Being canceled

Katie Herzog writes for the Seattle weekly The Stranger. One day she wrote an article about trans people who halt or reverse transitions. You’ll never guess what happened next.

Two days later she started getting hate mail.

“It is, by far, the most-read thing I’ve ever written,” Ms. Herzog said. It also made her “wildly reviled.” Seattle residents burned stacks of The Stranger and posted stickers calling Ms. Herzog a transphobe.

Ms. Herzog lost “dozens” of friends over the article, she said. She soon felt unwelcome at lesbian bars. She began to hesitate to give strangers her name. She felt like a “pariah” in her hometown, she said, and eventually moved out of Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Her main social contacts now are her live-in girlfriend and a small group of older female friends. “I’m not invited to brunch anymore,” Ms. Herzog said.

Been there, got the T shirt. (Except the brunch thing. I do not know this “brunch” of which you speak.)

The term for people who have been thrust out of social or professional circles in this way — either online or in the real world or sometimes both — is “canceled.”

This week, even Barack Obama spoke about online denunciation, personal purity and being “politically woke,” saying, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”

Purity is not enough, and it’s not always even desirable. Purity can be racial or sexual or ethnic or national or religious, and none of those brands of purity-policing lead to good places.

Alice Dreger, a former Northwestern University professor, estimated she has counseled “about 100” people through their experiences being canceled. In doing so, she has become part of an “informal peer network” that includes two pugnacious writer-personalities: Christina Hoff Sommers, who rose to prominence defending Gamergate and coining “victim feminism,” and Meghan Murphy, who opposed adding gender identity to Canada’s human rights act.

Ms. Herzog had interviewed Ms. Dreger for her piece on trans people. “I told her, ‘You’re going to get slaughtered for this.’ She just laughed,” Ms. Dreger said. “Six months later, she gave me a call.”

“Katie thought what we all thought: The truth will save me. That’s what Galileo thought, too, and he died under house arrest. The same thing has happened to us.”

Did I think that? No, I don’t think so. I apparently did think I would be allowed to express some careful, reasoned reservations though. Ha! Nope.

Ms. Dreger’s chief concern is ensuring that the canceled person has access to mental health care, she said. The experience of public scorn is psychologically damaging.

“There’s an effect to being constantly told, in public, that you’re wrong and evil,” said Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex in England.

Ms. Stock has also received strong criticism for her writings on trans people. (She describes herself as “gender critical.”) She said she is “anathema” in certain philosophy factions.
She has also corresponded with Ms. Herzog and Jesse Singal, another journalist who has been scorned for his writing on trans people, and has developed genuine friendships with like-minded academics. “Some of us have even been on holiday together,” Ms. Stock said.

Brunch, holiday – these people speak a dialect I’m not familiar with.

Mr. Singal and Ms. Murphy may be case studies for people who don’t believe “cancel culture” is real, or effective. Twitter-based outrage hasn’t had a lasting, adverse effect on their careers or social lives. It has become a central part of their online personas.

For Ms. Murphy, getting canceled has brought her into contact with people she once considered her “political enemies.”

She was banned from Twitter for “targeted misgendering” and then sued Twitter over the decision. (She lost the suit but said she is currently in the appeal process.) While she thought it would hurt her writing career, she said the opposite occurred. “People tried to cancel me, and I was un-cancelable,” Ms. Murphy said. “It backfired, and I gained a bigger profile.”

And lots of invitations to brunch, I bet.

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