Not Another Cancel Culture Article

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Issue 6, Volume 112

By Aaron Visser 

In spite of our best efforts, social media is a purposeless place. Sure, it’s reliable for a smile and an exhale, an “awww so cute!”, or even a “that’s crazy,” but for all the time spent in this virtual space, little remains after the phone is put away. It’s inextricable from our lives yet so disconnected from the real world. Some aren’t content with that trait and want to use it as a tool to make the world a better place. Repost to save a dolphin. Swipe up to plant a tree. Tap here to learn about climate change.

In the progressive spaces I occupy, one of the most prioritized problems is bigotry. Unlike climate change or affordable healthcare, it doesn’t have a simple policy plan. People want to help out; they want to be activists in the fight for civil rights or against anti-Asian and anti-Semitic hate. While posting about a racist incident might feel similar to spreading awareness about deforestation, the impact can be quite different. The tree post won’t ruin the livelihood of an innocent lumberjack. Social media disinformation combined with callout campaigns, however, ruins the lives of the innocent.

Last week, social media brought to my attention a New York substitute teacher who supposedly yelled anti-Asian comments to her majority Asian-American student class. However, the case was much more complicated than the post made it seem. The 70-year-old substitute teacher claimed that coronavirus originated in a lab and criticized China’s government. School officials overheard students talking about the comments during lunch, quickly suspended the substitute, and condemned “hateful and disturbing behavior,” sending in a guidance counselor to help the students process their trauma.

However, the only real impact was the removal of a low-paid city employee. This substitute teacher lost her livelihood, a profession that pays a meager $39 thousand per year on average, and her dignity; she will always be “the sub who did that racist thing,” all because she said that the coronavirus came from a lab, a view shared by former CDC director Robert Redfield and which a recent U.S. intelligence report found “plausible,” and that China, a one-party oligarchy that lacks due process and free speech and is committing genocide, doesn’t “have freedom.” Perhaps these comments were inappropriate for fifth graders and certainly phrased in an odd way, but they clearly weren’t on the level described by “hateful and disturbing.” Social media takes what should be a dispute between a substitute and her school and turns it into a show trial.

Last year in Massachusetts, another teacher became the target of online attacks due to posting Facebook comments allegedly against the Black Lives Matter movement. The school fired the teacher, despite the clear sarcastic nature of the comments and her previous actions of online antiracism. The Massachusetts Department of Education ordered her reinstated last month, with back pay given and her name cleared, officially, that is. In most parts of the Internet, the teacher can never go back.

These stories are common; every week, there’s a new case about a truck driver accused of making a white power signal or a Muslim caterer whose teenage daughter made anti-Semitic Tweets. These stories are likely to go underreported because the situations are often ambiguous and victims want to keep a low profile.

The term “cancel culture,” which brings to mind celebrities like DaBaby or J. K. Rowling, conceals two separate phenomena. To cancel people who have lived privately their entire lives doesn’t hurt some abstract public image or record sales, but instead harms their livelihood and family. However, many don’t see a distinction. To them, all forms of calling out bigotry are speaking truth to power, no matter the individual or evidence. They think they’re punching up, no matter how underpaid or badly protected the individual.

Each case is tragic in itself, but the real impact is much more widespread. Cancelation functions as public execution: a punishment to the victim and a warning to the audience of the consequence for breaking social law. Each one tells us, “Look out because no one is safe.” Not you, dear reader, who might make an inappropriate joke or have some social media post dug up, not your family members, who can all become infamous at a moment’s notice, not even me, who could be attacked for writing this very article, is safe. Individually, each is quite unlikely, but together, these incidents create a panopticon of paranoia, a system of enforced speech operated by no one that keeps people quiet and compliant.

Many will argue that online cancelation is a necessary way of holding people accountable for their behavior. However, the mechanism that makes cancel culture effective is what makes it redundant. Cancel culture, even with the existence of social media, would not have worked in the 1970s because back then, the charge of racism was something to be waved away. Now, so many innocent people are defenestrated due to supposed bigotry. We should punish bad behavior through normal channels without using social media, which reduces nuanced stories into caricatures and turns those caricatures into outright lies. So the next time you’re on Instagram, go save those trees. Fight climate change and police violence. Just don’t shame substitute teachers.