Last week, I got my first haters.
They flocked over in response to an article I published on what I wish my Japanese colleagues knew about working as a foreigner in Japan. Honestly they were few and far between, but vocal enough for me and my bosses to notice them on Twitter.
The gist of their argument was that companies shouldn’t tolerate any public criticism from their employees, and that had my company not been so naive (their words, not mine) I would have already been fired. Mixed in there were some nationalist views about how Japanese companies should only tolerate foreign workers who shut their mouths and do as they are told.
For a moment, I started panicking. Had I poked the bear hard enough to cause a real headache for my employer? Was I about to get “cancelled?”
Long story short, nothing happened. My CEO came out on Twitter in support of the article. My boss messaged me in private telling me to ignore that group of critics. I felt reassured and supported, and my article got even more views and shares.
That’s when it hit me. The reaction of those around me was exactly the response we should be promoting in response to cancel culture.
Charging at windmills
A month and a half ago Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Myriad prominent thinkers came together to denounce cancel culture and implore the general public to not be so intolerant.
I didn’t like the letter. It felt like a strongly-worded rebuke aimed at nobody in particular. Screaming into the wind hoping the madness would stop. But that’s not how madness works. I can hardly imagine a scenario in which a cancel culture enthusiast would read that letter and think to themselves, “Good point, I shall never call for the cancellation of anyone ever again.”
You can say the letter drew attention to the phenomenon in general, but it didn’t do anything with that attention. It didn’t call for anything, apart from asking intolerant people to please be less intolerant.
The letter could have called for action. It should have called for action.
Believing in freedom of speech means believing in free speech for all, including the narrow-minded. Those who wrote the letter have the right to tell the cancel culture crowd to be more tolerant, just as the crowd has the right to tell the authors to shove their letter somewhere dark and damp.
So the solution isn’t in changing the mind of the intolerant few, where is it? Two places: the will of the powerful and the voices of the many.
The mob gets through if the gatekeepers let it
I’ve grown tired of any tirade on cancel culture that doesn’t openly address the ones who are actually doing the cancelling. While it may be convenient to believe in the might of the nameless, faceless, ruthless Twitter masses, they wield no real power. The perpetrators who empower cancel culture are the executives, managers and HR reps doing the firing. They are the editors, publishers and university administrators who silence opinions on the grounds of not fitting the right narrative.
To be clear, plenty of the firings I see blamed on cancel culture seem justified. The controversial pundits whining about not being invited to speak on college campuses should realize that while their speech is protected, they don’t have the right to a podium. But in the cases where there is foul, where someone’s livelihood has been disproportionately damaged for simply voicing an opinion, it’s meaningless for the enlightened to wax poetic about the viciousness of the angry mob. Their righteous indignation should be directed at the gatekeepers.
The courage to stand up in the name of free speech should be a prerequisite for positions with the power to influence public discourse. Those who lack such courage shouldn’t have influence over who gets heard and who doesn’t.
Those with power in my company were fantastic. They intervened quickly and decisively. They were fair, reassuring and brave. If that same attitude were more wide-spread, cancel culture would not be an issue.
Feel free to disagree
The other point on which I believe the Harper letter failed spectacularly was in calling for those who are not intolerant, who believe in free speech, to be more active allies.
In a sense, it’s exactly what they did by the mere fact of writing the letter: They came together across political factions in vocal support of the right to an honest and open public debate. But they didn’t extend the invitation. In fact, the letter ends with “If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.” They place themselves as creators and thinkers in opposition to, rather than as allies of, the public.
There can be no remedy to the woes of cancel culture without an allied public. Even the most articulate, persuasive and charismatic content creators cannot stay afloat without the support of their platforms and their readers.
The more targeted the support, the better. Despite their best intentions, it isn’t those who wrote the Harper’s letter who were there for me when I started getting Twitter mentions. It was the open-minded gatekeepers who hold power over my livelihood. It was the readers who said they related to my work. It was all those people who took a moment out of their day to support my right to raise my voice.
That last one in particular is perhaps what is most lacking throughout society.
In our hyperpartisan world, where the content we consume is algorithmically pre-approved to suit our consumer preferences, when we do voice our opposition to cancel culture, it tends to be in defense of those with whom we agree.
What happened to the spirit of Voltaire, beautifully transcribed in Evelyn Hall’s famous line, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?”
I suppose that in difficult times, where every argument turns into a fight over our identity and worldview, we have little mental energy remaining to show mercy and empathy toward our detractors. That’s a shame. It’s that very empathy that leads to dialogue, and ultimately to solutions for the biggest issues we face as a society. In what is admittedly a very small-scale example, the fact that I was able to openly voice my concerns in my article has led to my company considering ways to make our work environment a little more foreigner-friendly.
Improvement is hard enough. Improvement without an ear for the opinions we may disagree with is practically impossible. With that in mind, however hard it may be to hear opinions that clash with our own, let’s take a moment to actively acknowledge their importance. Not just in our heads, but with an actual “thank you.”
And however vehemently you may disagree with everything I’ve ever written, rest assured that I wholeheartedly defend your right to do so.