The conversation about cancel culture usually focuses on the mean bullies who prowl the Earth seeking souls to devour and wrong opinions to punish. They are indeed the primary villains but they aren’t the only ones who keep the cancel culture mill churning. Cowards, though they are so often the victims, are guilty of emboldening the mob and perpetuating the problem. The story of cancel culture is, at least partly, a story of the gutless legions pouring fuel on the fire that consumes them.
Just a few recent examples. Last week, a high-ranking executive at Boeing, named (hilariously and appropriately) Neil Golightly, resigned from his position and issued a groveling apology over an editorial he had written over three decades ago in which he argued that women in the military should not be given combat roles. In the article, Golightly asserts that introducing females into these roles would interfere with male “cohesion, morale, efficiency, and aggressiveness.” He doubted whether “women and men can adapt emotionally to the socially radical step of fighting side by side.”
He now apologizes profusely for these “offensive and embarrassing” comments and has obediently slinked away in disgrace. But the point of view he expressed 30 years ago was neither offensive nor embarrassing, and was in fact correct. I suspect that Golightly still knows that.
Also last week, the actress Halle Berry begged for forgiveness after it was revealed that she was in line to play a “transman” in an upcoming film. Following the standard Hollywood apology script, Berry said in a statement: “Over the weekend I had the opportunity to discuss my consideration of an upcoming role as a transgender man and I’d like to apologize for those remarks. As a cisgender woman, I now understand I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories. I am grateful for the guidance and critical conversation over the past few days and I will continue to listen, educate and learn from this mistake.”
There was no mistake. A transgender man is a female. Halle Berry is a female. If demographic similarity is necessary to play a role on screen, she fulfilled the requirement. But of course similarity is not necessary. The entire job of an actor is to pretend to be something that they are not. The attacks against her were wildly preposterous on multiple levels, yet she caved anyway and without much hesitation.
This week has seen even more egregious cases. Gary Garrels, a prominent curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art, has resigned and apologized after staff members accused him of racism and started a petition denouncing his “toxic white supremacist beliefs.” What, specifically, were these “white supremacist beliefs”? At a recent staff meeting Garrels had said that the museum would still collect some art from white men. He explained that refusing art from white men based on their sex and gender would be “reverse discrimination.” That’s all it took to put Garrels on the level of a Klan member or Neo-Nazi.
His position was, obviously, reasonable and completely right. The only bone I would pick is that discrimination against whites isn’t “reverse discrimination,” it’s just discrimination. Other than that, his point was self-evidently true. Nonetheless he left the position he had held for many years and offered a “sincere apology” to the stupid cry babies on his staff. Only he didn’t call them stupid cry babies, as he should have, instead he validated their paranoid delusions. And for this act of contrition, Garrels will no doubt be rewarded with the same ostracization he would have received had he stuck to his guns and maintained his dignity to begin with.
A final example from this week. A white business owner in Seattle published a long apology on Instagram because she wore dreadlocks. The business owner, Rachel Marshall, said she would get the dreadlocks taken out as soon as possible, and that she’s very sorry for the “harm” and “pain” that her hairstyle somehow caused black people. She also promised to hire “diversity and equity representatives” to teach her how to maintain an equal and tolerant workplace. Marshall does not explain how, exactly, a hairstyle might have harmed anyone, much less how it could have interfered with equality in the workplace. She probably doesn’t explain it because it’s impossible to explain, because it’s nonsense.
It’s worth noting, for the record, that dreadlocks have been worn by many races and cultures for millennia. Ancient Europeans were among the earliest to sport them. Black people did not invent the style and do not own it. And even if they did invent it, they still wouldn’t own it, because that’s not how style works. Style and fashion are in constant exchange between cultures. A white German immigrant invented blue jeans, but nobody would say that non-whites or non-Germans are guilty of “appropriation” when they wear a pair of Levi’s. Once again, the offended mob is severely wrong on every level and in every way. And their wrongness is validated by the very people who should be flipping them the bird and helpfully suggesting that they piss off.
Many excuses could be offered for the parade of cowardice documented above. They had no choice. Their lives would be destroyed if they didn’t cave. Their livelihoods were on the line. So on and so on. That may be true in some cases — though I doubt the woman with the dreadlocks was facing life-destroying consequences, and you’d think that an executive at Boeing would have the power and resources to weather the storm — but we’ve seen time and again that the mob will wreck your life, if it wants to, whether you apologize or not. The apology doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the penalty meted out.
But even if some amount of professional and financial security could be maintained by prostrating oneself before the lunatic masses and pleading for absolution, we still must have the courage to defy the mob and accept the consequences of that defiance. There is always a risk in being courageous — that’s why we call it courageous — but the risk in continuing to grovel on command is far greater. The mob grows in size and in power, and its thirst for vengeance becomes even more insatiable, as liberty, justice, rationality, reality, and truth recede further out of view.
The only way to stop this process, if it can be stopped at all at this point, is to stand firm. There is no other solution. Defy the mob, refuse to cave to it, or watch as it takes and destroys everything. Those are the only two choices.
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