is being curtailed, like she can't speak anywhere, they're shouting her down. It's like this happened literally once. And also if you look at the footage, there's footage that goes viral, like you won't believe how bad these college students are. A lot of the college students in the room are like, “Hey, let her finish.” So it's not as if college students as a class are like, we can't handle tough ideas. A lot of other college students were like, we don't like these tactics, we think you should let her speak even though we disagree.
Sarah: Yes. College students are different from each other.
Mike: Yes. So all of these slippery slope arguments depend on the idea that there are no internal checks and balances. And if this happens on one college campus ,that like the entire campus is going to just burn a speaker in effigy. And that's just not true. There's tons of debates within college students of how to deal with bad ideas, how to deal with speakers who you don't like coming to campus.
So I found a very good 538 essay by Perry Bacon Jr., who talks about sort of the reemergence of cancel culture as like a very standard Republican culture war grievance. He says, “Focusing on cancel culture and woke people is a fairly easy strategy for the GOP to execute, because in many ways it's just a repackaging of the party's long standing backlash approach. For decades, Republicans have used somewhat vague terms to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups, like black Americans, who are pushing for more rights and freedoms. This resentment is then used to woo voters, mostly white, who are wary of cultural demographic and racial change. Very standard stuff and it's a way to unite the Republican base and divide the left.” Because everybody on the left – the liberals - were all fighting about is cancel culture real, should these students have done it? I think that these students were dumb, or I think these students were smart, or whatever. So we're fighting about this.
And then the Republicans who have gradually and increasingly become the party of white grievance, are unified around the black kids, and the trans kids, and the teenagers, are trying to stop you from holding your views. This is the function that it serves in society at this point.
Sarah: Yeah, and there’s something about the idea of unseating patriarchs in there too. Like this idea, like I think the right offers you in partial constellation for all that it's taking from you is You have security, and your role will go and change. This is the power you get to have. And no one can take it from you because it's the power of patriarchy or masculinity or whatever. Even as we take all your money and give you cancer.
Mike: And a lot of these things are like, the stakes are just achingly low. It's like a speaker didn't get to give her talk, or like a statue that you've never really noticed before gets taken down and replaced with something else. It's very dependent on these sort of symbolic flights.
Sarah: This also can become a thing because it's like college students yelling at a grownup. So according to the natural order is older and therefore more powerful than them. And because I feel like, okay, I constructed most of my life around not getting yelled at by any old men. I'm afraid of getting yelled at by old men, and they're afraid of getting yelled at by college students. And I'm also afraid of getting yelled at by college students, honestly, but I'm not going to make that like my defining trait. It has nothing to do with who's right. It's just, who's in power.
Mike: It is abundantly clear what is actually going on here and you know what frustrates me. And we've seen this with every episode we've ever done is when there's these very clear moral panics being whipped up by the right mainstream sort of establishment media, rather than trying to disentangle this and really bring the context to it of there is a nugget of something real here, but there's also a huge amount of air being pumped into it by bad faith actors.
What most mainstream news sources start doing also around 2019, is just repeating and extending Republican's framing. So when you start getting, the infamous letter in Harper's, that's talking about this broad sense of sensory business on the left. And this is when you start seeing these endless articles in The Atlantic about campus wokeness gone mad. And I think even when progressive media manages. To debunk these things, or even when they do bring more context to it, the sheer amount of attention that is paid to this issue starting in 2019, just reinforces the idea that it is an issue of national concern. And so instead of untangling all of the wildly different events that this term is now being applied to, what the progressive media ends up doing is just extending it even further.
And progresses can be like, wait a minute, I don't want to cancel everybody. I don't want mob justice. I'm against that.
Mike: So in 2019, the New York Times publishes an article called, Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture. What is cancel culture really? Ask a teenager, they know. This is the opening anecdote, “A few weeks ago Neelum, a high school senior, was sitting in class at her Catholic school in Chicago. After her teacher left the room, a classmate began playing Bump N’ Grind, an R. Kelly song. Neelum, 17, had recently watched the documentary series, Surviving R Kelly. She said it had been emotional to take in as a black woman. Neelan asked the boy and his cluster of friends to stop playing the track, but he shrugged off the request. ‘It's just a song,’ she said he replied. She was appalled. They were in a class about social justice. They had spent the afternoon talking about Catholicism, the common good, and morality. The song continued to play. That classmate, who was white, had done things in the past that Neelum described as problematic. Like casually using racist slurs, not name-calling, among friends. After class she decided he was canceled, at least to her. Her decision didn't stay private. She told a friend that week that she had canceled him. She told her mother, too. She said that this meant she would avoid speaking or engaging with him in the future, because he wouldn't change his mind and was beyond reason.”
Sarah: Oh God, I canceled people all the time, according to this article.
Mike: Yes. That’s my fucking entire beef with this. Now we’re classifying a boy was a dick and you don't want to talk to him anymore as canceling.
Sarah: To me, what's important is it doesn't even matter if I'm actively, if we decide that like he was a dick objectively. It doesn't matter. Like you get to decide who is in your life and who is not, that's a human right. Thank you.
Mike: This is so typical to me of once these terms become floating around in the ether of the culture, it's let's just apply it to this other random thing.
One of the other anecdotes from the story is a guy who was “canceled” from his group of friends because he called one of them a homophobic slur.
Sarah: So like friends kicked somebody out, which is probably one of the oldest human behaviors and existence.
Mike: The oldest human behavior.
Sarah: Like as soon as there were two people, there was friendship. And as soon as there were three people, there was people being like, ah, Chad’s being a dick, let's avoid him tomorrow.
There's also a girl who goes to high school and her friends from middle school don't talk to her anymore.
Sarah: Oh my God, Mike. I realized I've been a victim of cancel culture my entire life.
Mike: This happened to me. This happened to 60% of people who went to high school.
Sarah: If we're going to talk about how being a teenager is rough, then yes, let's do an article about that. It's really hard. And only got harder after this one came out.
Mike: This is such a sign of moral panic to me when it's we're making completely normal human behavior exotic somehow. I don't know why we need to do this. This is just a story about people being people.
Sarah: I think because newspapers need to subsidize real journalism by making stuff up.
Mike: So yes, that is that. That brings us up to date. Here we are. Here we are. So cancel culture is probably one of the top three most important animating issues to conservatives, and it's becoming a pretty important issue to liberals as well. It's something that has sprung into the left-wing imagination, and I don't know how I feel about it. I don't know if there's a way to talk about it on the left without reinforcing the fake version of it on the right.
Sarah: Yeah. I'm of a couple of minds about this. Which is I'm perfectly comfortable not using the term ‘sex trafficking’, not using the term ‘sex offender,’ because both of them break down to more specific things. And what specific thing you mean matters tremendously. Because it's like, if someone's a sex offender, were they convicted of assaulting someone or were they convicted of public urination?
I feel like I would be ready to let the right have it if we had more and better terminology for the specific things that it breaks down to, which I think is what we need. I want terminology for the thing that happens on the left, where someone misspeaks or makes a relatively minor mistake, or kind of steps in it to whatever extent, and then attempts to apologize. And then isn't allowed to apologize.
Mike: What would you call it? What would you call what happened to Natalie Wynn, without using the word ‘cancel’?
Sarah: I really don't know. I can't think of language for it because I feel like I don't understand it well enough if I haven't been on the receiving end of it, in a sense. It feels to me like that kind of behavior, like pack animal behavior, you see someone doing something that to you has become emblematic of a much bigger societal problem, or you believe in the moment, maybe because of the kind of disk, the heightened discourse happening around it that this is it. This is symbolic of everything that is wrong with culture and that probably people with a lot more power than this person are doing wrong. And I don't know, then the need to force someone to repent, and then to not accept their repentance. Like it's something, it is some specific thing.
Mike: Yes. And I have seen this happen to our show. That somebody will listen to one of our episodes, or maybe not listen like super-duper closely to one of our episodes, and will tweet out something like, “I'm tired of these true crime podcasts that are just cop-aganda and they just listen to what cops say and they don't take victims seriously at all.” This is something that we've talked about on the show. This is something that we try really hard not to do. But if you take a 15-minute snippet out of our show, or you only listen to one episode, or you don't know us that well, like maybe it can come off like we're a little bit flippant about this.
And then oftentimes what happens is that other people who have never heard our show will jump in and be like, “These fucking true crime podcasts, they're all cop-aganda.” They're getting mad at the type of show that they think we represent. All of a sudden you'll have 30 or 40 people saying, “Yeah, fuck that show.” And it kind of looks, it takes the form, of people being mad at us, but they're actually mad at a type of show. Which of course like we share that critique. Like I totally agree that a lot of true crime podcasts are trash.
Sarah: I guess I also feel like I'm fine with people hating this show. Like people hate things all the time. Like media exists to be liked or disliked. And I'm fine with that. I'm at peace with it. I guess I also think that I should be allowed to choose to not hear about it.
And I feel like there's this thing whereas the kind of public figure that I am - I'm a little one, but I'm a one - it's not like I don't receive feedback, and it's not like I don't want any at all. But I do not want to be constantly available to hear anything that anyone has to say about what I have done. I don't think everyone has this expectation, but I think a lot of people do. And I think a lot of creators operate to try to meet that expectation. And I think it's, I just don't think it's sustainable. I think some people can do it, but like, I’m not one of them.
But also this is the first I've heard of that level of criticism, and I feel good about the fact that I have not been interacting with that until you told me about it. Because this isn't for me to see, this is for people to talk about problems with genre and like on a fundamental level, it doesn't even feel like my business.
Mike: This to me is like the sort of the central social media conundrum, is that I don't think humans are designed to get this much feedback. I think that people have the right to listen or not listen to the show for any reason, and they have the right to tell their friends that our show is trash. But I just know it's not great for my mental health to see those conversations. It isn't helping me. I don't think I should be there participating in them.
Sarah: Yeah. And I am taking a break from Twitter right now. The fact that I am saying that probably means that I will have dragged my ass addictively back, even by the time this episode comes out. But one of the reasons I stepped away from it was because I was finding myself, getting irritated at people all the time. And it wasn't for people being mean to me. And it wasn't for people trying to call me out. Most of it is just that thing where you're like, “Here are my three favorite kinds of bagel.” And someone's like, “You forgot poppy seed.” And you're like, “No, that's your favorite bagel.”
Mike: God, I just got such a spike of stress when you said that. That is like exactly what being on Twitter. This is like poppy seed eraser. And you're like, let me live.
Sarah: And that's what’s hardest for me about Twitter, is I'm like, shut up. I was having that response like six times a day and I was like, I don't want to feel this way. Because like, I strive to like human beings, and normally it comes easier to me than this. And I cannot handle feeling this irritated at everyone. That's why that happened. And also if you did that, it's not just that you did it, it's that 2,000 people have done it and it's too much. If you did that then like it's okay, everyone says things about things sometimes, but like it's the repetition that really makes you sore.
Mike: It grinds you down. Yeah.
Sarah: It really does.
Mike: Okay. Final denouement. We're going to end with a pop quiz grade. This is from 2019. This is like the ultimate shark jumping moment for cancel culture. It's a passage from a book from a friend of the show, and I'm going to read it to, you and you have to guess who it is.
Sarah: Oh boy.
Mike: “These and other similar cancellations will have a deleterious impact on the criminal justice system. Former United States attorney Alex Costa was forced to resign as Secretary of Labor because he made a deal with Jeffrey Epstein, whom I represented, that was criticized by members of the public.”
Sarah: Oh, okay. You're handing it to me on a little silver platter, Mother of Pearl caviar spoon. It's Alan Dershowitz.
Sarah: Alan Dershowitz, author of a book called, The Abuse Excuse, in the mid-nineties. Yeah. That's our Allen.
Mike: So this is from his abysmal book called, Cancel Culture: The Latest Attack on Free Speech and Due Process.
Sarah: Oh no! I love that he wrote one of these stupid, like live baiting books that I didn't even know that it came out. That’s amazing. Just like, oh yeah, let Alan publish another book. He needs to keep his hands busy.
Mike: I mean, I think this Alex Acosta thing, it's like all he did was give a sweetheart deal to one of the worst sex criminals in modern American history. And for this, he was canceled. It's like, what do you want to happen?
Sarah: I think this really speaks to like the dearth of fictional defense lawyers and media, that Alan Dershowitz as played by Ron Silver in Reversal of Fortune, was so important to me as a teenager because no other fictional character that I knew of was like, “No, it's important for guilty people to have good lawyers because this, this, and this.” And like now he's just the most crooked, predictable. Oh, it's so depressing. I'm so sad, Mike.
Mike: I love that movie and I've seen it so many times. Jeremy Irons’ neck, and now it's ruined for me.
Sarah: Will Jeremy Irons’ neck is still there.
Mike: I know, it’s still there.
Sarah: We should both have some ice cream about this.