The emotional manipulation of ‘cancel culture’ critics

We’ve all heard the horror stories — a poor bloke who says something stupid and offensive and gets himself sacked. These anecdotes are designed to misdirect our ire.

Barbara Bedont
4 min readMar 25, 2023
Poster reading “The Red Menace is Real! Report all suspected communist activity,” with a red-caped nefarious-looking figure.
Poster from McCarthy era

In the first episode of her podcast “Honestly”, Bari Weiss recounts the sad story of the Wadi family, a Palestinian-American family with a popular grocery business in the Minneapolis area. During the Black Lives Matter protests, some offensive tweets that had been sent by one of the family’s teenage daughters surfaced, many years after they had been sent. An outcry resulted over the tweets and despite the daughter’s apologies, the family and its business suffered. Profits were lost, employees were laid off, family members were harassed. Weiss — a conservative journalist and long-standing women’s rights critic — does a good job getting you angry at the BLM protesters. The Wadi family were sympathizers, she points out. They didn’t deserve to be targeted by these cancel culture vultures.

The term “cancel culture”* is used to deride the efforts of progressive voices to use social media and other forms of pressure to obtain accountability for offensive words or actions. Conservatives trot out the anecdotes of mishaps, examples that invariably prove their belief that people on the left are both ridiculous and dangerous. In doing so, commentators like Bari Weiss seek to raise our ire against this particular form of accountability. But these selective anecdotes constitute emotional manipulation.

Yes, sometimes the fight for justice can lead to instances of individual injustice. Yes, sometimes those fighting for change can make mistakes and hurt their allies. And yes, we need to learn from these mistakes. But often these mistakes are exploited in a bad faith effort to reinforce the underlying problems. The bad faith is apparent in what is not being said in these discussions, the convenient omissions that distort both history and current events.

First, the phenomenon mislabelled as “cancel culture” is typically associated with the left, but in fact, is a tool that has been used historically by conservatives. The McCarthy era was notorious for getting people fired for expressing views considered offensive, in particular, any sympathy with socialist politics, among other things. Another historical example of conservatives stomping on Americans’ freedom of speech are the academics who lost their positions after 9–11 for criticizing the right-wing interpretation of the 9–11 attacks.

We need not resort to historical examples. In another Medium article, I write about the case of Professor Valentina Azarova who lost a job at the University of Toronto Law School due to some articles she wrote about Palestinian rights. Other current examples abound.

Conservatives have always felt it was fair game to deprive people of their livelihoods for expressing anti-conservative beliefs. And previously, when they controlled the news rooms, they also controlled the direction of public pressure. Then when social media created an avenue for progressive voices to adopt the same pressure tactics against conservatives, they began to cry foul.

Critics also fail to mention how the efforts to harness the power of social media is a symptom, not the cause, of injustice. Social pressure is indeed an imperfect form of justice, and therefore, likely to lead to miscarriages of justice. But it would not exist were it not for the lack of access to justice in the first place. For example, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement is a consequence of the historical impunity for sexual violence and sexual harassment against women. For too long, the cards were stacked against any victims speaking out. Without recourse to formal systems of justice, frustrated victims took to the imperfect solution of social media.

Thus, if anyone is to blame for the tragedy that befell the Wadi family, it is not the protesters, but rather conservative policy makers, jurists, lobbyists, journalists, podcasters and everyone else who have fought so hard to make sure that marginalized groups are always beaten down whenever they seek justice. Ignoring this underlying cause of social media movements ignores the real problem.

*a related term ‘woke’ is similarly used to by conservatives to control the discourse. It is no coincidence that ‘woke’ was a term first coined by people of colour, and now used as a derogatory term.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

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Barbara Bedont

Professional trouble-maker: lawyer (not the kind that makes lots of money), activist, writer. I write about current events from a gender and class perspective.