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“You’re Cancelled!” Approaching Cancel Culture with Care

Trigger warning: low-detail discussions of domestic violence, murder, and other potentially upsetting topics.

          Imagine we have an artist named Marvin Johnson. For the last 15 years, Marvin Johnson has been at the peak of his career, releasing hit after hit and winning award after award. Marvin’s music has shaped the Zeitgeist, and you can hear his electric, unmistakeable vocal style on nearly every pop song nowadays. For most of his career in the public eye, Marvin’s been a stand-up guy, a consummate professional who’s handled every troubling situation with grace and humility, even the one where his twice-removed ex-stepfather tried to claim royaltites for coming up with Marvin’s latest album title, which was just “Marvin”. So, imagine we have this artist Marvin Johnson, and imagine additionally that BuzzFeed has just broken a detailed, longform piece accusing Marvin of a pattern of abusive behavior with his domestic partner about ten years ago. As avid listeners of Marvin’s music, and big-time consumers of Marvin’s larger brand, what should we do with this information?

          This – “‘X’ person did ‘Y’ wrong, so what ‘Z’ should we do to them?” – is the fundamental question of cancel culture. For the unacquainted, cancel culture (in the United States, which is what I’ll focus on) is a fairly nebulous term that generally describes the phenomenon by which a well-known person is discovered to have done something wrong at some point in their past and is subsequently societally shunned. The extent to which that person is punished by society is highly dependent on the nature of the wrongdoing itself and the society doing the punishing. But it is also frequently random. Judgement is passed quickly on public figures accused of prior indiscretions, and the societal retribution that follows – pulled sponsors, cancelled shows, rejected writings – is swift and performed after only a cursory glance at the facts. This, at first glance, is reasonable; previously beloved figures are being found to be morally abhorrent people at an alarming rate, and why would we want to give the time of day to someone who is probably morally abhorrent? The answer is twofold: first, cancellation often involves the complete termination of any social ties to the person in question, and it’s devastating to that person’s life and life outlook (perhaps rightfully so). Second, we necessarily set a precedent by cancelling someone. Cancellation is implicitly a statement that their behavior was unacceptable, and that anybody who acts similarly will face similar consequences. But removed from context, absent all of the available evidence, and given only a quick glance at the facts, should we be ending people’s careers and setting a questionable precedent for the next cancellation? What, in essence, should we do with Marvin?

          We should treat cancellation with the unbiased nuance and precision that an action of its magnitude deserves. This requires an analytical framework that can to a reasonable extent transcend political barriers and thus be generalizable. In order to produce an analytical framework for cancelling someone, we should begin by breaking down the most basic formulation of cancellation: “‘X’ person did ‘Y’ wrong, so we should do ‘Z’ to them”. In the absence of a clear path forward here, let’s work mathematically from left to right, looking into the specific character of each of those statements to produce a clear guide for evaluation.

          We begin with “X person”. Who is the person being reviewed, and how important is the consideration of who they are to their prospects for cancellation? In the context of cancel culture, we often define people in relation to their work: when allegations of Michael Jackson’s pedophilia re-emerged, the most frequent response in opposition to his cancellation was some version of “the great Michael Jackson, musician and showman that heavily influenced my life, cannot be guilty of these crimes or should not be cancelled for his indiscretions. His life’s work was simply too important.” This happens relatively often; when famous or highly important people are accused of some sort of wrongdoing, the first response is to treat their personhood simply as a reflection of their work, which implies that their work can be sufficiently great to negate any of their transgressions. On face, this seems slightly ridiculous. Nobody should be outside of the realm of morality, regardless of the person that they are (which, again, is often defined in terms of their work). We don’t act like this through all of our codified rules and laws (note: the rule of law), so we shouldn’t act as if anybody’s value to society can be so much as to insulate them from the effects of their actions.

          The relative importance of someone’s work seems to take on an ever lesser weight when you realize that humanity has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to comprehend the signifiance of art, technology, et cetera, until long after its creators are gone. A determination that someone’s work is not sufficiently important to avoid their cancellation is nonsensical, because there is no way to determine the significance of that work in perpetuity. It additionally goes without saying that for some types of work – namely art – importance is almost entirely subjective. People interpret and import value onto different types of work in different ways, and any determination of a work’s merits privileges some sorts of information over others. There is more room for nuance here, but for now it seems that the magnitude of someone’s work, however we decide to evaluate it, should be a minor consideration when reviewing their actions and determining their cancellation. In Marvin’s case, then, we can move forward with the knowledge that he is a highly respected, accomplished musician, and that this fact is also relatively unimportant.

          Let’s move on to the next part of the statement: “did Y wrong”. This part of the formulation describes the specific wrongdoing that the person in question has committed, and it’s probably the diciest part of this whole question. For the sake of this framework, we can treat the wrongdoing as two separate phenomena: first is the negative action itself, or the moral transgression that we as a society are adjudicating, and second is everything that happens after that action, or the set of actions that the person in question takes after accusations of wrongdoing are leveled at them. The negative action itself is often what gets people cancelled, and it’s hard to prescribe a universal guide for cancellation, i.e. “*this* type of action is cancellable and *this* type of action is not”. While we might have some objective moral truths in modern society (murder is bad), degrees of wrongness are ultimately subjective. It’s impossible to come to a consensus for certain types of indiscretions, and one person might conclude that trespassing is a sufficiently terrible offense for cancellation, while another (more reasonably) might conclude the opposite. With Marvin here, we have a case of domestic abuse. Our society generally views domestic abuse highly negatively, and it’s as close as we can get to an objective moral truth as possible without any additional context.

          While this framework cannot unilaterally condemn certain actions as cancellable, there are certain contextual characteristics that are always present and that shed additional light on the nature of the transgression: what is expected of the person, and does this behavior violate our expectations? We hold business executives to a different standard than athletes; a person’s wrongdoing should be judged in terms of how we typically expect them to comport themselves. As an established music industry presence with plenty of time in the public eye and all the educational and monetary resources in the world, we would expect Marvin to comport himself exceptionally well.

          What’s the individual’s background, and can a specific type of background mitigate the severity of a person’s wrongdoing? Depending on the negative action, we might hold someone who’s been in academia their entire lives to a different standard than someone who dropped out of high school. Lastly: is the transgression an independent event, or is it part of a larger pattern of problematic behavior that should be evaluated holistically? We might treat a situation in which someone robbed the corner store when they were young with more sympathy than one in which an individual has advocated for racist policies for their whole life. Nothing in Marvin’s background is relevant to his current situation, but the BuzzFeed report indicates that he was abusive throughout the course of his 5-year relationship, which again occurred 10 years ago. Since then, there’s been no evidence that he’s engaged in similar behavior.

          Each of the aforementioned contextual considerations alters our ability to calculate the severity of the person’s offense, and each one and other contextual considerations should always be thoroughly understood and incorporated into the framework for cancellation. The contextual considerations, however, are simply additional inputs into the framework; even if an individual’s life contexts merit some sympathy, their misbehavior might be so severe as to still bear relevance. The only consideration that slightly aids Marvin’s case is that it seems to be a one-off issue, but that does not change the fact that he is a domestic abuser and should be treated as such.

          The second part of the negative action – the behavior that follows – is analogous to these contextual considerations in that it can change the calculation of wrongness but cannot change the action itself. When someone commits a major crime, to what extent do they acknowledge and apologize for their crime? If the person does not apologize for their actions and maintains that they have acted rightfully, we might just take the severity of the crime at face value. But if a person consistently demonstrates remorse and growth, we might think less of the magnitude of their crime. Like the contextual considerations, the person’s behavior following their crime might completely absolve them of their guilt, or it might only make their culpability stronger. Marvin has only half-heartedly apologized while attempting to maintain some level of innocence; he’s blamed his former partner for relationship woes and now claims that he’s “no longer the man he used to be.”

          It’s worth noting here that the extent to which context matters is a highly individualistic consideration; depending on your personal moral system and larger set of beliefs about the world, you might be more or less inclined to forgive people for their transgressions. If you are more utilitarian in nature, you’d be willing to account for every possible contextual consideration and make a very mathematical judgement call about the severity of the person’s actions. If, on the other hand, your values are deeply rooted in principle and intent (a more Kantian approach), you might be unwilling to forgive people for their actions – regardless of the context of those actions – if the action itself breaches a certain threshold that you consider universally evil. Here, an interesting contradiction arises: certain brands of American conservatism that emphasize rights and traditions should endorse the Kantian conservative position in favor of cancelling with no strings attached, but it is often the folks on the opposite side of the political spectrum doing the cancelling. Leftists and modern liberals, who are less likely to view political debates as matters of codified rights and intents, are more often than not the proponents of cancel culture. This contradiction is either the result of mapping cancel culture, which should be an entirely apolitical phenomenon, onto a political compass, or simply an indictment of our modern politics, which have become so twisted that we’ve lost sight of our underlying principles. But I digress.

          To this point, we have determined that the relative importance of a person’s work is only tangentially related to their prospects for being cancelled, and additionally that the severity of the person’s wrongdoing should be examined given several contextual features. Assuming that the severity of some wrongdoing is found to be significant, we can move on to the last part of the cancellation statement: “we should do Z to them”. This part of the statement is the ultimate conclusion of cancellation, the actual act of cancelling that in the modern sense might forever add an asterisk to a scientist’s name or that might get an artist kicked off of Spotify. How, then, do we determine how to cancel an artist? Do we completely boycott their work and reject them from society, or do we just add a footnote to their name and move on? Here, a new consideration becomes immediately apparent. Deciding what to do with an individual and their work upon cancellation depends very much on how integral that person’s personality and actions are to their work. If your work is directly reflective of your repudiated actions (like a racist data scientist who trained AI to over-police black neighborhoods), it seems like the artist’s cancellation should extend to their work. There are many cases in which you cannot separate the artist from the art, because the artist is the art; Ellen DeGeneres, for example, has created a brand for which her personality is the product. If Ellen were to do something cancelleable (she might already have), it would be an indictment of her personality, which in being directly tied to the product also indicts the product. If, on the other hand, the person’s work is reasonably detached from their person, there is room for the world to still acknowledge and appreciate their work. Martin Heidegger was a known Nazi sympathist, but his philosophical contributions have been incredibly important to the development of the discipline in the last 100 years; his Nazi sympathies rarely make their way into his work. In cases like this, it seems unreasonable to simply reject all of the person’s work. As we found earlier, the relative importance of Heidegger’s work is irrelevant here; nothing should exempt him from being held accountable for his views and actions. But it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge Heidegger’s wrongdoings and read and interpret his work, all without endorsing him as a person. In cases, then, where the person’s work is independent of their wrongdoings, we should set a precedent whereby we can consume their work while rejecting them as a person. Marvin never really sang about his abuse, but a lot of his personal life has made his way into his music, including random details and pinings from the relationship in question. He’s discussed that relationship in detail, crooning about romance, infidelity, and heartbreak across several of his earlier albums. At this point, Marvin’s personality is integral to his music; he’s naming his new album “Marvin”, after all, and his face will soon be plastered over Times Square again.

          We arrive now at the final step of the cancel culture formula, the “putting it all together” step. The general rules of thumb that we’ve discovered include: the significance of someone’s work is irrelevant when determining whether or not they should be cancelled, establishing the severity of the wrongdoing is difficult but follows general societal rules, all possible contexts should be considered, and the relationship between the wrongdoing, their persona, and their work is highly relevant when deciding what their cancellation actually looks like. For Marvin Johnson, pop artist extraordinaire and domestic abuser, we can put the pieces together like so: Marvin committed a highly heinous act that in itself was patterned and repetitive, there are no contextual considerations that hint at any exculpatory motivations, he has only half-heartedly apologized, and his music features his persona and the situation in question front-and-center. Our conclusion should therefore be as follows: Marvin is a domestic abuser, and even though the police aren’t currently on the case, we, as society, should be. Marvin’s persona (which includes his history of abuse) is well on display in his music, and we should therefore try to avoid his music as much as possible, both to punish Marvin for his actions and to set a precedent for the future – that domestic abuse is inexcusable, even for a global pop star.