February 25, 2020

Notes on Cancel Culture

“The fall of 2017 dumps you roundly in the wrong. You catch yourself musing aloud to a friend, regarding Louis C.K.’s admission of masturbating in front of a large minority of his industry, about whether his having asked the women’s permission first shouldn’t count for something. Under her hard, silent look, you are forced to concede that ideally no workday should require a person to opt out of seeing someone’s erection. You resent the obligation to recategorize so much of what had once been just life as minor sexual assault. You envy a microgeneration that has apparently grown up anticipating respectful treatment as though it were some sort of norm. At the same time, you don’t exactly admire the mental acrobatics by which you have, you realize, allowed an experience in your own past to go unnamed when it really does have only one accurate name. That incident involved a man you loved and kept sleeping with intermittently for years afterward, who still blithely chitchats back and forth with you about this and that, including, now, all these unfortunate cases in the news—you still don’t use the name with him, or bring up the episode in question at all. You wonder, if it had taken place at work, whether you’d have felt obliged to do something about it.

It can feel as though the public discussion around #MeToo has been designed as a training program for denial, with self-reflection rarely encouraged on any side of the issue. The appearance of perfection—which is to say, hiding and disavowal—seems to be your main aim. You can speak honestly in private groups, but in public you must operate more like your institutions and politicians—the first concern is liability. Give no ground. When you hear tales of men offering women jobs at magazines they don’t even work for in exchange for sex, you first assume that no one could be gullible enough to take such an offer seriously, then wonder why you’re gullible enough to think they wouldn’t. Can you really expect newcomers to these professions, seeing how small and intimately networked they appear, to believe they operate on merit? Obviously not. And yet you know that most of their grindingly dull exploitations and discriminations, the uneven distributions of advantage, involve no sex at all.

Still, in discourse, sex continually upstages its ism. You receive an agonized email from a former colleague about whether he should have intervened on the night a notorious and more senior man invited you to an industry party alone. You consider replying with a list of all the deeply unerotic ways in which that job, where no one ever made a pass at you, drained and demoralized you—the derisory pay you were expected to be grateful for, the obligation to exploit those paid still less, the fuzzy boundary between professional and social expectations. Instead, you write back at fulsome length to reassure him that he did nothing wrong.”

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