By Agnes Callard
What should my friends do if I am being canceled?
A decade ago, when I was a nonpublic philosopher writing only for a small group of academics, it would never have occurred to me to ask myself this question. But things have changed. These days, anyone with a public-facing persona must contemplate the prospect of having her reputation savagely destroyed.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay that, in passing, questioned faculty solidarity with unionizing graduate students. I had not realized how sensitive that topic was, and I was inundated with angry and hateful messages and a few threats online. In the scheme of things, the episode was quite mild, lasting only a few weeks. But it felt all-consuming at the time. And it was a taste of what could come.
I know some of the people who agitated against me. They are not bad people; one shouldn’t think of what was happening as a conflict between my team and theirs. There were no sides. You imagine that you are fighting against the mob, but actually you are becoming a part of it. Within the mob there is no justice and no argument and no reasoning, no space for inquiry or investigation. The only good move is not to play.
So this is my answer: If I am being canceled, I want my friends — and this includes not only my closest associates but any people who consider themselves friendly to me — to stand by, remain silent and do nothing. If you care about me, let them eat me alive.
When I try to imagine my own cancellation, two main avenues come to mind. The first is that I write something triggering a wave of offense, as I did when I wrote about unions. There are symbolic traps all over the cultural landscape; I do my best to avoid them, but they have a tendency to cluster near some interesting topics. Anyone who writes for the public, and who maintains a social media presence, must accept some measure of risk.
Second, I exhibit a personal failing. I wear many hats in addition to that of public intellectual — I am a mother, a teacher, a mentor, an administrator, a scholar, a member of the broader academic philosophical community. When asked how I juggle so many different roles, I explain that each time I add a new one, I do all the others a bit worse. The secret to success is failure. I try to keep the failure at a manageable level, but one day I might fail at that, too.
Because I am only a very minor public figure, not much worth canceling, I think it’s likely I would have to go wrong in both ways — by causing offense, and by falling down on the job — to merit a coordinated public outcry. I am not saying that such a perfect storm is very likely, but it is far from impossible.
My most vivid memory from that period is how good it felt when people defended me on Twitter: a balm on my wounded soul. I desperately wanted people to speak up for me. I wanted to defend myself, too. My wise husband stayed my hand. He saw what I could not see, which is that there was no “winning” this war; every act of defense and every show of loyalty served to keep the fight alive. This explains the curious fact that for all the fighting people do against cancellation, no cancelee ever vanquishes her cancelers.