Will I love you but you're being ridiculous.

Imagine that a prominent conservative pundit tweeted "police misconduct lol." Then a few months later, he's attending a peaceful protest and fails to obey a police officer quickly enough and the cop beats the shit out of him. People say "what do you think about police misconduct now buddy?"

The pundit then writes a long piece explaining that there's no consensus about what counts as police misconduct—sometimes officers have legitimate fear for their life after all—and hence he still doesn't find the term "police misconduct" to be meaningful. Sure, *his* beating was unjustified police use of force. But in his view it's tendentious question-begging to condemn police misconduct in general, since the whole topic under debate is which use of force is unjustified.

Pejorative terms for human misbehavior—accounting fraud, police misconduct, cancel culture—always have this character. People disagree about the merits of individual actions and hence about which actions merit the application of a disapproving label.

This does not mean we should eradicate such morally loaded language from our vocabulary.

Police misconduct and accounting fraud are real problems! Having a label for them helps build a social consensus that they represent a problem and that people might want to work together to try to discourage recurrence of the problematic behavior.

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I'm pretty sympathetic to your argument, so let me try and challenge us both a bit. Put "cancel culture" or "call out culture" to the side for a sec, semantically. Let's see if we can identify some novel phenomena that's at least part of what people are getting at with those terms.

The bottom line is that the Internet overall, mass adoption of Internet connected devices, and social media, are all novel things, so pretty much anything that happens there is "novel" in some mundane sense. But I do think there's a way these things add up such that "more is different."

One tried and true method for getting attention is to denounce someone else. Ideally, this is someone who already has an audience of fans and haters, so you can pander to the latter and drum up hate-attention from the former. There are people who dig through social media post backlogs to try and find something they can use to this effect.

One silly recent example was the bean can dad guy. He had some posts for like 7-10 years ago where he was, as far as I can tell from the context, doing a bit where he was mocking conspiracy theorists, but doing the bit involved tweets in that thread where he was saying what they'd say. Put aside whether or not this is a correct reading of those specific tweets/that specific guy, point is, if that *is* the correct interpretation, what ended up happening was people saw that a guy's thread went viral, and went looking for a way to torch him in order to get attention for themselves, and succeeded by taking a tweet that looks pretty damn bad by itself and saying it was what the guy believed.

It's always been true that fame makes you a target, even fifteen minutes of fame. It's always been true that successfully torching someone famous can get you attention and potentially make you famous yourself. It's also long been true that the communication technology exists to, if you wanted to badly enough, contact someone's employer in order to try and get them fired. But if the barrier to entry for these activities falls low enough, if the marginal effort required to find past statements and share them, or find someone's employer and contact them, falls low enough, then I think you get into some cycles that are pretty toxic.

But I don't really see this as a *cultural* problem. It strikes me as more *structural*, stemming from our technological situation. You can probably reduce or increase this behavior on the margins via culture, but one thing I'd really like the "cancel culture" people to attempt more seriously is to look into how much of this is a cross-cultural phenomenon, not just across parties or regions of the US but like, around the world, for people who've adopted these technologies.

And ultimately, as you say, it does come down to whether or not you think the particular case is merited. Someone here also mentioned at-will employment, I think that having for-cause standards becomes much more attractive under the current scenario, but you know, it also seems like the fraction of people this impacts, even the absolute number, might be so small that even that needle needn't be moved much (and other considerations/justifications for for-cause vs at-will ought to be the main arguments on its behalf, if you're for it).

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"Bad judgment doesn't call into question good judgment. The prevalence of unjust and unmerited censure, sanction, and ostracism should not suggest to us that censure, sanction and ostracism, as such, need a hard second look."

I am sympathetic to much in this post and never would've chosen "cancel culture" as a term, but say that one believes in and wants to assert the existence of an alarming trend of "unmerited censure, sanction, and ostracism," partly rooted in a faction that mistakenly or maliciously esteems those things. Is that ever a permissible argument to make? And if so, may one invoke a term as shorthand for it, if willing to expound when pressed? If not why not? If so what term is acceptable?

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I'm not sure what's wrong with a definition of cancel culture that appeals to a lack of proportionality. Yes, a disproportionate punitive response to transgressions can be part of a culture. And we have plenty of words to refer to excessiveness, such as "excessiveness."

Your case is a little tricky, because if someone sincerely read you as calling for violence against Trump--and some people seem to have, though obviously not anyone with any prior knowledge of you--then your being fired does not seem excessive (indeed perhaps it's inadequate).

However one suspects that the Nikanssen Center *did not really believe* you were making a threat of violence--since, again, no one familiar with you would have not gotten the joke. And this, I think, is part of cancel culture--when someone gets fired not because their organization truly believes they've done anything wrong, but simply because of the size of the howling mob outside. (Social media makes this possible because the mob doesn't even need to go to the trouble of gathering in person.)

So if you fire your employee for making a Nazi joke you honestly think is disgusting--even if they've otherwise seemed like a "great person"--then no, I don't think that's cancel culture. Cancel culture involves an element of "jumping on the bandwagon"--punishing someone because that's what everyone else is doing, since (this is the underlying worry) if you don't join in, you might be next to suffer.

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Sure, there's concept creep, hard cases, sloganeering, etc., but I think that, at its core, the concept is reasonably clear: it's an attempt to use the methods of public shaming to turn the target into a social pariah (not just to make them unemployed but unemployable), and in response to a statement that the listener finds offensive. So your case, I think, isn't a paradigm case of cancellation. Neither is the holocaust denial case you describe, but it would be if you used your mighty perch to make your former employee persona non grata.

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"Cancel culture" would be more useful as a term to describe a mode rather than a political orientation or disposition. The speed, ease, reach, and frequency with which people can shame others is pretty unique to the internet and social media in particular. But in practice a lot of writers focus on left-right origin stories that I don't think are very helpful, so the term isn't as useful as it could be.

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Cancel culture is hard to pin down because different people view it differently. Same is true for rights, religion, free will, etc. But this doesn’t mean these concepts don’t exist or can’t be used constructively.

Do you think your tweet merited your removal? If not, you might have been canceled. If everyone agrees not, you probably have been canceled. If only people on the extreme left think so, you have almost certainly been canceled.

But I agree that cancel culture is used as an epithet by people who condone grotesque power relations I.e. using ethnic slurs, claiming bio cultural superiority, etc. If most moderates who stuck up for you (Douthat, Klein, Brooks, Haidt, etc.) would not stick up for them, then they have probably not been canceled. They have instead been correctly censured.

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Anytime there’s a new & complicated “thing” on the scene, it rates to be poorly named and ill-defined at first, and for some time.

If it’s “just culture”, then why now? Is it catching on just because of clever alliteration?

However poorly pinned down, and however abused the term might be, its existence seems like good evidence that there is a there there.

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Thanks Will, if anything the bleak and absurd situation you were put through inspired one of the most clear eyed reflections on the term "cancel culture" and its ever more common usage for the purposes of concern trolling

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I'm conflicted on this. On the one hand Will is right that there is no commonly understood definition of 'cancel culture' and its sometimes too broadly applied, often in bad faith by right-wingers. On the other hand Soave gave us his own definition and the behavior that Will himself was subject to seems like a clear case of how most reasonable people would define 'cancel culture' and is a bad thing in modern society and to quibble over the labeling of it seems pointlessly semantic to me.

I do admire Will for owning his mistake, apologizing for it, and sticking to his guns on being cancel culture skeptical rather than doing a u-turn and whining about it because it happened to him. Happy to subscribe to this substack and hope many others do too!

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I think the crux of most cancellation laments I've seen refer to actions seemingly spurred by bad faith recriminations of right wing figures doing a good bit of pearl clutching. Here cancellation follows a fairly discernable (if incomplete) narrative of bad faith PC weaponizing against left of center figures bc such figures usually work for people or institutions that are susceptible to such.

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IMHO, the better gotcha isn't whether you've come around on cancel culture, it's what your thoughts are on at-will employment. This might have played out differently if Niskanen had a union.

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