We Don't Throw People Away
sympathy and forgiveness for everybody, no exceptions
Yesterday the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel was suspended a month without pay for retweeting a tasteless joke. It strikes me as almost a parody of the absurd hypersensitivity and retributive culture that rules in media right now, and makes me grateful once again that I don’t take a salary in that business. Weigel might have avoided punishment, but the issue was pursued with almost comical tenacity by WaPo’s Felicia Somnez, who spent hour after hour on Twitter prosecuting the case against her coworker. I can’t imagine being motivated by a desire to discipline others that way, but then I’m not the kind of person to make it onto the masthead at the august Washington Post.
The term “cancel culture” comes pre-mocked these days, mostly by white men who want to ensure that they’re perceived to be the right kind of white men. (Also the people who mock the idea that canceling is a problem are almost always people who lie awake at night in fear of being canceled themselves.) But whether you want to call it cancel culture or not, it’s indisputable that we live in a public condition now where people live in constant fear of facing immense professional and social consequences for minor offenses. To retweet a dumb joke (not even to write one, but to share one!) and lose your salary for a month is an absurd overreaction. You don’t want to call it cancel culture, Michael Hobbes, fine. That condition, the condition where someone like Weigel can make such a minor offense and face severe professional and financial consequences, is unhealthy, ultimately unsustainable, and contrary to justice. More importantly for me, it’s incompatible with a basic ethic of forgiveness. I’m against that state of affairs, and if you want to mock me as an anti-woke bro, fine by me.
On Monday I laid out my case that the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial has potentially dark consequences for free speech, and voiced my objection to the verdict on those grounds. But I also want to point out that Amber Heard has been canceled, publicly shamed, in addition to being on the wrong end of that verdict. And I would hope people could take a moment and grapple with what this means - not in terms of culture war, or feminism, or even civil liberties, but simply from the point of view that Amber Heard is a human being who has clearly suffered and is now facing immense public backlash in an industry where public perception is everything. I encourage all of you who oppose cancel culture to ask yourself whether we should be concerned about this situation.
Let’s stipulate, simply for ease of analysis, that Heard behaved inappropriately in publishing the supposedly-defamatory essay in question and in her statements since then. Even then, do you think she should face the professional death penalty for these failings? Many people are suggesting that Heard will or should never receive high-profile work in Hollywood again. (Please don’t give me the “no one is saying” routine here. Social media is filled with the sentiment that Heard should never work again. And there’s been plenty of analysis that’s suggested that her career is mortally wounded.) Well, folks, guess what: that sure looks like canceling to me. It’s the application of intense public social pressure to harm the life of a disfavored person who is perceived to have done something wrong. Heard was not charged with any crime; she was sued in civil court over the veracity of some (very vague and general) statements about physical abuse in an essay. That the court found in her favor does not even necessarily make her a liar, and it’s never been remotely proven to my satisfaction that she actively believed the things she said in that essay to be untrue. Yes, there are caricatures of Heard as a mustache-twirling villain all over social media right now, but I think you can be sympathetic to Johnny Depp’s side of the case and still see Heard as someone who was sharing what seemed to her to be the essential truth of her situation.
An ethic of forgiveness and sympathy for those who have screwed up is of course not limitless. I’m not sitting around waiting for Harvey Weinstein to get another chance. But if we’re truly opposed to the endless hunt for heretics that has gripped our popular culture, we should have a generous definition of who we should consider forgiving. With the exception of those who have committed serious crimes or otherwise deliberately hurt others in a malicious way, I think we should err on the side of equanimity and a refusal to judge. Someone responded to Monday’s piece by saying that I lack credibility to speak on issues of defamation, as I have defamed someone in the past. Perhaps that’s so. And it is definitely true that I want a more forgiving and compassionate social culture because I know I’m a sinner who needs forgiveness personally. But I also know that all of us are, that the only people who haven’t yet been taken to task for their crimes are those whose crimes are yet undiscovered. I also know that every major religion and moral philosophy you can name contains an injunction against self-righteousness and sitting in judgment of others; none of us have the credibility needed to make those judgments. Vengeance is the lord’s alone for a reason, and we all have it coming.
You don’t have to like Amber Heard. You don’t have to buy tickets to any new movie she might appear in. But I think that it’s impossible to simultaneously oppose canceling or cancel culture or whatever and wish for her career to be permanently ruined. Canceling has become such a culture war-laden topic that it’s almost impossible to consider it outside of those terms, but I want to advocate for an emotional perspective instead. I think we need more sympathy, less judgment, more forgiveness, less quickness to condemn, more moral humility. And I can’t imagine accepting that ethos while still condemning Heard to the degree that she’s being condemned online. Even if you think she’s in the wrong - especially if you think she’s in the wrong - you should want better for her than she’s receiving right now.
For now I’m left to shake my head as the ironies pile up.