I have been snitched on, but I have never been canceled

"Cancel Culture" is a bad term

Kevin Drum, one of the best bloggers in the game and a colleague I have truly loved working with, left Mother Jones a few days ago, and it led to some confusion online about my status, so I just want to clear some stuff up.

I still work for Mother Jones. I am on voluntary leave.

Kevin has chosen to strike out again on his own you can read about his decisions here. (Also subscribe to his blog!)

But anyway, this is as good excuse as ever to ramble for a bit about “cancel culture.”

“Cancel culture” is a terrible term seeking to describe two distinct problems.

  1. Snitch culture: never before have so many people on the right and left felt comfortable trying to get people in trouble with their bosses.

  2. An employer-side confusion about the meaning and power of social media outrage that leads them to fire people because of bullshit.

No one has been the subject of snitching more than me. People have tried to get me fired since as long as I have had a staff job. Sometimes they have had good reasons to be mad at me; I’ve made tons of mistakes. But most of the time, the complaints are just that they don’t like something and then when they feel like I haven’t been contrite enough, they’ve escalated things.

The first time I offered to resign from Mother Jones was in 2014, when Gamergate set off a massive campaign to get me fired. My bosses wouldn’t have it because they could tell the outrage was in bad faith. It would not be the last time I made this offer, but it was the time I was most worried they’d accept.

At no point during my tenure at Mother Jones has anyone ever asked me to walk an editorial line. There are tons of things I disagree with people about. Mother Jones isn’t the “Ben Dreyfuss Journal of Ideas.” It’s also not the “Clara Jeffery Journal of Ideas.” Or anyone’s journal of ideas. It’s a magazine filled with staffers who share a joint general belief in the power of journalism to affect positive change. But those staffers are people. People disagree about things.

I have been 100% lucky and blessed to work for bosses that understand the profound emptiness of Twitter demanding you get fired.

That’s why it’s never happened. At other places—places less confident in the fundamental ephemerality of outrage—would have not only taken me up on those resignation offers, but also just had fired me. I’m not in the union. They could fire me whenever they want.

“Cancelling” is a thing network executives do to shows. It is the act of an employer. To the extent that it is a problem—and I do think it is a problem—it a problem of at-will employment and the solutions to it are strengthening labor protections and making clear to employers that they need to actually worry about losing business because some random twitter account gets mad at them for a day.

Indeed, in high profile media cases—with notable exceptions—employers have come to understand that the blowback from giving into mob outrage is more severe than the outrage itself. There is a massive cottage industry of people who complain about cancel culture and there is also a cottage industry of people complaining about the complainers. No matter where you stand on that anti-cancel culture caucus, I think it has probably helped employers evolve from knee-jerk “fire the controversial person” to at a minimum “let’s think about this for 5 minutes.”

But to be honest with you, the cancellation part of this—that second item I listed up top—is not where my main interest lie.

It shouldn’t happen. I don’t want it to happen. People should not have their livelihoods destroyed because of a mistake or because they have a different sense of humor or a different outlook, particularly if they’re in a job where those things have nothing to do with their work.

But I’m much more saddened by the snitching part of this.

Why do people think it’s ok to escalate something to the point of trying to get them in trouble at work? It’s “can I speak to the manager” on steroids. At least snitches in the criminal world have the common decency to do it covertly. But Twitter has incentivized that version where people proudly tag employers in their tweets.

Whenever someone goes out of their way to do something on social media publicly over and over (which is what someone does when they take the time to look up your boss and tweet threats about cancelling subscriptions not in replies but in broad tweets to their followers) they are performing an act of self-identification for their own followers. They are saying to their followers “look, I am trying to get this person in trouble because they have done something that you will agree with me deserves to be punished.”

A truth about life is that it’s easier to define yourself against something than for something, and the internet is a place that makes it all too easy to do that. It’s one thing if it’s all fun and games and meaningless, but it’s not in this case. In this case you are a person trying to destroy someone’s livelihood.

That just makes you a prick, some selfish asshole who is valuing your own little dialogue with your followers over the real matters of someone you don’t know.

I described this once in a post at…Mother Jones:

The internet is a place where people cry about bullshit. If outrage is a currency—and it is—then the online market is drowning in counterfeits. People like to feign outrage because it allows them to demonstrate their humanity and show the world that they feel things strongly and people like to sleep with people who feel things strongly. Outrage allows people to define themselves in opposition to something, which is much easier than defining yourself on your own.

People should be ashamed of snitching to employers, and employers should be ashamed of giving into them.

All I can say is that I’m very lucky to work for people who have never been confused about when a mob shows up acting in bad faith: you turn them away.

I have many thoughts about this subject so this won’t be the last time I go on about it, but since I woke up today to people worried I’d been cancelled I just wanted to jot something down quick.