Stop Firing The Innocent: The Evils Of Cancel Culture And It's Effects On Mental Health
The curious, but predictable case of Donald McNeil, the cancelled NYT reported
In recent years the terms cancel culture and woke and all its various renditions, wokeness et al., have exploded in popularity. It's impossible not to have heard of a celebrity that has not been cancelled. Journalist, artists, public figures, no one, it seems, is safe from this, the ultimate delete button that stings harder than an Amish boycott.
What prompted me to write this article was the recent cancellation attempt, quite successfully I might add, against a New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. that inevitably, invariable even, and yes, sad as it sounds, predictably, culminated in the cessation of a glorious 45-year career. You simply do not win again cancel culture.
Reading the author's staunch defence (rightfully so) of his actions through carefully explained articles posted on Medium, - a four-part thriller no less - adding much-needed context to what actually occurred, through it all I was asking myself the same question I am about to ask you: does cancel culture make sense? And, is it a mental health risk?
This sweeping phenomenon is simple in concept but difficult to fully explain the mechanics behind it's 'extensive' vetting and selection process. Cancel culture consists of calling out brands, people or even places (such as a specific hotel or a store) when a group of people consider that they have committed an act of aggression, usually. Sometimes a faux pas is sufficient to get cancelled, worst still - as is the case here - simply the waft of an infringement is sufficient for the guillotine to come down. These acts of aggression as mentioned above range from racial slurs, misogynistic behaviour, xenophobic comments, or even sexual abuse.
But shouldn't people, especially those in positions of power and big companies be held accountable for their actions?
Of course, they should! The problem is that cancel culture is not based on holding those found guilty responsible, almost in all cases, it is an attempt at a virtual lynching. Not only do I not think it works, but it also has serious mental health consequences for everyone involved. Imagine losing your job for something you tweeted ten years ago, that you've clearly distanced and disassociated yourself from (are the same person you were ten years ago?) or being brutally attacked online for a comment taken out of context. Cancel culture does not care about context - yes, I do realise how crazy that sounds.
I read another article recently about the case of a Uruguayan footballer who used the English equivalent of little black man as a jovial and friendly response to a congratulatory message. The FA, the English Football Association, promptly responded by banned and fining Cavani for posting a comment deemed insulting, abusive, and improper.
In response, The Uruguayan National Academy of Letters — a body of academics and experts on the use of the Spanish language in Uruguay — criticised the decision on the grounds that the English FA lacked cultural knowledge, linguistics, nuance, and context in reaching its decision.
What surprised me was not the verdict, it was the response to this event by the author (of the article I read), who admitted that Cavani used the term affectionately and agreed that this is how the term is used in the language - no abuse or racism intended, yet goes on to state that the players' intention does not matter. it doesn't matter why, how or what nuances lie beyond what he said, he said a bad word so he should be punished! Really? How can a person's intention, and more importantly context not matter? This is arguably the biggest issue with cancel culture - context simply does not mean anything.
The not so curious case of McNeil and the recent witchhunt against him can be a useful litmus test in deconstructing this phenomenon and its effects on our well-being.
Has Cancel Culture Gone Too Far?
A couple of weeks ago New York Times reporter Donald McNeil resigned after his use of the N-Word came to light. At first, when I read the headline, I imagined something like he used that horrible word to insult or denigrate someone, maybe in some argument or fight (not like that justified it). I kept reading more about the story, McNeil worked at the NYT for 45 years, just a little context...
The incident that detonated everything? On a school trip to Peru that McNeil attended in 2019, he allegedly used the N-word to refer to people from the black community. If you finish reading the story here, there doesn't seem to be any justification for the reporter, he should have been fired, rápido.
However, there was a response from Donald McNeil, following his resignation letter in which he apologized to the staff of the New York Times, the students who participated in the school trip and all those who could be hurt by his words.
In his response, he alleges that he believed the use of that word was justified by the context, which was not to hurt, denigrate, or attack any individual. He explained that he was asked by a student if a classmate of hers should be suspended for a video that she recorded when she was 12 years old where she used a racial slur. To answer her question, McNeil used the same word to ask if she said it to refer to someone or rather to quote a song or a book.
Despite explaining the context and his reasoning for using the N-Word, the former New York Times reporter apologized or rather was 'advised to, through a series of email exchanges detailed in the reporters retelling...and admitted that he was wrong and that the circumstances do not justify the use of the racial slur.
Cancel Culture And It's Harms To Mental Health
I am not going to discuss the damage that a racial slur can cause to an entire community or justify it in any way. However, the consequences of the acts must be proportional to the punishment, surely?
Cancel culture fails to achieve its mission of holding those who attack accountable because it does not distinguish between real harmful acts and mistakes that someone may commit.
On the other hand, cancel culture does not do apologies, redemptions or regrets. This is where this phenomenon becomes a serious risk to mental health. In a world where the consequences of cancelling the wrong people have directly led to their suicide, see Mike Thalassitis’s, Sophie Gradon’s, and Caroline Flack as just the recent group of casualties. We do not need a movement that seeks to hunt down anyone who is deemed guilty via publicam sententiam iudicii. Trial by public opinion is simply not how democracy and the justice system work. Destroying livelihoods, doxing, sending death threats and going after people's families, is this your justice?
We must allow ourselves and others to make mistakes. We are all constantly learning, we cannot pretend that all wrongdoing is unjustified and punishable through purgatory.
Let's flip the script. Imagine being punished today for the mistakes you made ten years ago that no longer define you or your world view or worse still, for something that was taken out of context, none willing to hear your side of the story, you've been cancelled the only rebuttal given to your pleads?
Do not fall into a trend that does not recognize forgiveness and demands total perfection that in the end will only hurt all as a species. Before you press the delete button on someone's life, ask yourself this, does this person deserve this, or is there more to this story? There almost always is.
We made something a little great! The Anxiety Workbook, get yours by clicking here.