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Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the effect of ‘cancel culture.’ Hardly a day goes by without some well-known person or company being excoriated for something they’ve done or said, whether it’s Lizzo being condemned for her alleged treatment of her backup dancers or Bud Light being criticized for working with a trans influencer. It’s easy to be angry on the Internet. Whatever your beliefs, you can find plenty of people who seem to stand against everything you hold dear, and it can feel cathartic to share your rage with the world. For creators, this can be an intimidating environment, and it can feel like you have to walk on eggshells to avoid ending up in the digital pillory. But the good news is that it’s possible to be authentic without constantly having to look over your shoulder.

Cancel culture is nothing new

I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to think that cancel culture is some new development. Depending on their prejudices, it’s something that didn’t exist until those dastardly liberals/conservatives became determined to stamp out opposing views. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

In reality, the urge to cancel has been around for millennia. In the 15th century BCE, the name and image of the famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut was removed from monuments across Egypt following her death, and later generations omitted her from the official king lists that appeared on temple walls (while we cannot know the exact motivation behind these moves, it’s possible that the idea of a woman king was simply too transgressive for her successors). Some three-thousand years later, the Roman Catholic Church compiled a formal list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, that Catholics were supposed to avoid at all costs. More recently, American fear of Communism led to a number of prominent entertainers being blacklisted by Hollywood after they refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. 

We’re all cancellers now

While humans have been canceling other humans for ages, the phenomenon has evolved in recent years. Historically, cancellation tended to be a weapon that the majority used against its disfavored groups. For example, the 16th-century zoological text Historia Animalium was added to the Index simply because its author, Conrad Gessner, happened to be a Protestant. But today, cancellation has ceased to be the sole preserve of elites. The Internet has ushered in a world where anyone can denounce someone for problematic behavior (whether real or perceived), and it no longer has to reflect the views of the majority. Groups that were traditionally marginalized by society now have the power to push back against their opponents. This is why, for example, there have been numerous calls to cancel J. K. Rowling for her views on trans issues even though discussions about trans rights were largely confined to queer spaces until relatively recently.

Of course, the democratization of cancellation isn’t without its drawbacks. Repetition can turn good-faith critiques into bad-faith attacks, and the issue itself can be flanderized as context and nuance are forgotten. And canceling doesn’t just lead to online shame. It can have serious real-world consequences that aren’t always proportional to the original offense. 

Steering clear of troubled waters

If you read my last piece on creating a personal brand, you know that I’ve worked hard to keep out of partisan politics. For example, while I may critique a party’s plans for the House of Lords, I would never urge my readers to vote for (or against) that party. While I can provide some perspective on constitutional matters, elections involve a host of issues that are well above my paygrade (e.g., the NHS, immigration, energy policy), and I’m a firm believer in staying in one’s own lane. This helps me avoid the sort of reflexive toxicity that often surrounds any political discussion nowadays. 

Still, there have been times where I’ve worried that I might get flak for something I’d written. Several years ago, I became aware of a conspiracy theory involving the Cestui Que Vie Act 1666. It was originally passed to address a thoroughly prosaic issue: leases were often tied to the length of a person’s life, and if that person subsequently went overseas, it could take a long time for news of their fate to reach Britain. This gave rise to all kinds of problems, so Parliament declared that a person could be presumed dead if they went abroad and seven years elapsed without any proof that they were still alive. Although this only applied to individuals whose lives were used to reckon the duration of a lease, conspiracy theorists believe that Parliament actually declared everyone to be lost at sea.

The whole thing is a bunch of tripe, but it has gained traction with members of the so-called ‘sovereign citizen’ movement. Their schtick is that they believe they are exempt from most laws, and they often buttress their arguments with erroneous interpretations of British law (including the Cestui Que Vie Act). Their credulity can have lethal consequences--there have been a number of cases where encounters between sovereign citizens and law enforcement have had deadly consequences. 

Because this misuse of British law can have such dire consequences, I felt it was imperative for me to speak out. But at the same time, I did worry that people who believed in it might not take kindly to being debunked. In the end, my fears turned out to be groundless. No mobs of angry netizens came for me with digital torches and pitchforks. A few people attempted to convince me that I was wrong, but they rapidly lost interest when I didn’t prove receptive to their arguments. 

I also work hard to ensure that everything I say in public reflects the ethos of my brand. Even though I do occasionally post personal content on my X account, I’m careful to make sure it doesn’t detract from my professional persona. I avoid hot takes like the plague. My ‘value proposition’ is that I provide people with the nitty-gritty details, and I can’t do that if I’m trying to rush something out before everyone else.

I’ve also learned to be very careful when trying to be funny. Humor is inherently subjective, and something that seems hilarious in your head can come across quite differently online (just ask Justine Sacco!). Now that doesn’t mean I have to act like a priggish Victorian schoolmarm. It just means that I try to be mindful of my humor and avoid punching down or taking cheap shots. I don’t want to be the person who makes someone’s day worse. Ultimately, I don’t mind these restrictions, as I don’t feel that they rob me of my authenticity.

Creating in a panopticon

Cancel culture has been around in one form or another for much of human history. Whether it involves expunging references to problematic pharaohs or blacklisting people with ‘dangerous’ political views, humans love to police other humans. But like any social phenomenon, it has evolved over time. Traditionally, elites in society got to decide who should be canceled, but the Internet has changed the rules of the game. Instead of being an act imposed from above, cancellation is often a grassroots phenomenon involving people who may be far removed from the normal power structures. Its targets have changed, too. Before, cancellation was often a way to reinforce the status quo, but now it can be used in defense of people or communities that have traditionally been marginalized. Of course, this isn’t without its downsides. If people are too eager to cancel others, it can stifle debate or poison discourse. But while there’s no surefire way to avoid cancellation, showing mindfulness and restraint can go a long way toward keeping your head out of the digital pillory.