How to Cancel a Person

This is how you cancel a person:

You invite the best and brightest from around the world to your university. You allow them to learn and grow for 4 years, building skills and potential. Then, you tell them that unlike other 22 year olds with endless time to putter around and decide what to do with their life, they have just a year before they’re forced to leave the country. It’s accepted as normal, a matter of course. They sit looking out of plane windows and wondering what could have been.

This is how you cancel a person:

After running from violence, they find a safe place in your home and people who support them. But they are status-less and told that they cannot work, because their humanity is pending. Their choice is either to gamble with working at a convenience store illegally and without typical worker protections, or try to survive off the charity of others, for as long as two years. If they require serious and critical medical care, often precisely because of the situation they were running from, they are at the mercy of nonprofits and strangers.

This is how you cancel a person:

They show up as a blank slate in your credit system — not with bad history, but simply none. Because of this, you deny them access to housing and transportation, and make the path to becoming a person financially incredibly difficult.

This is how you cancel a person:

You tell them that their body does not belong to them, and they are not able to choose when to be burdened physically and financially with children without being subject to multiple humiliating tests of their humanity, if at all. What’s more, you leave them with no way to provide for their newborn child, no system to help with raising or caring for them, and no sympathy if this means sending both people into abject poverty.

This is how you cancel a person:

You tell them that their need to use a bathroom is far less important than the profit of your company.

This is how you cancel a person:

You tell them that their right to use the bathroom is dependent on their ability to behave like a different gender.

This is how you cancel a person:

You tell them that the sentence they served for their crime was not enough atonement, regardless of the crime’s severity. You tell them they will be forced to reveal to the world their past transgressions, to be marked by that always. You do nothing to improve the pervasive stigma against them. Often, this is the very thing that sends them back to crime.

“Cancel culture” seems like the phrase of 2021. It’s been featured prominently among several political conventions, and of course, I have been accused of “cancelling” myself.

I have little patience for those who believe that removal of a person from a prominent position is “canceling”, because almost all of the examples above are real things which have happened to people I personally know and love, and they all truly reject an individual’s humanity. I therefore cannot see the tragedy in simply being asked to step down from a position or being removed from influence, especially from the kinds of positions or levels of influence that most people never achieve their entire lives. It’s been said many times over already, but those sorts of positions are not simply a means for livelihood; they often hold great power over others. Per Spiderman and Barack Obama, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

First, isn’t it obvious what should happen if you are not capable of great responsibility?

Simply, you should not be in a position of great power.

People draw all sorts of false equivalencies in this type of discussion, including the idea that a job with lots of influence is equivalent to a job that lets you eat three meals a day and pay for rent. No one is saying, for the most part, that people should not be able to feed themselves, receive healthcare, or even contribute meaningfully to society after committing a transgression of some kind that leads to their removal from an influential position (unless they are saying it is a criminal offense, perhaps). It’s a matter of removing a person’s responsibility over others, and removing the power they wield.

Second, if a person has public impacts, it seems reasonable to me that they face public consequences and scrutiny.

This extends to me, myself. I am aware that because of some of my past public actions, I could be at risk in certain job interviews etc. where there may be prominent people who disagree with me. I choose to put myself in public view and I am aware of the consequences for doing so. I am not saying these consequences are always fair or just, but simply that I acknowledge them and I accept them — and in my case, these are the jobs that simply provide me with my livelihood. I am confused by people who are outraged by public reaction to public figures, as though they were not expecting such reactions to ever occur.

Thinking of New York Times HBO series episode “Framing Britney Spears”, the conversation about fame, public figures, and what they owe or do not owe to the public, is another discussion that I am sure people have written entire books on, so I am not trying to say that the masses are always right. But there always seems to be some level of “how dare you” in internet conversations around canceling, as though certain public figures, on their pedestals, should be immune to reactions to what they do and say, that asking such people to step off of these pedestals and face consequences like other regular people is travesty, blasphemy.

Third, influence never really disappears, even when these offenders are later known infamously.

Infamous offenders still receive attention — sometimes lots of it, sometimes even more than before they became infamous. I mean, four years ago, I actually I had no idea that there even existed a man called “Jeffrey Epstein” who was a billionaire, and also had no idea that there existed some prominent Hollywood man named “Harvey Weinstein”. In these cases of course there were heinous offenses committed where consequences must go far beyond the loss of a position, but thinking of conversations around events such as shootings in America, there is a reason that people keep asking you to focus on the victims instead of the offenders. Elevate the victims’ stories, make known their humanity, rather than giving way to the ogling and trauma-porn that the American media is known for. That is what I tried to do when highlighting the stories of MIT women in an environment stacked against them.

I’ll make one sort-of concession, which I wrote in an email recently:

“I agree that people have not really thought about what comes after the removal of a person from an influential position.

And I think that is largely because those people rarely face true consequences from their actions or handle their reaction well. No one that I know of has done it gracefully yet, and that has meant we have not been able to get to the rehabilitation step that comes after accountability and the reduction of harm, or at least, we don’t have widely-known public examples of this.

Or perhaps it’s that the people who do handle it gracefully are those who face their mistakes responsibly when they are small, rather than letting them pile up for decades. Perhaps holding people accountable for their smaller mistakes when they happen instead of turning a blind eye is another ingredient [for the future], as then it will never have to come to this.”

Something no one seems to be thinking about in conversations about accountability is how holding a person accountable not only helps us, not only reduces harm, but also helps the person being “called in”. Is this not the rationale behind disciplining children? We have to make clear to people early on, early in their careers, early in their new leadership positions, what is acceptable and not, how to handle negative feedback without taking things personally, how to handle uncomfortable conversations and be prepared to be told you did something wrong and face it responsibly like an adult. Everyone grows older, but not everyone grows up, and we sorely need to create more grown-ups in this society that is starting to feel like an apocalyptic interpretation of Lord of the Flies.

I suspect that later on, we will find narratives about ‘cancel culture’ blending with other important conversations about justice in the United States and around the world.

I for one do not believe that exclusively retributive justice is particularly useful, and agree that the primary and most urgent focus when harm is discovered is to protect the people harmed. This involves removing people who have caused harm from positions power, but out of concern for the people they have power over, not foremost as a punishment or penalty. There should also be time and space given for these people to, first, heal individually, second, to feel safe and commune with each other, and finally to voice their opinions and to start contributing to the framework for moving forward, creating ways to avoid repeating the same mistakes. Otherwise, the result feels empty and hollow, even if the most immediate issue has been resolved.

I’m uncertain right now whether that space for intentional thought is always happening, and perhaps it’s that feeling of unresolvedness that leads people to settle on this term “cancel culture”, connoting a dismissal that is meaningless. Too often, the removal of a person doesn’t mean much. The same role is filled by an all too similar personality; the same smaller transgressions are committed, until one day in the future they too might overflow as before. We should learn from these events and make them mean something, make the changes and discussion panels into something that sticks. We should strip away fully the infrastructure that led to problematic behavior so that something else can take its place.

We should learn to think more transformatively, to dare to believe that we can build something better.



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Selam G.

Selam G.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.