Cancel Culture: The Logic Behind It and Navigating the Problems

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Cancel culture: One of the biggest social movements in the last couple of years, many people have been wondering to what extent it should be played out or if it even has a place at all. Like most issues, there are two extremes to take and the right answer falls somewhere in the middle. On one hand, you have the extreme leftists who scream to completely cancel anyone they perceive as doing something they consider to be socially and morally reprehensible on pretty much any level. On the other hand, you have people who claim that moral issues have nothing to do with the market and wealth. Again, like most issues, there is something that each side of the argument has to offer and both claims should be considered. Today I want to go over a few hypothetical scenarios and lay out what I think to be the best course of action for each one and where the boundaries lie for the extent of “canceling” the people involved in the circumstances.

First, I want to layout two circumstances where the answers are pretty obvious then I want to get into some more complicated situations. Imagine a circumstance like Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family. This family profited billions of dollars off of OxyContin, an extremely addictive and fatal opioid that killed thousands of people and started a massive hidden opioid epidemic across the nation. Their profits were directly tied to the damage they were causing. Additionally, they were able to make so much money because they lied about the dangers and addictiveness of their “wonder drug.” Their profits contributed to them being one of the wealthiest families in the country. When the legal system was finally pushed to address this atrocity the family and company were forced to pay billions of dollars in retribution. Which, on the face of it sounds great but in reality, this family is still one of the richest families in the country which is directly tied to the profits made from OxyContin. This is an obvious case where the entire profits made from OxyContin should have been repaid to the families that suffered and to efforts to solve the opioid epidemic they helped create because of their willful ignoring of the facts in favor of personal gain. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Let’s look at a case on the other side. Imagine a comedian who has become comfortably wealthy, they’ve enjoyed a career of bringing joy and making people laugh while occasionally irking some people as is pretty unavoidable in the comedy scene. Now imagine that because of a recent shift in cultural attitudes towards a certain topic that a joke they make causes outrage amongst an angsty social justice crowd. They are now receiving hate-mail, news coverage, and a never-ending storm of tweets demanding straight-up resignation from their career. Should they adhere to these demands? Of course not! Comedy is known for pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and making us see the humor in some serious or even not-so-serious situations. It is a healthy thing to be able to laugh at negative situations in your own life, why wouldn’t it be to do the same in larger situations? Additionally, these comedians aren’t causing direct harm to anyone and anyone who is claiming that they are should probably grow thicker skin. This isn’t to say that some jokes aren’t inappropriate and that in some cases an apology should probably be issued. But that should be the extent of it. If someone is able to learn from their mistakes why should they have to quit their career just because they made the mistake in a spotlight?

Now that I’ve laid out two situations on the obvious sides let’s get into some more complicated situations that require a bit more reflection. Here are three situations:

Politicians making questionable personal choices

We have all heard of scandals breaking out over politicians making choices that actually do harm people. In other cases, their choices could just be embarrassing. In both circumstances, there is a primary concern which is whether or not these people can make good or moral decisions when it comes to their job since they have not displayed that judgment in their personal lives. This is a case when the choices they made in their personal lives actually do bear weight in their professional lives because they are in the position to make decisions that affect a large number of people. There is a primary difference between the first and second situations though. If they are making choices that are simply not socially accepted but should have stayed private there should be a real question as to whether or not that matters to their position. Otherwise, the cancelation of their position is a reasonable request but that isn’t to say they still can’t learn from their mistakes, and, after paying the price for their actions shouldn’t be able to get a job in the private sector.

Someone who is wealthy commits a crime

Again, there are two relevant situations here. The first is where they commit a crime that is completely unrelated to their wealth. The second is where a crime is committed that had nothing to do with acquiring their wealth but was able to occur or did occur due to an abuse of their wealth, power, and/or influence. In the first circumstance, they should obviously be convicted but it’s my opinion they should only be convicted to the degree that any other person would be. Because their crime is unrelated to their wealth it makes no sense that they should have to pay more money in fines or pay a price related to their career because they are simply a person committing a crime just like someone who isn’t wealthy would be. In the second circumstance, it should be taken into account to what degree the crime was able to happen due to their position and wealth and the penalty should be related to that. The concern here is that even though they’ve earned their wealth and power through fair means, society cannot trust them with these benefits. Depending on the crime and extent, this doesn’t necessarily mean a full “cancelation” but an equal one to the circumstances and would simply mean they are now on closer watch to see if they learned their lesson by the law and the consumer if they want to keep using their products or services. The penalty, in this case, may be the stickiest of all and I’m not entirely sure whether or not this is the right answer but it seems to be the only one I can see. I’m open to feedback on this. This can extend to issues outside of the law as well though such as a billionaire who does nothing but for themselves, the choice then comes down to the consumer to not give them their money because they don’t believe they deserve the power that comes with it as long as they are seen as someone who is not contributing in a valuable way that they obviously could.

An artist who does something morally reprehensible

This situation can be similar to the circumstance of the comedian but there are some more and sometimes different details to cover in different situations. I am taking some of this answer from Sam Harris on his Ask Sam — Episode #2 (related clip starts at 1:58) which is partially what inspired me to write this post. There are two relevant situations which are whether or not the art is separable from the wrongdoings of the artist. In one circumstance you can think about a musician like Michael Jackson where what he did was completely unrelated to his music, because of this it doesn’t mean you are wrong to enjoy the music that you possibly grew up with or that expressed a point in time and culture that you enjoy. On the other hand, you have someone like Bill Cosby where his show was about being a family man and family values. You can’t watch his show knowing what he did and not think that the values expressed there are completely contradictory to his actions. There is a third factor to consider though which is if the person is still alive and set to profit off your consumption of their art whether or not you’d feel okay giving them money if their wealth was what enabled them to commit the wrongdoings they did.

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The dynamic between the capitalistic market, the law, and moral codes is a very complicated one. I hope, however, that some of the details and different situations I’ve laid out here help navigate the understanding and proceedings we should take in situations where “cancelation” is called into question rather than seeing it as a black and white issue. In every situation, the details should be carefully looked at before deciding how to deal with them to make sure that people who deserve to be canceled partially or fully in different ways are and that people who don’t deserve that, aren’t.

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