What The Fuck Is Happening?

A few thoughts on c*ncel c*lture.

What The Fuck Is Happening?

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One thing I find myself repeating left and right these days is “What the fuck is happening?” Another is “What are you even talking about??” A third: “Hahahaha ahahahaha AHAHHAHAhgghf.” Often they come in very quick succession.

I will give you an example. Earlier this week Iliza Shlesinger guest hosted Jimmy Kimmel Live! and took the opportunity to spend eight minutes complaining about cancel culture.

Say it with me: What the fuck is happening? Is there not a pandemic going on? Have hundreds of thousands of people not died? Are the streets not filled with people protesting police brutality? Is there no subject more important to Jimmy Kimmel Live!’s millions of viewers, most of whom are probably not all that tuned in to the latest Twitter discourse?

No, you’re right, we should hear her out. Maybe she has something interesting to add to this conversation:

When the internet first started, it was a whimsical way to chat with your friends, send your life savings to a Nigerian prince, and Limewire entire Third Eye Blind albums. It came to your house on a CD and it was enjoyed sparingly. But then came Twitter, and things got messy. People got messy. At first we were excited. We were like, “Oh wow, I can tell Quiznos they suck while I’m on the toilet. What alien technology is this?” And we began to publicly post whatever we thought, whenever we thought it. A 700-tweet thread about which Del Taco sauce is the worst? Go for it! Some dick is kicking your seat on a Delta flight to Houston? The world must know about this injustice! “That dress is black and blue, you idiots”—tweet! Oh no, she brought up the dress.

It all seemed like a good idea at the time, but so did having the word “Juicy” spelled out on all of our butts, right? Remember the early 2000s? And as Twitter got bigger, it became a place for serious conversations about our culture. Unfortunately, many of us put as much thought into our tweets about social justice issues as we did those Quiznos toilet tweets. And those thoughts are now coming back to cancel us.

What most of us didn’t realize was that by posting every one of our thoughts on a whim, we were permanently linking our names to ideas that should have been taken as seriously as bathroom graffiti. And with everyone being so connected, and compounded by the fact that we’re all stuck at home and angry, when something happens there’s peer pressure to comment on it right away. We’re expected to have these fully-formed omniscient bulletproof unassailable hot takes on every topic in real time, at all times, that will stand the test of time. Or just, like, do a weird TikTok dance—savage. And as a result, no one takes a minute to gather facts, ask questions, or wait 24 hours for a story to develop. We just jump in, trying to say something profound based on very little information.

I’m sorry to interject, but: what? Who got cancelled for their “tweets about social justice issues”? Or for a hot take about current events they felt pressured to tweet because we’ve all been stuck at home? Did I… miss something?

No, you’re right, let’s keep listening.

You guys, meaningful statements take time to craft. “That’s one small step for man” took days to come up with, and it still left out women. We’re all at the mercy of the petulant internet mob’s demands. Tell us your opinion now so we may screen grab it and ruin you for it as soon as anything good happens in your life. And that’s where we get into trouble, because stupid thoughts don’t age well. And we are all guilty of this. We have all tweeted stuff that felt fine at the time, but we wouldn’t tweet it now. Like this: “Man, that pedophile island seems amazing… #privateplanelife.” Right? And today it’s like, how could we have known back then that private planes were so bad for the environment?

And because the first rule of the internet mob is you’re not allowed to change, you’re tied to your dumb thoughts for all of eternity. Because the internet doesn’t care that you’ve grown, expanded your mind, or have a more complex understanding of life and that you haven’t had a “Juicy”-brand butt since 2010. The internet only remembers you as you were.

Excuse me, what? Someone got cancelled for something they tweeted because the mob demanded their opinion, then screengrabbed that opinion so it could ruin them later? Did this happen before or after we were all stuck at home and angry and felt peer pressure to comment on everything? Is the thing that didn’t age well five months old or five years? Is cancellation the dredging up of old tweets about social justice issues or backlash to hastily penned tweets about current events? If it’s the latter, is the Internet really “remembering you as you were” or just “reacting to who you are now,” and what would be the problem with that, exactly? In other words… what are you even talking about??

But here’s what I’ll say to the internet. Internet, people should be allowed to evolve and not have their career ended by something they drunkenly tweeted in an UberX after a Fall Out Boy concert in 2015, hypothetically. And look. There are people who actually want to hurt others, and they have a pattern of saying horrible things and using social media to spread hate. So yes, roast those people. Roast them over the open flames of social judgment. Roast them! Roast them right out of the Oval Office. That’s my only president joke—hey, red states.

But the rest of us are constantly learning new things about the issues other people face. Black Lives Matter. Trans rights are human rights. Feminism. Antisemitism. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. People who are in long committed relationships with their furniture. Most people like to think that what they know is good enough, and that most people probably feel the same way as them. It’s what standup comics count on. But we need to chill with cancelling everyone, because soon there will be no one.

Ha. Ha ha. Ahahah. AhahahahahahahahahAHAHAHAHahahggghhf. Okay. One of my pet theories, really more of an observation, is that the comedians in a panic about cancel culture have no coherent idea what “cancellation” is or why it happens. They perceive it as a strange resistance to what they’ve always done freely; this makes it novel, worthy of attention. They perceive it as punishing them for doing their job; this makes it radical, worthy of opprobrium. They perceive it as targeting some for what they all do; this makes it irrational, unjust, a bully to be beaten back. BAM! It just took down their friend. KAPOW! There goes another. What is it? No one can tell. BOOM! A mob of some sort? Mad about… jokes? Why, that was never there befo—BLAMO! They’re under assault. They’re in the trenches. They can’t see what’s happening from the outside, can’t decode their attacker’s messages or predict its movements. There’s no way it’s a body of people acting in fairly consistent ways for fairly consistent reasons. It’s just The Enemy: faceless, animal, evil.

I find it deeply embarrassing to watch comedy’s cancel culture panic play out in parallel to the panic in media and literature. On one side you have the likes of Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams and Andrew Sullivan and JK Rowling vehemently insisting on their sacred right to bring their earnestly held ideologies to the public square. On the other you have comics like Shlesinger saying, “Don’t you DARE censure me for saying something shitty which I didn’t think through at the time and certainly don’t believe now.” It’s not just “free speech for me, but not for thee,” it’s “free speech for me to say things I don’t mean, which are harmless because I didn’t mean them, and also things I did mean but have since outgrown, which are also harmless, uh, retroactively… but NOT for you to say they’re shitty too.” There’s no coherence because there’s no underlying principle, only reflexive defensiveness and disdain. At some point they all inevitably remind us that comedians need the freedom to take risks, as though massive public reproach were not exactly what they’re risking. They get the same freedom we all get: the freedom to lazily spout half-baked shit and get yelled at by everyone who think it’s dumb as fuck. The marvel of the Cancel Martyr’s Mind is that they perceive “lots of people yelling at me” as a sign they’re under attack when it really means they won. They’re famous! Their platform is bigger than the average person’s and their words carry more weight. This means they actually have more free speech than the average person, even when it costs them career opportunities the average person never gets.

To be very clear: Yes, there are bad-faith cancellation efforts, the kind where Gamergate-style hordes seek to ruin people they don’t like, often by coopting the language of social movements. This is a real, if isolated (and generally transparent) phenomenon; it happened to comic Dina Hashem last year. But it is not what Shlesinger is talking about, nor almost any comic complaining about cancel culture. (See also: Bill Burr and Jim Jefferies on Shane Gillis’ firing.) She gives away the whole game in that unfortunate last passage, the one where she says “the rest of us are constantly learning new things about the issues other people face,” then gives Black lives mattering as her very first example of NEW THINGS WE LEARNED. Have you ever seen it spelled out more clearly? Comics count on audiences agreeing with their jokes. Those audiences used to agree with their jokes about race and gender and religion. Now they don’t. This is a crisis, apparently.

I am reminded of the most important lesson I learned during my short-lived adventures in a graduate creative writing program. It is something I still find incredibly difficult to wrap my head around, so by all means yell at me if it makes no sense or is dumb as fuck. Okay, here it is: That people like your work does not mean your work is good. That people dislike your work does not mean it is bad. These things merely mean that people like it or they don’t, for their own subjective reasons, all of which you can learn from equally. You would certainly be within reason to focus your attention on the audience that already likes what you’re doing, which is often a fruitful path to artistic and commercial success. But one audience’s positive feedback does not necessarily mean other audiences fail to understand your work or have nothing to offer. All it means is they like it. You can interrogate the reasons they like it as much as you want, and your craft may flourish as a result. But ultimately you will only end up with smaller and smaller increments of “this awakened something inscrutable within me.”

So how the hell are any of us supposed to tell if our art is good or bad? Well, we can’t! If quality had any meaningful relationship with popular reception, The Wrong Missy would not be Netflix’s eighth most popular original film and poets would have much more money. What we can do is develop a rigorous framework of what we think is good: what we like aesthetically, what we believe ideologically, what hypnotizes us and what heightens our awareness of the world. Then we can evaluate our work against both that framework and our audiences’ feedback. Then we can rebuild that framework again and again as we have new experiences and learn new things.

This is very hard and confusing! It requires time and patience and the consumption of vastly more thought than you can ever hope to produce. It also requires a rich life outside your creative work and a willingness to question yourself and everyone telling you what you want to hear. But it’s the only alternative to forever chasing the empty approval of audiences who care less about your work than fleeting pleasures they can get anywhere.

I have written about this before, sort of: The whole point of comedy is to believe something. What’s so fascinating about the cancel culture discourse is how openly some comedians admit they don’t. They cry desperately that they were just telling jokes, they were just trying to be funny, don’t be such a humorless scold. Why are they so shocked to discover people think they believe what they say? What were they saying, if not what they believe? I suppose they never learned to believe anything themselves, not in any guiding sense. There’s nothing there, no bedrock, just sand all the way down, shifting endlessly with the earth’s rotation.

And that’s their right too. If you manage to forge a successful career saying nothing to no one in particular, more power to you. Just please spare the rest of us your moralizing when we make the grievous mistake of thinking you live in the real world.