The latest high-profile incident of cancel culture unfolded on Sunday night. It began when a gentleman named Frederick Joseph (who is black) posted a short video clip on social media, showing an altercation between him (and his fiancé) and a young white woman. The clip shows Joseph repeatedly saying, “Stay in our hood?” to the woman, who flips him the bird. According to Joseph, “this white woman was threatening to call police and told us to “stay in our hood” because she had our dog confused with another dog who had been barking loudly”.
After Joseph posted the clip, one of his followers managed to track down the woman’s identity, including her place of work (a tech company called Bevy HQ). Joseph then posted another tweet tagging Bevy HQ, as well as the company’s CEO, Derek Andersen. He wrote, “Hey @DerekjAndersen I see that @BevyHQ is attempting to be better about race … I’m hoping Black colleagues and peers don’t have to face this sort of racism from Emma [the woman’s name].” The next day, the woman was fired. As CEO, Andersen declared that she had “engaged in behavior contrary to our values”.
In other words, three people got into an altercation in a dog park. One person may have said something racist, although she claims there were “no racial undertones” in her comments. The next day her face was plastered all over social media, and she was fired from her job. (Given the circumstances of her firing – an accusation of racism – it may be difficult for her to find work in the future.) So it would not be an exaggeration to say that, because of a dispute that may have lasted all of two minutes, her career has been effectively ruined.
Regardless of exactly what she said, or meant to say, this seems like a very disproportionate punishment. People get into minor disputes all the time – in the park, on the road, at the grocery store – and they may end up saying something in the heat of the moment that they later regret. Or they may be intoxicated at the time, and hence more likely to blurt out something crass or rude, owing to their lowered inhibitions.
But after the woman had been fired, the plot thickened. Twitter users indignant at her treatment began trawling through Joseph’s old tweets. And they discovered plenty of incriminating material. Joseph had celebrated attacks on police, and had made several derogatory remarks about white people. (In one tweet, he quoted the NFL player Antonio Brown as saying “Fuck them crackers”, apparently in reference to an incident where Brown called his manager a “cracker”.) Twitter users also uncovered various off-colour remarks made by Andersen. It’s unclear if Andersen will now have to fire himself for behaving in a way “contrary” to his company’s values.
This latest cancellation was not strictly partisan. To my knowledge, the woman who got fired is not known to be a conservative or right-wing activist. (In fact, as a young woman working for a tech company in New York, she’s almost certainly a Democrat.) Joseph, on the other hand, appears to be a very woke left-wing activist. During the mostly peaceful riots last summer, he replied to a tweet from the Kenosha Police Department by saying, “FUCK YOU. BURN THAT DEPARTMENT DOWN.” (However, you know he’s very kind and compassionate, as he includes his pronouns in his Twitter bio.) What’s more, I suspect that many of the users who dug through his old tweets did view the incident through an ideological lens.
Indeed, cancel culture is used overwhelmingly by activists on the woke left against people who are less woke than them. The targets are not always right-wing, but they’re almost invariably less left-wing than the people doing the cancelling. This is not to say there aren’t cases where right-wing outrage mobs have gotten people cancelled. There are. I’m simply stating that the great majority of cancellations are instigated by the left (and more precisely, by the woke left). As I noted in a previous newsletter, scholars in the United States are about ten times more likely to get cancelled for right-wing speech.
This raises the question of whether people on the right should use cancel culture against the left. As Douglas Murray notes, there’s an asymmetry whereby right-wing public figures are held to higher standards than left-wing public figures when it comes to gaffes, blunders and other controversies – which may explain why so few put themselves forward for public appointments. (Recall the treatment of Toby Young and Sir Roger Scruton.) “Who,” Murray asks, “would want every aspect of their personal life upturned for the sake of a job?”
So should the right try to get more left-wing people cancelled? If we’re talking about random people who’ve said something “problematic” (either now or in the past), I would say “definitely not”. First of all, trying to get someone cancelled is simply cruel, and the sort of people who engage in cancel culture tend to be sociopathic. Recall the paper by Erik Ok and colleagues which found that victimhood signalling is correlated with Dark Triad personality traits. There’s also evidence that mental illness is more common on the far-left, which might explain their proclivity for cruel behaviour.
In addition to being cruel (and indicative of sociopathy), it’s also a dishonourable way to attack your opponents. It’s the exact opposite of “Let’s take this outside”. In fact, trying to get someone cancelled is essentially the behaviour of a petulant five year-old. So unless you see the tantrum, the wobbly or the hissy fit as a model of good social behaviour, you ought to abstain from cancelling others.
However, the response might be, “That’s all well and good, but you have to fight fire with fire. If only one side uses cancel culture, the other side just gets exploited.” In this regard, the responder could even cite Robert Axelrod’s research from The Evolution of Co-operation.
Axelrod organised tournaments in which game theorists and computer scientists were invited to submit strategies to play repeated games of Prisoner’s Dilemma against one another. Interestingly, a very simple strategy called TIT FOR TAT won both tournaments. This strategy co-operates on the first move, and then repeats what the other player did on the previous move. So if the other player defects, then TIT FOR TAT defects in response; but if the other player co-operates, then so does TIT FOR TAT. One lesson that could be drawn from Axelord’s research is that you should be willing to use underhand tactics: if your opponent punches below the belt, then you should hit back below the belt.
But I’m not convinced that’s the right lesson to draw. The left and the right (or any other political factions you might wish to define) are not individual actors analogous to the strategies in Axelrod’s tournaments. They are large groups of individuals. And while some members of those groups may happen to be cruel or sociopathic or dishonourable, others are not any of those things. (Though I will note in passing that the woke left does seem to attract an unusually large number of sociopathic people – at least relative to its degree of influence within society. While there are probably a lot of sociopathic skinheads too, they aren’t running the HR departments of major universities.)
These groups are not even particularly cohesive. There’s an awful lot of squabbling within the left and the right. Political factions are not like tight-knit street gangs where “if they take one of ours, we take two of theirs”. This means that an individual on one’s own side getting cancelled does not elicit the same kind of feedback as one’s opponent defecting in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. You may not particularly care that the latest victim of cancel culture happens to share your political views. Unless that individual was a close friend or colleague, his getting cancelled does not really affect your “payoffs”.
However, suppose there’s a sizeable minority who do take cancellations of their co-partisans personally. Rather than prompting the woke left to behave less sociopathically, trying to get more left-wing people cancelled could – if anything – cause the situation to escalate (leading to more people on both sides getting cancelled). And given that the woke left has far more power within most societal institutions, this “escalation” strategy is unlikely to go well for its opponents. Once the dust had settled, there would likely be many more casualties on the right.
Above, I said that the right should “definitely not” use cancel culture against the left if “we’re talking about random people who’ve said something problematic”. But what if we talking about individuals like Frederick Joseph, who go out of their way to get others cancelled (and for transgressions of which they themselves are guilty, no less). I’ll admit that, in these cases, it’s much harder to make a principled case against cancel culture. I certainly have no problem with users digging up their old tweets – if for no other reason than to expose the stinking hypocrisy. What’s more, the “Axelrod argument” actually has some purchase here. If you go around getting people cancelled, and then you get cancelled, you might actually learn your lesson.
However, the people who really deserve to be punished are the spineless decision-makers who act on demands for cancellation – people like Derek Andersen, the CEO of Bevy HQ. After all, they’re supposed to be the grown ups in all this. When a child is having a tantrum because another child called him a name at the local duck pond, you don’t expel the other child from school and ruin her life. Indeed, the dispute between Joseph and the woman who got fired was an entirely private matter. And even if she did say something nasty (which I’m not condoning), she didn’t do it in her capacity as an employee of Bevy HQ. People get into disputes from time to time, and they lose their temper. Your job as a boss is to keep your cool; not to capitulate as soon as someone tags you on Twitter.
What’s more, going after the pusillanimous decision-makers takes the sting out of cancel culture. If they know there are consequences to capitulation, they’re less likely to throw people under the bus. And once they’ve been brought into line, all the squawking and stomping-of-feet by activists will be rendered futile. They can complain as much as they like about what so-and-so said in a tweet, and the rest of can just get on with our lives. That’s where we should be heading, anyway.
Image: Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
The Daily Sceptic
I’ve written four more posts since last time. The first notes that August’s age-standardised mortality rate in England was 2.5% higher than the five year average. The second examines why so few economists spoke out against lockdowns. The third considers why public health advice on mask-wearing changed so suddenly in the spring of 2020. The fourth notes that school closures may have caused a large rise in illiteracy in India.
Thanks for reading. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with your friends. And please consider subscribing if you haven’t done so already.