The Five Types of Cancelled People
Who are the cancelled?
Over the past few years, I’ve spoken to quite a few men and women who have endured sudden, shocking, painful cancellations. In a few instances, these were people I already knew personally; in most cases, they were folks whom I read about, and then did my best to track down.
To lose a career you loved and to endure public shaming is devastating. The loss of friendships that invariably accompanies your humiliation makes everything infinitely worse. (In our era of accountability, like all revolutionary eras, the failure to denounce a friend publicly is to be complicit in their misdeeds.)
I keep this outreach quiet. It is self-aggrandizing in the extreme to trumpet one’s own compassion, and in the case of the canceled, it invites scorn. The moment I do let slip that I’ve been in contact with some disgraced and shattered person, the mob pounces. “It figures, Hugo, that you’d have more empathy for a predator than for his victims” or “If you’re comforting a bad person, you’re just enabling them to continue being bad.” Ours is a medieval culture – we believe that shame and pain are necessary both for the soul of the perpetrator and for the good of society at large. To say to a canceled person, “I will walk through this with you and be your friend” is, to the fashionable, to be both complicit in their misdeeds and to actively shield them from the immiseration that they (and society’s well-being) require.
All the cancelled are in a similar state of shock and despair, but not all the cancelled are quite the same. There are at least five different responses to a sudden fall from grace:
1. The cancelled person admits they did or said what they are accused of doing or saying. They believe the penalty (loss of platform, contracts, career) is appropriate – but they are unable to cope with the consequences. The primary emotion they’re feeling is self-loathing. Suicidal ideation is a very real risk here.
2. The cancelled person admits they did or said what they are accused of doing or saying, but they believe the penalty is excessive, and they are struggling to accept what’s happened. “I should have been suspended, not fired!” “I should have been given another chance!” “It wasn’t that big a deal.” They may be angry at themselves, but they are more hurt by other’s reactions. “I am more sinned against than sinning,” they say.
3. The cancelled person admits to some of what they are accused of doing, but say it was misinterpreted. They are desperate to explain themselves, and they are convinced that if they can just find the right words, they’ll be able to clear up the misunderstanding. These folks still cling to hope of swift restoration; the primary emotions here are hope, panic and despair, each battling for the upper hand. They have not yet acquiesced to the inevitable.
4. The cancelled admits to some of what they are accused of doing, continue to say it was misinterpreted, but have given up trying to explain. They know “the fix is in,” and they have surrendered. They are often quietly bitter, and nearly as suicidal as the folks in category one. They vacillate between shame and anger at the injustice of what’s happened to them, but they know that withdrawing from public life is the only possible way to survive. They seethe and rage, but keep it all inside as best they can.
5. The cancelled person in this category insists they did nothing wrong; they repeat over and over that the accusations against them are false. They are convinced they are victims of a gross miscarriage of justice, and they will not stop doing everything they can to restore themselves to the status they had before they fell. They are terrified, but they are also filled with a powerful anger – and after talking to them for five minutes, you’ll feel, hear, and see that fire.
I have spent years going back and forth between #1 and #2, and probably will for the rest of my life. The cancelled men and women I’ve tracked down and spoken to are spread across all five categories, though #3 and #5 are the most common initial responses.
The kinship of the disgraced is very real. As the shock of cancellation sets in, the desperation for community with others in your position can lead you to seek out allies who are in very different predicaments than one’s own. I’ve been so eager to find someone who “gets it,” that I have made common cause with men who have lost their jobs and their freedom for rape. I read the panic in their words as the reckoning comes for them, and I identify with that instantly – flattening any distinctions between our circumstances. Perhaps that’s good that I see the similarities rather than the differences. Perhaps it’s a moral failing.
On the phone a year ago, I found myself saying, over and over again, “Dude, I’ve been there” to a man out on bail and facing real prison time for sexual misconduct with underage high school girls. Of course, I hadn’t done anything quite like that; whatever you think of consensual affairs between adult college students and their professors, you probably place them in a different category than forcible rape. I do distinguish them intellectually – but when a man or woman describes watching his world crumble, it’s the similarity of the crumbling on which I focus viscerally, not the different reasons why the ground gave way beneath their feet. I try to be scrupulous about validating someone’s pain without affirming his or her innocence, or dismissing the harm they’ve done. I don’t know if I always strike that balance just as I should.
In Chassidic Judaism, two spiritual principles are always in tension: Chesed and Gevurah. Chesed is mercy; Gevurah is judgment. In the universe and in the human person, these should be kept in balance. Mercy without judgment lets monsters roam unchecked; judgment without mercy is brutal tyranny. Mercy foregoes accountability; judgment foregoes empathy. The ethical person is informed by both. In Chassidic tradition, each of us is born more inclined to one or the other – some of us are too soft, others too hard. The business of living is to bring each of these aspects of ourselves into alignment. As we become more and more skilled at balancing these two virtues, we create a world where Chesed and Gevurah work together for both individual and collective good.
(I once told a rabbi that I thought a gentleman should practice endless Chesed with everyone else and merciless Gevurah with himself. The rabbi laughed and laughed and told me that I’d have to choose between being a gentleman and a mensch. I told him I’d get back to him.)
The great pendulum swings between Chesed and Gevurah in society as well as within each of us. We are in an era of harsh Gevurah, where the hunger for reckonings, for topplings, for outings and for “burning it all down” is ascendant. Some of us, contrarian by nature, feel a particular urge to push back against the dominant paradigm. We know the pendulum will swing again, but we’re concerned with the damage it’s doing now. Maybe a little excess on the “mercy” side is our way of rebelling against the cruelty that is ascendant in American culture. Or maybe our mercy towards the despised and the defenestrated is just a failure of imagination, an inability to comprehend the harm they’ve done.
Most people don’t want to hear the stories of the cancelled. Not yet. Now is the season for the injured, and the hitherto oppressed, to have their stories told. Attention spans are short, and compassion is a zero-sum game. The privileged who have behaved badly need, in the language of the self-righteous young, “to have all the seats.” The first shall be last and the last shall be first; the beggar shall change places, but the lash will go on. We, the cancelled, are counseled to make our amends, accept the consequences, and go quietly and gently out into the night without complaint. Our pain is no longer public concern.
I do not write about my conversations with the cancelled, I do not share our texts and emails and phone calls. Rightly or wrongly this needs to be a quiet time for us. My job is, to paraphrase Auden, to show “an affirming flame” to those in a darkness at least partly of their own devise. As different as we are, we all know what it is to tumble. We jumped, or we were pushed, and our disgraces are never quite the same – but if nothing else, we can share what it feels like to fall from a great height, our old life receding into the unrecoverable distance, as we plunge, flailing and bewildered, into the great abyss.
Joseph Massey is a splendid young American poet. He is also among the cancelled, as Google will tell you, and he wrote a poem for us, and for the culture.
Poem Against Cancellation
Vow to see
and keeps time
as the gift
of a space
and to know
and to hear it
is to receive it
to an impulse
to destroy it.
Say the un-
is full of bees
through a new
there’s no account-
ing for the world
and how it
a frame. Say
within the one—