The Cruelest Thing about Cancel Culture? The Friendships it Destroys
January 16, 2012
“Perhaps I should just take a formal leave of absence?”
It is late on a rainy Saturday night, and I am on a conference call, fighting what I already know is a doomed battle. On the call are my co-founders of Healthy is the New Skinny and the Perfectly Unperfected Project, two charitable organizations working to transform both the modeling industry and young people’s body image. For the better part of two years, I’ve sunk in thousands of hours and dollars into helping these charities take off. I’ve taped television interviews and traveled to high schools and colleges to promote the message. Along with Katie, whom I talk to almost every day and see for lunch almost every week, I am one of the two public faces of our little movement.
Now, I’m out.
Katie, the president and CEO of both companies, is just 26 – but she’s savvy. Her commitment to the cause must of necessity transcend personal relationships.
“I’m so, so, sorry, Hugo, but Brad and I agree. We need you to resign. We can’t be associated with you anymore, not in any way. Dorie is deleting all your content off our website. We’ll be issuing a statement cutting ties with you tonight.”
The inevitable apparent, my training kicks in. A gentleman is never more a gentleman than when he is rebuked, shunned, or dismissed. The goal is to make the rebuking or the firing as easy on everyone else as possible.
“Of course, Katie. I understand completely. This is absolutely the right thing to do, and it should be done tonight. No hard feelings, my friend; I’ve brought this on myself.”
Katie and Brad – her husband and business partner – thank me. We promise to be in touch, and maybe another lunch soon! We all know that will never happen. We get off the phone quickly; they to compose a statement, me to take a walk in the rain and sob.
I’ve written many times of my well-known mental breakdown in the summer of 2013, and how it led to my resignation from the college. I haven’t written about one of the precipitating events of that breakdown, my “cancellation” a year and a half earlier.
In the past ten years, firing or deplatforming people for their public pronouncements or past behavior has become routine. The mob has many victories to its credit, with new ones every day. The woke consensus is that cancellations are just long-overdue, invariably deserved consequences. In a world where we cannot immediately solve the climate crisis, or urban poverty, it is satisfying to feel the immediate gratification of getting a “bad person” fired. Cancel culture offers the illusion of progress, as if you can deplatform or unpublish or dismiss your way to a more just world.
A decade ago, we didn’t believe this. Yet.
By late 2011, my second career as a speaker and writer was taking off. I had my weekly column at Jezebel, and I was an editor at the Good Men Project. The memoir I co-wrote with supermodel Carré Otis had just been released by HarperCollins. I had started a side business speaking at colleges about gender, sexuality, and body image, and had been able to book gigs across the country. Eira and I had an expensive lifestyle, and by the fall of 2011, a second baby on the way. I needed to provide more than my tenured professor’s salary, and charging a few thousand a pop for a lecture seemed the ideal way to do it.
I loved every minute of it. I believed in what I was doing. I believed I had an important message to share. Yes, the attention was wonderful, and the money was helpful, but I saw myself as a man on a mission to provide a radically different perspective on gender, sexuality, and body image.
On December 21, 2011, the writer Clarisse Thorn published an interview with me on Feministe, one of the longest-running and most famous of feminist blogs. (It is now defunct, so I cannot link to it.) It was a fairly innocuous interview. One of the commenters, though, was furious – and linked to an old story I had published on my own blog. (Also defunct.) In that story, I briefly recounted attempting to kill both myself and my then-girlfriend in the summer of 1998, while both of us were drunk and high. I had tried to use gas, and fortunately failed. I made private amends to that woman and her family, and there is nothing more to be said on the subject.
That original post did not cause a ruffle. The comment on Feministe, however, led to an uproar, part of which is detailed in this Atlantic Magazine profile from 2012. Could a man who had once attempted murder-suicide with his girlfriend ever claim to be a feminist, no matter how much he had changed over the years? Could he ever stake a claim to a platform? The Feministe commenters were unanimous: NO.
A campaign to get me cancelled emerged organically in the comments below Clarisse Thorn’s interview. On my website, I listed two upcoming speaking engagements – one at Evergreen State University in Washington, the other at Harvard’s Sex Week. Both campuses were deluged by emails, demanding that the colleges cancel my appearances. Over the winter break, my student contacts at both Evergreen and Harvard wrote to say that they were sorry, but they would have to disinvite me.
I called my editor at Jezebel. Should I step down? Give up my column? “No,” Jessica told me, “You stay and fight. We need imperfect people too, and I believe in your redemption.” (In 2021, this seems absurdly dated. Jezebel today rallies the troops for cancel culture on a nearly hourly basis.)
Though Jez stood by me, the grassroots movement to de-platform me continued, and soon turned to my work with Healthy is the New Skinny and Perfectly Unperfected. Katie, Brad and I had planned a tour of high schools in the Pacific Northwest to speak on body image. The principals of those high schools soon got emails, linking to my murder-suicide story, asking “Is this the sort of man you want speaking to your students?” The principals did what principals do, and called and told us they’d cancel the Perfectly Unperfected Tour unless I was dropped from the roster.
The conference call I recounted above followed immediately.
I still had my teaching job. But the financial impact of losing all of these other gigs at once was huge. Eira and I lost the house we had been renting, and downsized just as David arrived in our lives. The simmering tensions in my marriage grew worse, as I struggled with anger and despair just as I was needed more than ever. There is a direct link in my mind to my cancellation in late 2011 and my complete mental collapse 18 months later.
A decade later, I am haunted by the glee of those who had been successful in cancelling my speaking and charity work. “We took you down, you racist, murdering, sexist motherfucker!” “We’re coming for your teaching job next, you simpering fraud!” The schadenfreude was baleful and dark. Deep down, I started to believe what my harshest critics said. My self-loathing, already intense, sank to new depths.
What haunts me more, and hurts far more deeply, is the memory of that conversation with my colleagues at Healthy is the New Skinny. It is one thing to be condemned by people who don’t know you. It is another thing altogether to have your friends tell you that you have become a liability to be jettisoned.
I did make a pledge to myself, and I intend to honor it the rest of my days. I will never allow myself to be put in a position of authority where I must appease public opinion by disavowing another human being. The cruelest thing about cancel culture isn’t just that it takes away livelihoods – it’s that it normalizes the severing of personal and professional ties with people who have become too controversial.
I know that Katie and Brad did what they had to do, and intellectually, I accept that. I do not begrudge them the tremendous success they have had since. But I will never forget standing in my kitchen, tears streaming down my face, hearing the chill and panic in Katie’s voice as she did what she had to do to appease the mob.