One way to understand the moral panic around cancel culture is as an elite fear of downward mobility. The members of a relatively small class, observing that they no longer have total control over their public image and therefore their salability as public figures, suddenly perceive a threat to which they were previously immune: precarity. Thanks to evolving social mores and new forms of mass communication, they must now contend with the possibility that acting as they always have—racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, abusive—might cost them even some sliver of their position, to which they believe they are entitled. Because the rich and famous enjoy disproportionate influence over the platforms where ideas get discussed, they unfortunately managed to convince everyone else this is a huge problem.
I will give you an example. In conversations about Louis CK with his allies in comedy, of which he has many, and with his fans, of which he has many more, one consistently hears that Louis CK also suffered from the revelations that he forced women to watch him masturbate. When one asks what this could possibly mean, the answer always comes: Louis CK lost millions of dollars when his projects and deals were canceled. The exact numbers vary, but a popular one is $35 million, the figure Louis CK himself offered in a 2018 set at the West Side Comedy Club in Manhattan. Presumably most or all of that $35 million was future income, but for the sake of argument let's say it was all in his bank account on November 9th, 2017.
In what sense does one suffer from the loss of $35 million? I suppose it must be that once you lose $35 million, you can no longer spend $35 million. But there is nothing essential in this world that only $35 million can buy; the sort of things one would spend millions of dollars on are by definition luxuries. I do not have $35 million. You do not have $35 million. Are we suffering? Louis CK's defenders would not say we are—at least, not on that account alone. If they believe every human being is entitled to be a multimillionaire, there would be nothing unique about Louis CK's suffering and no time to dwell on it. No, it's the loss that does so much harm, even if no person needs what the loss takes away.
Another example. In his new Netflix special The Closer, after proudly declaring himself a TERF, insisting "Gender is a fact," and blaming Twitter for the death by suicide of a trans comedian who defended him against well-founded accusations of transphobia, Dave Chappelle cries that "Taking a man's livelihood is akin to killing him!" Lest you think he's talking about something that matters, he quickly explains: "Kevin Hart dreamt his entire life of hosting the Oscars, and when he finally got the job they just took it."
"They" refers to LGBTQ people, whom Chappelle blames elsewhere in The Closer for the cancellations of JK Rowling and DaBaby. (They're both dead now, don't you know.) The special is stomach-churning in what it reveals about the 48-year-old comic widely regarded as the greatest alive, who spends most of the hour responding to criticism that his comedy is homophobic, sexist, and transphobic by reveling in homophobic, sexist, and transphobic jokes while desperately arguing that he's none of these things. And how could he be? When his trans friend died after defending him, he boasts, he set up a trust fund for her daughter. "I don't know what the trans community did for her, but I don't care, because I feel like she wasn't their tribe, she was mine," he says. "She was a comedian in her soul." He hopes to live long enough to give his beneficiary the money personally and tell her, "I knew your father, and he was a wonderful woman.”
Netflix reportedly paid $20 million apiece for the first three specials it bought from Chappelle. The Closer is their sixth together, but it's not even the first he uses to address criticism of the others. The man is more than unrepentant; he's straight-up vengeful, repeatedly using his platform to single out, dismiss, and mock individual LGBTQ people who asked him to be more sensitive. Late in The Closer he complains that "they" never listen to him. The only evidence I can see that he's listened to them is that he's stopped using the slur "tr—ny," instead deploying "trans" and "transgender" as nouns.
But let us return to Kevin Hart, who dreamt so very long of hosting the Oscars only to not host the Oscars. As Chappelle observes, Hart's doing fine. The year after that scandal, he topped Forbes' list of the highest-earning comedians, bringing in a whopping $59 million in 2019 alone. In 2018, he came in second place with $57 million. He could lose $35 million and be fine. He could lose $70 million and be fine. And yet to Chappelle he's evidence of a threat so beyond the pale it resembles violence. Taking a man's livelihood away is akin to killing him.
There's an amnesia characteristic of people who get rich in creative industries, where the asymmetry of talent and opportunity combined with the rampant systemic inequality means that success is a lottery win even if you're genuinely talented and work genuinely hard. It can be difficult to accept this, and many don't: even if you're great, even if you fought for everything you have, one doesn't earn million-dollar deals or prestigious national platforms. One is awarded them by a system so monumentally unjust that the whole thing is structured to conceal how unjust it is. No one who has that much deserves it, because no one deserves too much in a world where some don't have enough.
What you see in people like Chappelle, people who see loss of future earning capacity as an existential threat, is faith in an order that doesn't actually exist. In the real world there's no right to keep something just because you have it. In the real world you can lose everything, be forced to adapt, to change your life. These realities aren't always fair—they sometimes are—but they are realities the vast majority of us must live with. At its seething core, the cancel culture panic is people who live on clouds yelping at the lightest tug of gravity. The cruelest joke is that it's still all the gravity they'll ever feel.
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Header image via Netflix/Mathieu Bitton.