What is this thing called cancel culture?
“Cancel culture” is a controversial term about an era of controversy. Many disagree on what exactly is cancel culture or not, since it’s a term that has developed organically and lacks a historical, academic, or etymological basis, except that it seems to borrow from the concept of having TV shows cancelled (more on that in a moment). In an attempt to encapsulate it as best as possible, I’ll define it myself. I think cancel culture has the following features:
- The purpose is to deny an income source to a targeted individual or group, permanently.
- The motives for cancellations are primarily political in nature.
- Being a “culture,” it relies on reputational pressure to succeed (and this thrives on social media and major platforms).
The essence of cancel culture is that, once you’re cancelled, you’re always cancelled.
Before we go any further, let’s also look at something that is not a feature of cancel culture: Truth. This is not to say that every attempt to cancel someone is based on lies. It merely means that the truth is not a consideration in the process. “Cancel mobs,” as they are sometimes called, involve ordinary people on social media rapidly reacting to an allegation and demanding the cessation of a related income source for that person/persons. The speed at which people from the mob latch onto the allegation typically means that little-to-no time is spent verifying it. Once the allegation is made, the damage is done.
If you are reading this post, I imagine you can recall such a scenario. A Tweet goes out declaring that Mr. XYZ said this or that about a minority or women or someone’s religion. A month of outrage occurs. Mr. XYZ is forced to apologize and gets fired anyway or loses contracts. At the end of that month, a sleuth who did their homework finds stark evidence that Mr. XYZ not only said nothing of the sort but that the original accuser fabricated the whole thing. A lot of people will do half-hearted apologies about believing the accusation too soon. A lot won’t. Those that do will make zero efforts to help restore Mr. XYZ’s reputation, and he doesn’t get his job or business relationships back.
The essence of cancel culture is that, once you’re cancelled, you’re always cancelled. Jesus himself could get cancelled, but he won’t become un-cancelled on the third day!
This is particularly strange in light of the 2016 election and the awareness this election brought to us about the proliferation of fake news and how even malicious actors, like Russian agents under Putin, are actively engaging in misinformation and manipulation to sow division among their Western rivals. We had numerous hearings in Congress and investigations by the FBI about what foreign dictatorships and social media companies have enabled. Everyone in a hypothetical cancel mob knows that the mechanisms of cancel culture (which rely on this same nexus of fake news and social media) are vulnerable and are being exploited every single day, and yet they continually become willing puppets to this exploitation.
Recent history notwithstanding, we have plenty of folk wisdom to let us know why we shouldn’t just believe things uncritically. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf. We all remember that classroom game called “Telephone,” where the teacher would whisper a sentence into one student’s ear. That student would then whisper it to the next student, and so on in a line, until it got to the last student’s ear. The teacher would then ask the last student what they heard, and it’s always something different at the end. Either because things were misheard or deliberately changed, information was corrupted. We all know this happens in real life, and yet many of us act like it doesn’t happen.
Thus, the reality of cancel culture is not only that it will permanently weaken its target, it will also never self-correct. It is a looming threat for the rest of our lives.
What does it mean to be cancel-proof?
Since cancel culture is oriented toward ending an income source for a target, the extent to which someone is “cancel-proof” is based on how dependent that income source is on reputation or on how easily that reputation can be damaged.
Let’s look at two examples of men who became the targets of cancellation: Kevin Spacey and Brett Kavanaugh. Both of them were targets in the context of the #MeToo Movement, with allegations against Spacey of child-rape and an attempted rape (against Dr. Blasey Ford) by Kavanaugh. Now, the validity of these claims are not going to be discussed here (because I have no means of in-depth verification). Instead, let’s look at where Spacey and Kavanaugh ended up.
Spacey was fired from what was arguably the role of his career, playing Frank Underwood on the Netflix series, House of Cards. Despite being highly rated as an actor the previous twenty years, this was the crown jewel of his performances. Underwood was killed off by the writers, and his character’s wife filled the void as the lead. (A similar thing occurred with Roseanne Barr and her revived show, Roseanne.) The actor was cancelled, where the show was not, in a twist on the older notion of cancellation.
Thus, Rogan might be one of the most quintessentially cancel-proof people alive, because he has a unique income source that cannot be damaged in this way.
Yet, one can surmise that Spacey doesn’t have money problems. If his annual Christmas YouTube videos indicate anything, he seems to be doing fine, even if he’ll never land another acting job. Why is that? Well, assuming he was well paid for his successful acting career before, he probably had his money in places to preserve his wealth. Maybe there was language in some of his acting contracts to entitle him to a share of profits into the indefinite future. Thus, while Spacey might have been cancelled from House of Cards, he ended up being mostly cancel-proof.
With Kavanaugh, there was an attempt to “cancel” his appointment to the Supreme Court in 2018. There were quickly some issues around the ability to cancel him. For one, it depended more on convincing the Senate to disown him, rather than an employer or sponsor. Since Kavanaugh is a Republican, and since the Senate was controlled by the Republicans, that wasn’t going to happen. Additionally, even if they had succeeded, Kavanaugh was already a judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, which is a lifetime appointment. That means he would have had a good salary and authority over American common law until he died. Now he’s a Supreme Court justice, so that’s even more true than before. As a jurist, Kavanaugh has been blessed with federal protection against cancellation.
Maybe some readers will find that Spacey and Kavanaugh are still disturbing examples. Let’s look to someone that’s been a target but is more easily beyond reproach: Joe Rogan. Every now and then, he will be faced with media scrutiny for being racist, sexist, transphobic or just generally conservative. Alternatively, he will be called an enabler of such people. Such smears have been lobbed pretty steadily for the last four years or so, in order to cut into his business. That said, Joe Rogan’s immense celebrity that he garnered through his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, has been based on his ability to have interesting conversations with guests, often specifically because these discussions are controversial or feature crude humor.
Trying to cancel someone whose reputation grew on the very things the mob hates about him is a rare instance where the mob will fail and possibly enhance Rogan’s prestige. Thus, Rogan might be one of the most quintessentially cancel-proof people alive, because he has a unique income source that cannot be damaged in this way.
What about the everyman? What about “me”?
Again, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re not an A-list actor like Spacey. You don’t have a team of lawyers (or are one like Kavanaugh), and you don’t get to start a podcast after a pretty successful TV career like Joe Rogan. You’re going into work everyday, and maybe you’re worried. Maybe there’s an erratic coworker who is clearly going to report someone to HR one day, and you’re worried that person will be you. Maybe your boss is a religious zealot who will get angry if you refuse to pray with him. Maybe you have freelance work and rely on consistently positive networking. Maybe you live in a conservative state that has crushed unions, and no one will stand up for you if you become a target.
If you have an extra ten bucks, you can buy part of a company with that, and that ten dollars is now an income source that’s yours as long as you want to keep it. No one can make you sell that.
Whatever your case, these things are scary, especially when we’re currently in a major recession caused by the Coronavirus and when the memory of the 2008 Great Recession had hardly faded. We live in a world of uncertain incomes, where champions of the poor will still often form the very mobs that weaponize the cycle of bankruptcy and poverty. Andrew Yang didn’t win this election, so the only basic income you get is one that you make for yourself. Just how does one do this?
Well, the easy answer is: the stock market. It’s strange that this is often written off as a form of gambling. That might be true if you’re a scummy day-trader, but if you just buying shares of a healthy company with steady profits, you’re just entitling yourself to a portion of their income for as long as you hold the stock. If you manage to buy it at a low price and hold it forever, you’re in for a good profit.
The stock market might actually be one of the most egalitarian things ever created. In previous eras of history, not everyone could be an owner. You either owned the whole manor or the whole ox. Only as we got to the modern era did you have publicly traded companies, where you can by any percentage of the “manor” or the “ox” that you wish to own. With the advent of the Internet, this is more true than ever before. If you have an extra ten bucks, you can buy part of a company with that, and that ten dollars is now an income source that’s yours as long as you want to keep it. No one can make you sell that.
There is not zero risk in this. Investments should be made with adequate research about their viability to pay off over time. It’s also not an immediate solution to an immediate threat. The only way to speed up time is to live more frugally than you might already or pick up some overtime hours, so that you have more to invest early on. Nevertheless, this will be my goal, moving forward, to invest a large sum of my income in healthy companies and establish my own basic income. I will continue to share any insights with my fellow millennials trapped in the gig economy here on Medium and to help us climb out of the economic pit we’ve inherited, which has only been made more perilous by the political polarization of this age.
Keep your eyes peeled!