An epidemic has swept over the country, spread by the cancel culture. It is called “shaming.”
Shaming comes in many forms. Some are acceptable, even wholesome. For example, long before they were prosecuted in court, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were shamed in the public arena for their deeply immoral, as well as criminal, conduct.
Other forms of shaming are troubling, such as shaming for obnoxious statements made years earlier, when the speaker was young and immature.
Mimi Groves was 15 years old when she sent out a private snapchat video of herself celebrating her driver learner’s permit. The video contained a racial slur which, as she explained later, “was in all the songs we listened to, and I’m not using that as an excuse.” When the video surfaced, the University of Tennessee rescinded her admission.
Alexi McCammond was 17 years old when she tweeted messages with anti-Asian and homophobic content. She later apologized, and deleted the tweets. But screen images of her tweets remained. When she was named editor of Teen Vogue, at the age of 27, those ten-year old images resurfaced, and McCammond was forced to resign.
Shaming for youthful indiscretions is relatively rare. It runs counter to widely accepted beliefs in forgiveness and redemption. It also exposes the stone-throwers to the peril of being outed as glass house inhabitants. Christine Davitt, the Teen Vogue senior social media manager who led the shaming campaign against Alex McCammond for her 2011 tweets, now faces demands for her own ouster after her own tweets containing anti-black racial slurs, dating back to 2009 and 2010, surfaced.
But the most widespread and pernicious variant of shaming involves punishment for insufficient wokeness.
Gary Garrels is one of the most prominent curators in the art world. At a meeting of the staff of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Garrels said that the Museum should not stop collecting the work of white men because doing so would amount to “reverse discrimination.” For the sin of making that self-evident observation, Garrels was denounced as a “toxic white supremacist,” and forced to resign from his post.
Dr. Edward Livingston, formerly deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, hosted a podcast entitled “Structural Racism for Doctors: What Is It?” During the podcast, he commented: “Structural racism is an unfortunate term…. Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation will help. Many of us are offended by the concept that we are racist.” An online petition demanding his resignation quickly ensued. Rather than defend his deputy, editor-in-chief Dr. Howard Bauchner forced him to resign, and promised an investigation, assuring the mob that “this investigation and report of its findings will be thorough and completed rapidly.”
Neil Golightly was forced to resign from his post as Boeing’s communications chief for expressing the view that women should not serve in combat. He expressed that view 33 years earlier, when he was a 29-year old navy pilot.
Perhaps the most famous example of shaming for insufficient wokeness involved James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet was committed to bringing more diversity of opinion to the Times’ traditionally liberal editorial pages. He solicited and published an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton, in which the Arkansas Republican lawmaker wrote: “One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
Senator Cotton was writing in the midst of the urban riots following the death of George Floyd. Six months later, in the wake of the Capitol Hill riot, liberals would demand exactly the kind of military force Cotton prescribed to deal with violence. But at the time of publication, woke opinion held that the Senator’s views endangered black journalists. Over 800 staff members signed a letter objecting to the publication of the op-ed. Bennet was forced to resign.
Many other examples could be cited. But these illustrate some important characteristics of the shaming epidemic.
First, shaming nearly always involves the persecution of the woke by the more woke. None of the victims in the cited examples were conservatives or libertarians. In the case of the New York Times, the mob’s ire was directed not at conservative Senator Cotton, but at Bennet, a man of impeccable liberal credentials, whose brother Michael is a Democratic senator from Colorado and a former presidential candidate.
Second, in each case, the victim accepts the accusers’ moral authority without question. This, despite the fact that the shamers are usually younger, less experienced, and much less talented than their victims.
Third, and most disturbing, in each case the victim responds to the campaign by indulging in a ritual of apology and self-abasement.
Gary Garrels, the art curator, never even tried to defend his perfectly reasonable if debatable statement about “reverse discrimination.” Instead, he joined in its condemnation with a cringe-worthy mea culpa:
I want to offer my personal and sincere apology to every one of you. I realized almost as soon as I used the term ‘reverse discrimination’ that this is an offensive term and was an extremely poor choice of words on my part. I am very sorry at how upsetting these words were to many staff.
Then he blessed the mob’s program and humbly promised to promote it:
[T]rue diversity and the fight for real equality is the important battle of our time. I will contribute… in any way that I can to reach that goal.
Similarly, Dr. Bauchner, editor-in-chief of JAMA, agreed with those demanding the resignation of his deputy for having the temerity to suggest that doctors might object to being called racists. He deleted the podcast from JAMA’s website, and replaced it with a statement, agreeing that his deputy’s comments were “inaccurate, offensive, hurtful and inconsistent with the standards of JAMA.” Tossing his deputy to the mob did not safeguard Bauchner himself. After firing Dr. Livingston, Bauchner himself was placed on administrative leave.
Neil Golightly, the Boeing executive, participated in the same humiliating ritual of confession, coupled with a pathetic assurance that he was now saved and could see the truth:
My article was a 29-year-old Cold War navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time …. The dialogue that followed its publication 33 years ago quickly opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since.
James Bennet at the New York Times made no effort to defend his decision to publish a conservative viewpoint on the use of military force (one which would become the liberal viewpoint six months later). Instead, he apologized to his persecutors, telling a meeting of angry staff members:
I just want to begin by saying I’m very sorry, I’m sorry for the pain that this particular piece has caused … I do think this is a moment for me and for us to interrogate everything we do in opinion.
There is something depressing about the spectacle of grown men groveling before their junior, less accomplished co-workers. One New York Times staffer, after witnessing Bennet’s apology, noted that he “seemed so sad…. He seemed beaten down. It was kind of crushing to watch him.”
Now and then, in this epidemic of prostration, an upright posture is visible. J.K. Rowling, the author of the hugely successful Harry Potter series, faced a shaming campaign for her comments about transgender people, in which she ridiculed use of the phrase “people who menstruate” for women. Shamers described her views as “anti-trans” and “transphobic,” and tried to instigate a boycott of her books.
Rowling declined to follow the prescribed ritual. She did not acknowledge her accusers’ virtue. She issued no apology. Instead, in a lengthy essay on her website, she elaborated on her reasons for refusing to accept the idea that a “woman” is anyone, including any biological male, who claims to be one.
I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman … then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.
In a separate tweet, she took a firm stand against coerced accommodation. Quoting the playwright Lillian Hellman, she wrote: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
Time will tell whether Rowling’s approach to the shaming epidemic stands as a model or an aberration.
Today’s cancel culture has been compared to the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the McCarthy hearings. Peggy Noonan has compared the trend to the “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution, where teachers and other older professionals were paraded before young fanatics, and forced to wear dunce caps or waste baskets on their heads, and where victims often “confessed” in the hope of gaining merciful treatment.
The problem with these comparisons is that they overstate the strength of the shamers. In each of these past examples, the shamers had the power of the State behind them. Their victims faced actual physical torture, imprisonment, or death, not just emotional or psychological harm. Today’s shamers of the cancel culture have no such power.
Nor is the lack of state power their only weakness. In many if not most cases, they also lack popular support. The shamers inhabit echo chambers in which their convictions are endlessly repeated and corroborated. But those beliefs are not always shared by the majority. In the shamers’ view, the United States is structurally racist, and therefore remedial racism is required as a countermeasure. But most Americans favor a society that is color-blind, which bestows no special treatment on the basis of race or gender. That was demonstrated vividly last November, when the voters of deep-blue California rejected by a landslide a referendum which would have permitted racial and gender discrimination by their state government. California, it is worth noting, is a “minority majority” state, where whites make up only 36% of the population.
This lack of popular support is also reflected in the marketplace. Although large corporations and institutions often line up behind the shamers, the typical consumer does not. Following the “transphobia” shaming campaign, sales of Rowling’s Harry Potter series increased according to her UK publisher, and this happened despite the lockdown. Her newest book, Troubled Blood, published two months after the controversy erupted, immediately rose to Number 1 on the UK bestseller list.
The paradox of the shaming epidemic is that, ultimately, the shamers derive their power from the very victims they purport to discredit. It is only because these victims cower before their persecutors and pay obeisance to their supposed virtue that the shamers so often succeed at their game.