Letter 1: Cancel Culture is a myth
Trying to, at least, define this thing that so many disagree about
This is my second letter. I am hoping to write two a week, but have been facing some growing pains. Michael Moynihan will respond to my first letter soon. He’s had some travel.
This letter is to my dear, old friend Mike Pesca, who hosts The Gist podcast. We shared an office at NPR for years and have a long history of long discussions, often heated, but never angry.
I guess we’re doing this. We’re talking about Cancel Culture.
This is the topic I’ve been most eager to discuss and the one I also most dread.
I don’t fully understand why “cancel culture” is so hard to talk about. I can’t think of another topic like it.
As you know, I think “cancel culture” is largely a myth, a moral panic, not a serious, large-scale, and troubling phenomenon. I do think that anti-cancel-culture is a significant issue. People accuse others of “cancel culture” as a tool to silence them.
We disagree on that. And we’ll dig into the disagreements shortly. But I also have this other question: why is it so hard to talk about? You and I have discussed it, just amongst ourselves and in podcast form, multiple times, and I don’t think we’ve made much headway with each other. At least I am talking with you. I have a bunch of friends who I simply can’t discuss it with, friends who are smart and reasonable, and we have good chats about all sorts of contentious things, but we can’t talk about this one.
Well, here goes. Let’s try to talk this thing out. I’m going to try to keep this letter shorter than my first one to Michael Moynihan because this should be a dialogue, not a series of speeches.
This letter is all about definitions:
What is cancel culture?
What the hell is this thing we’re arguing about?
I have not been able to find anything like a widely-accepted definition.
In fact, this Pew poll shows that there is no definition that a majority of people accept. And many of the definitions I see out there are contradictory.
Here’s the best I could come up with:
A new, troubling, and growing trend in which people demand that others suffer significant consequences (firing, de-platforming, loss of economic opportunities) for expressing opinions that have recently become unacceptable.
Does that definition feel fair? How would you describe the phenomenon?
Let me explain the significance of each part of that definition:
“A new, troubling, and growing trend”: It seems to me that whatever it is, cancel culture needs to be new and increasing to justify the number of articles, think pieces, and concerns expressed on Twitter and elsewhere. If it’s not new and it’s not growing, why are so many people so upset?
And it needs to be “troubling” because … well, if it’s not troubling, then why are people mad about it.
“in which people demand”: for reasons I don’t understand, governments actually banning books or other types of speech don’t seem to count as “cancel culture.” The things that are called “cancel culture” seem to be those in which many individuals express upset and insist on some outcome. If the people doing the insisting are “on the left”, then it’s more likely to be called cancel culture.
“Suffer significant consequences”: I would think there would have to be some real-world impact–or, at least, the “cancelers” would need to be calling for real-world impact for something to count as a “cancelation.” (Sometimes, it seems, people claim to have been “canceled” when they voluntarily left a job or when nothing bad has happened to them at all, other than hearing some criticisms of their ideas.)
“For expressing opinions”: Some folks have tried to call firings for clear wrongdoing to be “cancellations.” I’ve even seen people say that Russia is being “canceled” for invading Ukraine. That seems silly to me. This is about people saying words, not people actually doing illegal things.
“That have recently become unacceptable.” This seems to be a key part of the definition. Nearly everyone seems to agree that there are opinions/ideas/expressions that are simply unacceptable–now and for a long time. Kanye’s overt anti-Semitism, for example, would have surely been seen as unacceptable a decade or two or three ago.
Since this is a term I’ve not heard a lot of other people use, I’m just going to define it the way I think about it:
Using the term “cancel culture,” to mock or diminish:
Someone criticizing someone else.
Or: an appropriate consequence for someone who engaged in wrong-doing.
Often using the word “woke.”
So, examples of cancel culture, in my mind, would include:
Saying that the West is trying to “cancel” Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine.
Saying Prince Andrew was “canceled” because he (almost certainly) had sex with a victim of trafficking.
Canceling or anti-Canceling: Which one is worse?
This, to my mind, is the essence of the argument.
It seems to me that on the side of “Cancel Culture is worse” there is not a huge body of evidence. I’ve seen various lists going around with examples of people who have been canceled. Probably the most commonly-referenced databases come from FIRE, a well-funded, professionally-staffed conservative organization.
FIRE’s mission is to defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought
They have a clear incentive to count as many examples of cancel culture as possible. They have come up with fewer than 1,000 over the past 20 years. In my view, they are overly generous in their definitions: counting people disinvited from events, for example, as canceled.
I’ve seen other lists of names of canceled people that also number in the hundreds. Generally, when I peruse these lists, I find quibbles with many of the examples. But let’s be generous and say there are 1,000 clear-cut cases of people being fired or otherwise economically punished for expressing views that had, until recently, been uncontroversial. Let’s say it’s 1,000 every year and not 1,000 in 20 years. (This strikes me as unimaginably generous since that would mean 20 cases every week, 4 every work day. Each clear-cut case seems to get a lot of coverage on Twitter, Fox News, and countless substacks. So, if there were 20 new cases each and every week, I think we’d know.)
The privilege (and sometimes the curse) of being trained in economics is that I, often look at emotional issues through the lens of statistics. And, often, learn that a seemingly massive problem is actually tiny and that some seemingly small issues are, in fact, huge.
There aren’t any reliable statistics on the number of Americans fired for cause each year. The closest is the BLS’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) survey count of “layoffs and discharges” which is the number of people who left a job involuntarily. They were fired. Now, maddeningly, they don’t separate “fired for cause,” so we don’t know how many are a result of business downturns, downsizing, or mergers, and how many were fired for cause.
More than 60,000 people lose their job every single working day and far fewer than 4 of them are because of anything anyone would call “cancelation.”
So, even if we have the most generous reading possible, an absurdly high number of 1,000 “canceled” people every month, it is tiny to the point of irrelevancy. More than 60,000 people lose their job every single working day and far fewer than 4 of them are because of anything anyone would call “cancelation.”
(That is for all industries. JOLTS doesn’t break out “media” or “entertainment” where cancelations are often said to reside. They are subsets of the Information industry, which employs ~3 million people in the US and faces about 80,000 involuntary separations a month. So, the basic argument remains: cancelations simply aren’t a statistically significant phenomenon.)
What about anti-cancelation?
This requires a different metric. The argument is not that some significant number of people are losing their jobs because they canceled people. Rather, my argument is that anti-cancelation has become a cudgel to silence people. I’ve been looking for statistics on this but haven’t been able to find anything reliable.
However, it has clearly become a central rhetorical plank of GOP politics and a potent generator of essays, books, podcasts, and at least one “university.” I don’t think you can watch much of Fox News or read the Atlantic without seeing at least a few references to the issue. (I’d be curious how much of Substack’s revenue is cancel-related. I get the irony.)
It is just not that big a deal. In general.
This is hard to write to you, of all people. Since I do think you represent one of the cases of someone being “canceled,” according to my definition. I’ll let you decide if you want to bring up all the details. My take—as I’ve told you privately—is that the circumstances that led to you leaving Slate before you wanted to were poorly handled.
I was CEO of a media company at the time, and the whole incident shook me.
I sympathized with nearly everyone. I sympathized with the staffers who said they didn’t want to have an open discussion of the ethics of using the ugliest of words in a public slack. I did think it was entirely appropriate for them to insist that the company make a change in how it handles this topic. But I also had sympathy for you. Were I the boss, I think I would have sat down with you, and asked you to understand the concerns raised (which I know, privately, you did). I think I would have made a public statement that we were changing company policy and such discussions would have to happen differently, if at all. But I feel pretty sure I wouldn’t have fired you or created conditions under which you had no choice but to leave.
So, I know that for you, this is not a bloodless matter of numbers and statistics. This issue impacted you painfully. And, as your old friend, I hate to be the guy using numbers to belittle this concern.
But as the guy with a substack and an economics background, I find myself thinking that even—especially!—when things are emotional, it is good to look at the numbers.
I, of course, have much more to say. But I will wait for your letter.
I’m excited and terrified.
If you shoot only one person in a room of 1000 for expressing their views, that’s tiny statistically. But what have you done to the culture?
Interesting. But the counting you've done only means something inside a specific social context. So, the list of 1,000 should be broken down into specific industry worlds and the rate of firing for ideological reasons measured at that level, not nationally in the contex of all firings. This is perhaps your macro-economic bias? Academia, for example, has engaged in purges before - look to the anti-communist mania of the 1950s. The difference that's important is who is doing the purging and how are they positioned? When an ideological minority get fired for ideological reasons by an institution's leadership, this should concern anyone fond of democracy, regardless of the scale. Democracy dies first in the University Board meeting and the HOA, and so on...