"Serves You Right, Cracker:" Rethinking Cancel Culture after January 6
I’ve inveigled against “cancel culture” since long before the term was coined. I condemned it long before I lost my own job, and began the long journey from tenured professorship and published pundit to grocery clerk. Twenty years ago, I got in considerable trouble with colleagues on campus for defending the right of Jewish Defense League head (and later, convicted terrorist) Irv Rubin to speak to our students.
My position in favor of both permitting free speech and, just as crucially, protecting the speaker from adverse consequences of that speech, has been consistent since I was a boy. It’s been intensified by my own painful experience of job loss and ostracism. As I’ve written before, trauma leads me to identify with anyone who loses their livelihood because of their views or their conduct. This has led me to defend both the persecuted and the indefensible with equal vigor time and again.
January 6 shifted something for me. The assault on the Capitol was so violent, so calculated, so undergirded with misplaced entitlement and certainty, that my normal empathy for “rebels and rascals” has been erased. The sheer horror of what the mob did, and even worse, what they planned to do, makes me eager to see justice rendered. As I read this week of the arrest of one after another of the insurgents, I fist-pumped the air with satisfaction. I was raised to believe that schadenfreude was the single most detestable human emotion, as it combines sadism with sneering moral superiority. Yet there I was yesterday, watching video of a woman weeping in an airport because she’d been placed on the “no-fly list” thanks to her riot participation, and I said to the screen with deep satisfaction, “You fucked around, cracker, and you found out. Serves you right.”
I am not in the habit of using any of that language, even in private. (Our Kind of People abhorred epithets for working-class whites, just as we did any other kind of racial slur. I was a teen when I said “redneck” in front of my grandmother, and was told that that word was vulgar and unacceptable. ) Even those of us who make idols out of civility and manners have our breaking points, however, and January 6 has shown me mine.
I want those people who invaded the Capitol, assaulted police officers, and tried to stop a sacred democratic process to face serious consequences. If jail is not an option, I want their employers to cut them loose. I’ve lost houses and cars and comfort and freedom for a lot less. I am fairly certain that consensual relationships with adult students is not quite as bad as treason, and if I survived paying a very high price for my misdeeds, so too can these deluded, feral jacknapes.
As a male feminist, I spent many years pointing out that men are not entitled to sex from women. Women don’t owe men smiles or attention or affirmation or blowjobs. If a man does not conduct himself properly in interpersonal relationships, he is not to be mystified when he is rejected. The January 6 Insurrection has shown me that while I have always abhorred entitlement when it comes to sex, I have deployed the language of entitlement in insisting that one’s public pronouncements shouldn’t also have negative consequences. Saying, “I should be allowed to try to stop a democratic process without getting fired” suddenly sounds a lot like “You should have sex with me because I was nice to you.” Both claims are rooted in a false sense that one is owed both pleasure and protection despite one’s conduct. Both claims ask for another person (or an employer) to suspend the laws of cause and effect.
I’m still sitting with that analogy, and I’m opening comments on this newsletter because I’d like to know what you think. If nothing else, we live in a time that is forcing us to reassess so much of what we thought we knew about our principles and our fellow Americans. In the meantime, while I still remain committed to creating a kinder and more redemption-oriented society, I’m rethinking my entire reflexive horror at cancel culture.
Every person I know who attended BLM or similar protests and marches knew that even though they were attending what was meant to be a peaceful protest that they were taking on some amount of risk, and things could go differently. Any photo or video footage that could be construed as one committing a crime (be it vandalism, or assault, or even resisting arrest) could lead to job loss. No matter who you are or what politicians you support, you cannot expect to retain your job if you're photographed or filmed actively committing any kind of felony, much less participating in a violent attempted coup. I think this is a thing apart from "cancel culture" which, for me, is defined by non-judiciary consequences of what is a relatively minor infraction (i.e. something that is not against the law- making racist comments, posting fat-phobic photos, having consensual sexual relationships with one's students). For me, "cancel culture" is defined by its overreach of consequences. In that vein, actual sexual predators like Weinstein were not "cancelled". Or, not just, that's why he's in jail. Being a criminal who faces the consequences of their crime is not the same as being a bigot or fool who overstepped rules or who made public too much of their inner, cruel, dialog and who's life is therefor torn asunder. I admit, there's gray area here. Many who are first "cancelled" are later found to be perpetrators of actual crimes, especially in the case of sexual predation, it seems. I'd argue this has everything to do with the "justice system" and the sexism built in when a crime is viewed as something only experienced by women.