The Atlantic published a piece earlier this week by Anne Applebaum titled “The New Puritans.” It’s really a piece about cancel culture, though Applebaum does her best to set that phrase aside early on because it’s something people on the right say and is therefore suspect. But despite the throat clearing, the piece itself is a pretty revealing look at what it’s like to be canceled based on interviews with more than a dozen people who have gone through it themselves or seen someone close to them go through it. For the most part, names aren’t used because many of these people are still afraid of speaking up for fear the mob will descend on them once more.
A journalist told me that after he was summarily fired, his acquaintances sorted themselves into three groups. First, the “heroes,” very small in number, who “insist on due process before damaging another person’s life and who stick by their friends.” Second, the “villains,” who think you should “immediately lose your livelihood as soon as the allegation is made.” Some old friends, or people he thought were old friends, even joined the public attack. But the majority were in a third category: “good but useless. They don’t necessarily think the worst of you, and they would like you to get due process, but, you know, they haven’t looked into it. They have reasons to think charitably of you, maybe, but they’re too busy to help. Or they have too much to lose.” One friend told him that she would happily write a defense of him, but she had a book proposal in the works. “I said, ‘Thank you for your candor.’ ”…
Here is the second thing that happens, closely related to the first: Even if you have not been suspended, punished, or found guilty of anything, you cannot function in your profession. If you are a professor, no one wants you as a teacher or mentor (“The graduate students made it obvious to me that I was a nonperson and could not possibly be tolerated”). You cannot publish in professional journals. You cannot quit your job, because no one else will hire you. If you are a journalist, then you might find that you cannot publish at all. After losing his job as editor of The New York Review of Books in a #MeToo-related editorial dispute—he was not accused of assault, just of printing an article by someone who was—Ian Buruma discovered that several of the magazines where he had been writing for three decades would not publish him any longer. One editor said something about “younger staff” at his magazine.
For many, intellectual and professional life grinds to a halt. “I was doing the best work in my life when I heard of this investigation happening,” one academic told me. “It all stopped. I have not written another paper since.” Peter Ludlow, a philosophy professor at Northwestern (and the subject of Laura Kipnis’s book), lost two book contracts after the university forced him out of his job for two alleged instances of sexual harassment, which he denies. Other philosophers would not allow their articles to appear in the same volume as one of his. After Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal) posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it. After the poet Joseph Massey was accused of “harassment and manipulation” by women he’d been romantically involved with, the Academy of American Poets removed all of his poetry from its website, and his publishers removed his books from theirs. Stephen Elliott, a journalist and critic who was accused of rape on the anonymous “Shitty Media Men” list that circulated on the internet at the height of the #MeToo conversation—he is now suing that list’s creator for defamation—has written that, in the aftermath, a published collection of his essays vanished without a trace: Reviews were canceled; The Paris Review aborted a planned interview with him; he was disinvited from book panels, readings, and other events.
The outcome of all of this is life altering for the people involved. If your ability to work in a field you’ve devoted your life to is suddenly cut off with no clear path to restoring it, what do you do? It’s common for people who’ve experienced it to think about suicide and in some cases people have killed themselves. People on the receiving end of this treatment will often try to restore their reputation by apologizing in some way. But the mob is rarely in a forgiving mood these days. As Applebaum puts it, “apologies will be parsed, examined for ‘sincerity’—and then rejected.”
Meanwhile, some members of the mob keep digging. Once you’ve been identified as a bad person, every tweet and public utterance can be reexamined for additional evidence of guilt. Sometimes these investigations take place online but often they are some kind of parallel legal system (like a college’s internal investigation) in which the accused has no rights, not even to know what the process is or how it works. As Applebaum points out, these processes aren’t new to human experience:
Secretive procedures that take place outside the law and leave the accused feeling helpless and isolated have been an element of control in authoritarian regimes across the centuries, from the Argentine junta to Franco’s Spain. Stalin created “troikas”—ad hoc, extrajudicial bodies that heard dozens of cases in a day. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Mao empowered students to create revolutionary committees to attack and swiftly remove professors. In both instances, people used these unregulated forms of “justice” to pursue personal grudges or gain professional advantage. In The Whisperers, his book on Stalinist culture, the historian Orlando Figes cites many such cases, among them Nikolai Sakharov, who wound up in prison because somebody fancied his wife; Ivan Malygin, who was denounced by somebody jealous of his success; and Lipa Kaplan, sent to a labor camp for 10 years after she refused the sexual advances of her boss. The sociologist Andrew Walder has revealed how the Cultural Revolution in Beijing was shaped by power competitions between rival student leaders.
And unfortunately, in my view, that’s where Applebaum loses the thread. Having marched right up to the point of admitting that cancel culture now looks and works a lot like these more organized forms of punishment used by authoritarian (often communist) regimes, she takes a sharp turn and suggests the problem isn’t ideology at all but “difficult” people, i.e. those who are a little too friendly or too grumpy or too unorthodox. Those people just don’t fit in under the new cruelty.
It’s not just the hyper-social and the flirtatious who have found themselves victims of the New Puritanism. People who are, for lack of a more precise word, difficult have trouble too. They are haughty, impatient, confrontational, or insufficiently interested in people whom they perceive to be less talented. Others are high achievers, who in turn set high standards for their colleagues or students.
Applebaum goes on to say that the larger problem is people are so unwilling to be uncomfortable. Like others before her she conflates legitimate complaints, for instance parents who are angry about a teacher trying to indoctrinate students with Marxism, with the kind of left-wing cancel culture in which someone who is directly or tangentially connected to a controversial opinion on Twitter discovers people are calling their boss and trying to get them fired. The difference isn’t hard to discern. Parents have a right to demand their kids not be indoctrinated in classrooms. Randos on the internet do not have the right to demand that everyone who disagrees with their feelings about trans rights or equity or whatever else be fired from their jobs because they don’t fall in line or even because they dare to disagree.
Applebaum opens her piece by using the novel The Scarlet Letter as a kind of example of the experience of being canceled. While I agree it’s possible to read that as a compelling story of human behavior apart from ideology, the book really makes sense in the context of a Puritan religious community whose cultural views are a specific, shared ideology. The same is true with the cancel culture mobs on Twitter. They mostly share a specific ideology, one that has strains of left-wing authoritarianism from the past. It may be that such strains come from underlying character types which in some sense give rise to similar phenomena in different places and different times. But I don’t think you can ignore that certain ideologies (ones that idolize equity and the common good) seem to give more license to behaviors that result in the mistreatment of individuals.