November 24th, 2021 at 7:22 pm EDT
The #metoo movement held and continues to hold weight in the finally, overactive consciences of moderate American men, once unengaged, now hypervigilant. Those more psychopathic, however, continue to laugh their way through the conflicts, no doubt, goading on anyone who thinks themselves strong enough to brave a “he said, she said” and watching pushy assholes earn the exact same punishment as serial rapists.
When Matt Gaetz continues to enjoy rockstar treatment and power on the right, the left appears to have famously shot itself in the foot by pulling Al Franken from the Senate, a quick-witted, Trump-hating satirist and litigator who would have hammed his way through soundbite after soundbite in ways that could have rivaled those from Trump himself, during the most outwardly antagonistic years in the Oval’s history; Trump campaigned on that bellicose approach, and he kept his promise. Sexual harasser and abuser, Franken deserved his sentence — the proverbial public embarrassment and a self-demotion to podcasting and writing only, to express contrition — but a leftist should hesitate to say the country deserved the loss of a comfortable-counterarguing voice in the Senate while the Trump-era Justice Department stomped around.
Cancel culture, or less hyperbolically, accountability culture, is not yet hemorrhaging, but this secret is out: it bleeds. For the latter half of the 2010s, online accountability campaigns have flowed as blood to our veins. Ironically characterized as a lefist-only culture by at least some on the right who love nothing more than to harass and intimidate, what started as a self-evident social justice system has become a courtroom with a crowd-sourced judge who gives out the same sentencing for every crime without case-by-case discrimination and without consideration of a defendant’s character or value to causes the prosecution even regularly champions.
Defendants shouldn’t have all earned the exact same punishment. They wouldn’t in our legal system, and that’s because we attempt not to conflate crimes, and we at least aim to think with qualification over absolutism. Our legal system is a failure, particularly in the disgustingly successful crusade against POC through a drug war, and its laughably weak pick-up game against white-collar crime. However our justice system’s faults are more aligned with those of modern accountability culture than not: broad strokes, and some of the worst still making out the best.
So when Dave Chappelle elevates damaging material about the trans community, and trots out even for a moment the ridiculous “but I have one friend” defense, the instinct to demand apology justifiably spikes in the American consciousness, habit actually tried, and ostensibly true. What registers as odd to onlookers privileged enough to sit on the sidelines, though, is that Chappelle is an ally of so many things left, and has been for literally decades.
The Chappelle Show, his 2000s monument, did nothing if not call out racism in the country, any fan will know, active racism obviously, and passive racism equally if not more so. He called out tokenism and identified virtue signaling a decade and a half before the rest of the world caught up. His show tagged cultural appropriation. He ridiculed the KKK in one of the most direct fuck yous a comedian has ever endeavored. In stand-up, he crafted stories where cops plant drugs on already-arrested, innocent Black Americans. He challenged ideas of what it meant to be a good, and aware American. He did it all in a disarming way, through laughter. And when Hollywood began to come down opposite creativity and aim, he folded, shifting back exclusively to stand-up on his own terms.
These odds that favor canceling, and the decisions that lean into it, are a reflection and tacit admission to what blunt animals many of us know we’ve been.
It is not mutually exclusive to say that Chappele has also damaged fellow humans with his recents acts, diminishing and setting back trans rights activism possibly years. He thinks how lackluster some, or even a majority of white Americans’ response to Black American activism was, compared to their zealousness for trans rights, is worth pointing out at trans people’s expense. Even if the disconnect is true, his approach betrays a lack of aim from a guy who used to call his shots and bat .900.
Observational and edgy comedy need not count among its effects possibly outright victims and survivors of violent psychological and physical attacks, committed by those always looking for a greener light that Chappelle has now widely and gleefully signaled.
He is not going to cede this round. He has too many enablers. So in the absence of an empathic response from Chappelle, what should each justifiably angry voice then do?
Availability bias is ever in play. We focus on Chappelle because he’s just released a special this year. Meanwhile transphobic antisocial behavior, from horrifying conversion camps to violent assaults, continue.
An existential, perfect justice system: When good karma is sufficiently high to cancel out a cancel and allows us to redirect our energies elsewhere without losing sleep, how would we even know? If you enable violence indirectly through humor, could there even be enough karma to offset? Is that not at once a first and last straw?
Meanwhile, when the attempted sentence doesn’t fit the criminal overall, even if it may the crime, trust in the justice system itself, formal or informal, erodes. A better system, we know, would be omnisciently precise. We see erosion of imperfection happen with mandatory minimums. And there’s a palpable feeling that what’s happening right now with Dave Chappelle is exactly that: an erosion of faith in the system — here, accountability culture. The left’s pushback against a continually active and successful ally appears as hypocritical — even though it is actually purely consistent, no consideration of record, or of current offers of help — but the widespread publicity of what has amounted to a failure to amend, a failure to cancel, may be a toppling ankle sweep in accountability culture’s own defeat.
Modern accountability culture is an evolution, not an immaculate conception. The emotions of guilt and shame, and the practice of apology is long cultured into mammals, let alone emoting homo sapiens. The left has no patent on formalizing shame. Ask right-wing Catholics about it. What’s new is earnest: We’re trying now to figure out what mocking elements within our cultures are rooted in ridicule and insensitivity, and which, if any, are in good fun. It’s an inevitable mile marker to hit as a society, culture, and species as we round the umpteenth lap with automation, luxury, and largely an ability to feed and house all, but no willingness to. Tribalism begins to lapse, and as anxiety falls, so must some hate.
What and who’s left once hate drains will drip beads like a nervous sweat. We’ve historically been so ignorant to our motivations, that accepting ourselves as too often blissfully unaware will well precede understanding what exactly we were unaware of and to what degrees.
Rationally paranoid, we err on the side of caution based on a recharacterization of ourselves as the basic mammals we all are. We are so dense, that even a small handful of people could cry foul, and we might ultimately see that they’re right. Gay jokes in the 2000s are an example of this behavior, a mass delusion that homophobic ridicule was acceptable or, more horribly, justified, a mass unwilling to consider seriously a minority. Extreme versions of cheek-turning ignorance exist in slave trading and murder.
For all those even remotely contrite about their past behavior, to be safe, whenever a few come forward to catalog a possible offense, it’s fair to say not just that it’s possible they’re right, but that it’s probable. The probability is extraordinarily high at this stage in a species, clearly trying to grow, but we’re like toddlers walking around in high heels.
These odds that favor canceling, and the decisions that lean into it, are a reflection and tacit admission to what blunt animals many of us know we’ve been. Whether we “get it” yet or not, “just cancel it and we can regroup” becomes the best strategy for public entities.
In a just universe… Karma would be real, and we’d be able to rely on a fact that, if Dave Chappelle genuinely did something harmful and damaging, the extent to which his own life experience would reflect and inflict that hurt would be perfectly proportional but also juxtaposed against accumulative good.
In Chappelle, everyone with power to be checked will have witnessed a failed accountability campaign on the left for once. (Ones failing against the right already appear daily.) The crossfire among supposed leftist allies will read as weakness to the far more reliably unified right. And eventually, the allies will read their indiscrimination as weakness among and within themselves, too. With no central leader — the point almost being to avoid one given how dangerously faulty we each are alone — crowdsourced absolutism disassociates some of those it tries to protect. A poor justice system that hears no case.
Netflix likely will not remove Chappelle’s special based on its trans jokes. It will squeeze by, because Chappelle will squeeze by.
Conservatives just got done trying to cancel the service because it aired documentaries from the Obamas. They air a ton of “Hollywood leftist propaganda.” Netflix‘s catalog in sum and average is decisively leftist, because creatives are decisively leftist, and it takes a creative to create content. Netflix‘s left bent is not an attempted virtue, but a default.
To remove Chappelle from the stage would be to lose one of the most effective voices in the country, while also losing one of the most transphobic. To remove Netflix, where the next generation samples ideas and bears witness to how others have fared wielding them, would be catastrophic for progressive and futurist culture. Netflix continues to create and air heavily empathic and progressive content for the LGBTQ+ community specifically, too.
An accountability campaign cannot demand anything other than something so clear as resignation, complete deplatforming, and apology. Anything else would require leadership, possibly democratic participation not unlike that of a jury, just for one millions large. That conceit is, for the far foreseeable future, just not possible.
So we wait.
Stephen King is an active, vocal, popular voice against the right. He trolled Trump as much as Trump trolled others, and in many ways, tried to be the Franken at least of Twitter. He was and is witty, and that wit combined with his fame and politics places him in an oddly powerful and effective position in American culture. King’s first published novel, Carrie, famously turned into a Briana DePalma movie in 1976, includes brutally racist language. King’s narration invokes the n-word when describing monolithically Black Americans’ physical appearances. King in the book does not treat the description for the danger it clearly is and it’s allowed to pass through the page as smoothly as any other line. It’s not merely “of the time.” It does not add to the story, not that such an addition would even been worth the risk of furthering a heinous stereotype. It was objectively a poor choice. The publication of the book in 2021, as if it were new, would yield first a news article on the language, then a dozen, then opinion pieces, then an accountability campaign. He might deserve it.
The irony of course is that the book is in publication in 2021. It’s still wildly popular, even, and will no doubt find its way onto more than a few Barnes & Noble featured-book tables annually, especially around Halloween. Chappelle’s latest stand-up is more prominent, yes, but King’s first novel is more than prominent enough to warrant a column or a hundred, if we’re to pursue other concurrent campaigns against art of not identical but similar reach.
Carrie also paints American, Puritanical, antisex Christianity in a terrible light, the main character’s mother being so caught in her own religious life that she locks Carrie inside of their closet to pray when heterosexuality appears to flare in her daughter, to say nothing of “the sodomites.”
On some pages, the book lands blows against ideas and idea habits the left generally speaking would like to see lose power. It also hurts Black Americans on others.
Accountability culture that goes beyond the dinner table and village and attempts to hyperlitigate and render verdicts and sentences appropriately for an entire society is a wildly good-hearted attempt that is bound to wildly backfire and possibly begin its demise when it inevitably goes after someone who publicly expresses so much other humanist behavior. The goal of it all, that moralistic humanism would naturally and reliably follow shame and punishment, was never reachable, and was therefore inevitably destined for ridicule from those who think they shunned the idea from day one, hypocrites though they likely are.
Who knows how many major, damaging mistakes the average person will make in their lives, and how could we count the thousands and thousands of smaller ones? Some of us will feel regret over almost every one of them, it seems. Those who do tend to have anxiety disorders. In shades, most of us will feel regret about just most of them, realizing the damage. And one in 100 of us are psychopaths, guiltless. We will err, and we will err to different degrees, different frequencies, and different wakes. We will also recover in equally as diverse degrees, and offset damage caused with aid rendered, good samaritans not because we’ve been publicly embarrassed, but because we’ve embarrassed ourselves.
That should count. In a just universe, it would. Karma would be real, and we’d be able to rely on a fact that, if Dave Chappelle genuinely did something harmful and damaging, the extent to which his own life experience would reflect and inflict that hurt would be perfectly proportional but also juxtaposed against accumulative good. There is no guarantee that we live in that world.
Meanwhile, we must make sense of the depressing premise that to move any needle, artifice has almost certainly the strongest chance of doing so. That means that being true to yourself on social media and expressing honesty is deserved, and creates undeserved, negative outcomes, too, possibly ones that well exceed a full offset. Being honest about your position on a spectrum of ideas forfeits the rapport of idea-kin in all but very few rhetorical situations. These posturings and impression management attempts are not inherently evil, and again, in a perfectly karmic universe, would prove to be more about their ends than their means: a feigned persona may do more good than a truthful one; it may deservingly ease others’ lives more than it worsens them.
Orson Scott Card, an oxymoronically conservative science-fiction author, is the man and mind responsible for the novel and movie Ender’s Game, an underdog story about a boy genius named Ender who in his ability to be both empathic and hawkishly decisive rises through the ranks of international military as he attempts to save the planet from an alien invasion. Though Card himself, a vocal homophobe, and his studio felt some initial rumblings of modern accountability culture when the film adaptation first hit theaters in 2013, I bring him up for another reason.
In Ender’s Game, Ender’s brother Peter, a decisive psychopath, and his sister, an empathic samaritan, hit the internet under nom de plumes, faking their politics with a goal of starting in the far left and the far right corners of discourse and moderating each side until they tunnel and hit each other in political peace near center. They create unity through lies and feigned personas, shuffling over time, and are able to give the whole society a chance at more evidence-based intrersocial harmony and resolve.
We want peace. We want equity first, and then when it’s worked possibly centuries from now, we want equality. The fastest way there is not through the fracture of the pacifists while the habitually hawkish tighten bonds and point and laugh. The prefect path exists as possibility in an entropy barely scratched by human imagination. It’s a bumbling and accidental Rube Goldberg machine moving us from now to some futuristic peace. The goal is not to find that one and only, immediately satisfying path and plant a flag. The goal is to get closer to it. The goal is to approximate it as best we can, and that must at a bare minimum include attempts to zoom out to see how one object in motion will appear to effect several others, and in the path from whence it came, how it may both mitigate and damage.
Hidden premises of the accountability culture justice system do not have the self-evident truth we need them to have right now. If they were the rules of classrooms in public schools, there should be riots — rules like, past behavior is indicative of present deservedness regardless of any change, that expulsion without differentiation is helpful to overall causes of inclusivity, that we should grade not on improvement, and often not on a body of work, but on singular states.
We deserve to be angry. We deserve to rant. We deserve to witness justice and know it’s come. We deserve to effect only our genuine voices.
We also deserve speedy resolution. We are poor consciousness if we pretend to know objectively that removing someone from the society will universally make us all better off sooner. One side calcifies in corners, chest-beating and chest-bumping, while the other factions itself into disunity, and accidentally into irrelevance.
Accountability campaigns are universally unhelpful and a kind of devolution.
Accountability campaigns are merely modern forms of the perennial human act of “shame.” They represent a rational shortcut given what we know about how common human prejudices are. They also resemble some of the least effective parts of our justice system.