The Cancel Culture Trap

Can Black Lives Matter accomplish what Me Too couldn’t?

Left: Black Lives Matter protesters. Right: Me Too protesters.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images and Sarah Morris/Getty Images.

This summer has brought about what seems to be the largest protest movement in American history. Between 15 million and 26 million Americans have participated in demonstrations against police brutality and racism since the killing of George Floyd, a fact almost as stunning as the velocity with which public opinion on American policing has changed. The scale and force of this revolution in social attitudes leaves one grasping for comparisons, however flawed. For instance, I keep reflexively measuring Black Lives Matter against the ways the Me Too movement felt when it erupted in 2017. That movement also tackled a set of deep-seated biases that justified or ignored abusive conduct. Anchored by the New York Times’ and the New Yorker’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of sexual misconduct, Me Too ushered in a nationwide discussion of the ways sexual harassment and assault had been normalized in Hollywood and other industries. Like Black Lives Matter (which started in 2013, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin), it got a clueless majority to acknowledge and accept as real much that the afflicted community already knew.

Me Too did a lot: It ushered in overdue discussions about things like retaliation and consent, changed our default assumptions about how Hollywood should work, and showed a lot of survivors that they weren’t alone. But it also feels like it stalled out. At present, Me Too surfaces most frequently when a high-profile figure is publicly accused of misconduct in the hope that exposure might achieve effects that other more formal channels can’t or won’t. The backlash to this process came quickly, deploying the phrase “cancel culture” to condemn these informal alternatives as illiberal or worse. It seems reasonable to say, given the ongoing debates over censorious speech, that this backlash has now come for the Black Lives Matter movement.

If this backlash links the two movements, it’s also what makes the comparison fraught. Me Too seemed to be rocketing toward a social revolution in 2017—by then, BLM was already several years old and had gone through a few iterations without gaining widespread support (according to polls). Me Too was less of an organized movement and more an eruption of testimonies revealing just how common harassment and assault are in American workplaces, and how much these dynamics contributed to power imbalances, especially between men and women. Instances of lonely, private, and humiliating abuse added up to an accidental “sisterhood” of people shocked to discover the scope of their lamentable common ground. Problems are easier to agree on than solutions given this kind of unsought-for bond; after all, victims of abuse might not have anything but the abuse in common. It’s not surprising, therefore, that instead of generating better formal pathways for addressing sexual assault allegations, an ad hoc system developed: Malefactors were accused on the internet, and the results of those exposures varied. It certainly wasn’t a “culture” of anything: The efforts were stochastic, and the outcomes seemed random. It was clear from the start that online testimonials were never going to offer a recipe for lasting, transformative change. An outburst, however pained and honest, can’t and shouldn’t become a protocol; a functional society would surely develop better channels for those seeking redress.

None developed. Not really. I don’t mean to downplay Me Too. Big and messy and spontaneous and imperfect though it was, it was encouraging to see so many people wrestling with complicated questions about consent and power and how our default assumptions have disfavored female workers and driven them out of industries. Some of that wrestling has led to visible change: Harvey Weinstein, for example, was convicted this year on evidence the average American would not have found persuasive even five years ago—back then, most would have found it unthinkable (for example) that a victim of sexual assault might go on to have consensual sex with her assailant. Some states and Congress took necessary steps, but many of those measures (like providing funding for rape kits to be processed) felt more remedial than progressive. But my hope was that some paradigm for adjudicating claims would emerge out of all this, developed with input from survivors for a change. And I hoped we’d figure out how to talk about hierarchies of harm, the ongoing needs of victims, the derailed careers of people who deserved to confront or reenter fields they were harassed out of, and the knottiest problem of all: how to hold offenders accountable and eventually reintegrate them into the social fabric.

That hasn’t happened. And it does a lot to explain where we are today. Without going so far as to say Me Too failed—movements take time to take root and get where they need to go, and BLM had spent more time in the trenches—it seems true that for now at least, the momentum is gone, and the movement is stuck in a game of predator whack-a-mole that has reduced it to a convenient exhibit in the “cancellation” wars now dominating media discussions.

I asked Anna Holmes, founder of the blog Jezebel, whether Me Too and Black Lives Matter were worth comparing. A veteran of the feminist internet, Holmes has a unique (and understandably jaded) view of how corporate and feminist concerns have intersected over the past few years—to the detriment of the latter. She said that was one reason the movements didn’t feel alike to her. “My experience and memory of how Me Too evolved was really first rooted in Hollywood, in this industry that we all participate in as consumers but that we don’t necessarily work in.” So while the challenges faced by women in entertainment mattered, she said, it was not a revolution that immediately extended to you and me.

It also might not have helped, it occurs to me, that Me Too articulated its goals using the language of belief. “Believe Women” always risked mistaking inward-facing transformations for structural change, and the bad faith reading it made available (which many conservatives encouraged by misstating it as “Believe ALL Women”) was arguably catastrophic: The confusion over Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden proved how ill-equipped the movement, caught between two white male candidates with female accusers (coupled with Reade’s credibility problems) really was. Yes, “Believe Women” was meant to name and defamiliarize the tendency to reflexively doubt them. And it did that. The phrase in that way resembles “Black Lives Matter”: Both are deceptively mild provocations. Hard though it is to disagree with either, both elicit enormous resistance from certain quarters. Shouldn’t all people be believed? Shouldn’t all lives matter? They should, of course! The point of these mottos is to drive home the extent to which those expectations have not been met for these groups in particular.

These are useful interventions! But on the whole, it feels like Me Too didn’t get too much further than that, remaining stuck at the consciousness-raising stage. The BLM slogan “Defund the Police,” by contrast, is neither mild nor inward-looking: It prioritizes large-scale policy change over internal adjustments. And it has been, by any measure, amazingly effective. (Oakland, California, where I live, spent last Tuesday evening debating whether and how to defund the police.) Me Too hasn’t yet found that second gear. As my former colleague Aisha Harris, who edits and writes for the New York Times opinion section, said to me: “There are still obviously a lot of industries [Me Too] didn’t even touch. And I think that it’s also become an easy way for some people to dismiss claims. Oh, the Me Too people have gotten out of control.” Hemmed in by claims that Me Too had both gone too far and not far enough, a movement that started out with raw and painful exposures and the activism of women like Tarana Burke started to seem glossy and focus-grouped. The Times Up pins. The black dresses on red carpets. Holmes remembered attending a for-profit women’s conference where a conversation on 21st century feminism was headlined by Jennifer Aniston and Gloria Steinem. “The organizers were putting on a show, and it was demeaning to the discussions and the hard work of the people who I felt should have been on that stage,” Holmes said.

As businesses have rushed to declare their public support of Black Lives Matter, I’ve worried that the movement might get similarly diluted by corporate gestures that manage both to reflect the power of the movement and to trivialize it. Black Lives Matter has so far prioritized structural change over specific cases with extraordinary rigor. Still, it risks becoming a victim of its own success. Purely performative gestures like turning one’s Instagram black for a day were easy to mock, but public accusations about toxic, inequitable workplaces (and the resignations that ensued) occupy an uneasy in-between stage between top-down corporate efforts to market to the new reality and the ground-level demands that give Black Lives Matter its urgency. It’s this intermediate terrain that sparked the by now familiar backlash, threatening to drown out discussions of police brutality with conversations about intolerance from the left, especially in media. “I worry that it’s a little inside baseball,” Holmes said of the reckoning currently happening in media circles. “Representation in media, which is something that I’m concerned about, and have been very angry about for a long time … I just found myself thinking, now’s not the time. And the reason that it troubles me is because, first of all, I don’t know when the time is. So who am I to say now is not the time? But there was an echo of Me Too in that there was maybe an inordinate focus on the elites, for lack of a better word.”

Harris thinks this is the time, but she agreed that resignations weren’t going to be enough. Neither was simply hiring more people of color. “It’s going to take way more than just editors in chief and other people stepping aside,” she said. “There has to be actual work being done in hiring people, and not just as fellows or as interns, but in managerial positions and editing positions at outlets. Retention is also a huge issue,” she said. “I’m not overly optimistic, but I’m also not despairing.”

When I started writing this, Black Lives Matter was dominating the national conversation nearly every day. The media resignations and firings were the sideshow. That’s no longer the case. Instead, as happened with Me Too, an adjacent discussion has come to dominate in the tetchy doldrums of the internet where “cancel culture” gets endlessly litigated. During Me Too, the phrase that cropped up most frequently in this connection was “due process.” In its present iteration, it’s “free speech.” I’ve heard a lot more about speech-chilling online mobs these last few weeks than I have about police brutality—interrupted only recently by the disturbing sight of unidentified federal forces in Portland, Oregon, accosting (and detaining) protesters. It seems obvious that the latter is more serious. But denying the fervor of the former camp seems pointless; the media’s detrimental obsession with “cancel culture” must be addressed.

I’d like, therefore, to give Cerberus his sop: Yes, “cancellations” do happen. People have indeed lost their jobs because people with no direct power over them have publicly criticized them on the internet in response to some action or pattern or behavior. Some high-profile editors have resigned. So have a few CEOs. Blake Neff lost his job writing for Tucker Carlson. Amy Cooper lost her job and faces charges for calling 911 on a birdwatcher. That these incidents are comparatively rare is true but in some ways beside the point. So is the fact that people have for decades been fired for actions and speech their employers found objectionable. There’s a bias toward the present in this panic, and the impression is that people everywhere are newly at risk of losing their livelihoods for saying the wrong thing. Data scientist David Shor has become a cause célèbre in these debates and for good reason: Virtually everyone agrees that Shor’s employer should not have fired him for public criticism he received, if that was indeed the reason for his firing. (It’s a curious but telling feature of the proxy wars being fought here that little anger seems to be directed at the employer who did the actual firing.) Save for Shor, the examples garnering the most attention have been higher-ups in elite industries who are newly vulnerable to subordinates and even to outsiders who—thanks to the internet—can bang their pots louder than at any time in history. No one knows or understands the limits of this destabilizing inversion. The alarm has much to do with power, certainly. As with Me Too, it may also seem as if the “rules” suddenly changed to punish and pathologize behavior Americans used to tolerate and even embrace. The scope of behavior that ought to be seen as sexist expanded under Me Too. The scope of conduct that ought to be considered racist is presently expanding.

Anxiety over this change—and any attendant charges of complicity—may be driving the obsessive attention being paid not just to firings and resignations but to any race-based objections by subordinates that critics simply don’t agree with (two cases in which professors remained employed and consequence-free despite complaints from their students tend to crop up as examples of speech-chilling censoriousness). Many Americans are changing the ways they weigh evidence and process information from different sources—maybe forever. The police officer’s account (the banal explanations of “resisting arrest” or “reaching for a weapon”) has lost the automatic acceptance it once enjoyed. Just as, thanks to Me Too, the accused rapist’s denial (“it was consensual at the time” or “this is about money”) no longer persuades in the way it once did. Those inward transformations might matter after all, insofar as they build support for societal changes.

But the group I think of as the “cancel critics” is less worried about charting this wobbly trajectory than it is the professional consequences within a far smaller bubble. “Cancel culture” is less a description than a fundamentally elitist complaint, and I’m not the first to point out that the alarm seems a little disproportional given the built-in vagaries of the American labor market, the ongoing disintegration of the media industry in particular, the 51 million Americans who have filed for unemployment, and the fact that in a recent poll, 53 percent of respondents felt there should be social consequences for offensive speech, yet only 32 percent of respondents viewed “cancel culture” favorably. The branding has started to overshadow the content. No one calls it a “cancellation” when a higher-up fires a lower-down worker, even when the reasons are obscure. At-will employment and arbitrary terminations are features of jobs as most of us know them: The higher-up gets to make the call. To the extent that “cancel culture” exists as a weak force that produces sporadic countervailing results, it unsettles the usual flow of power. Not only are lower-downs influencing professional consequences, they’re able to do so in ways that might seem capricious, or arbitrary, or inaccurate. A nontrivial amount of power has shifted—incompletely, and not in a systematic way. (One way to help systematize that rebalancing of power in companies: unions!) What was true of Me Too remains true of BLM: “Cancellations” emerged in response to a lack of institutional power, and in response to systems designed to ignore legitimate complaints.

It’s only natural for critics to seek out limits on the exercise of this new power. Anyone conversant in the capricious injustice of the old system wants (consciously or subconsciously) to be reassured that they won’t suffer equally arbitrary treatment from the other side. But this is where the real “cancel culture” boogey monster lives, I think: A lot of people seem to be operating under a tacit understanding that employers who fire “racist” employees had no agency of their own. This is a bizarre but revealing assumption. For “cancel culture” critics, leftist agitators are presently understood to have too much influence on the cold-blooded corporate incentives they used to have no sway over.

If you’re a leftist, this picture of reality is pretty bananas! The 2017 Women’s March, for instance, was a massive, peaceful statement that was ultimately understood to be an expression of civic despair requiring no institutional response. Protests against the invasion of Iraq did nothing to slow the invasion. Occupy Wall Street became a punchline. All of these movements laid organizing groundwork on the left but were dismissed with extraordinary ease by those in power. This country got extremely comfortable metabolizing and ignoring leftist protest. It’s disorienting, then, to see the left chastised by media elites for its overwhelming and undue influence over … corporate firings.

I’m going through all this because it’s hard to assess how Black Lives Matter may fare in the coming months without understanding the forces that may slow it down—just as they slowed down Me Too. The phrase “cancel culture” managed to reframe a desperate response to structural exclusion as itself abusive and censorious. The backlash to Me Too stranded the public imagination in a quagmire of questions over whether—despite ludicrously small concrete advances—it has gone “too far.” And the backlash was effective because Holmes is right, I think: Me Too did indeed begin as an elite movement, and it didn’t manage to extend too far beyond that.

I don’t expect it to work with Black Lives Matter because the movement didn’t originate, and still doesn’t reside, in the elite media space—the “intermediate terrain” I mentioned above—where the backlash is loudest. Governments are now doing something that was unthinkable even three months ago: They’re taking measures to curb police abuses. Minneapolis has announced that it is disbanding its police force. Colorado got rid of qualified immunity. Even Republicans in Congress are debating police reform. It’s hard to overstate how much damage police forces across this country have inflicted on the very illusions that have for decades worked in their favor. In video after video of police beating Americans, they have proved how little they have deserved the extraordinary public trust they once enjoyed. And as Black Lives Matter transcends the structurally disadvantaged position that made “cancellations” a logical and necessary supplement to a dysfunctional system, it is moving way ahead of the spats between media personalities (over what the limits of free speech should be) and making headway in the actual halls of power.

So here’s my charitable read of the cancel critics: We are living through a moment when a lot of basic principles that organize society are being renegotiated. I have sympathy for that disorientation, and this is not the first time these very debates have been had, as Osita Nwanevu pointed out in a Twitter thread collecting examples of similar critiques over the past few decades. But in a nationwide crisis where people are being beaten and arrested for asserting their free speech rights, some elite media critics are having difficulty seeing beyond the tempest in a teapot afflicting their own circle.

Holmes and Harris are right: Me Too began as an elite movement and a media story and mostly remained within those ecosystems. Black Lives Matter is happening in the streets, in organizing spaces, in council meetings, in Moms for Housing, in places that are fundamentally not bounded by media. Without the media, Me Too couldn’t have happened. If that were true of Black Lives Matter, it might have petered out by now too. Both movements sparked under the combustible frustration of populations that were formally excluded from the egalitarian ideas expressed during America’s founding, and both erupted during Donald Trump’s presidency, perhaps in partial response to the racism and misogyny he has openly and persistently linked to American identity. If both movements are getting caught up in the tar pits of America’s “cancel culture” wars—wherein critics implicitly demand that protesters live up to standards the institutions they’re protesting have egregiously failed to uphold—Black Lives Matter stands a better chance of making it out.