Energy is a finite resource. And whether it’s the planet’s energy or our own human energy, our collective future depends on how we use it. At the moment, our decision-making in both categories is dangerously deficient: we’re burning up the planet and also burning far too much of our personal energy on the latest outrage of the day.
As Jon Stewart put it, describing the mission of his new show, “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” “noise is the enemy, clarity is the goal.” But right now there’s a lot more noise than clarity. The show is Stewart’s attempt to move past the noise and put a spotlight on “people on the ground putting in the manual labor to get incremental improvement” in real people’s lives. These people are out there. They are doing good work and having an impact. But since their stories don’t light up social media or break the internet, they don’t command our attention. As Stewart says, our media is “going in the wrong direction — it’s not really looking for what’s real, it’s looking for what’s noticeable.”
We spend so much of our time and energy going down the rabbit hole of outrage culture that we’re missing the burning forests for the virtual trees. And there’s an opportunity cost when we misdirect our attention — real, urgent crises needing that attention, from climate change and rising inequality to racial injustice and rising rates of homelessness, are not getting it. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, if there’s one thing worse than the modern obsession with individual transgressions, it is the modern willful neglect of collective suffering.
Some will respond that, hey, we can do it all — we can focus on the small stuff and the big stuff. We can pour days and weeks of our passion and attention and tweets and memes into declaring that whoever is in the cultural crosshairs at the moment shall be cancelled for all eternity, and we can thoughtfully address the big crises — like the people profiled in Jon Stewart’s show doing the arduous work of making a real difference in real people’s lives. But the fact is, we can’t. How we spend our limited energy is a profound choice about how we spend our limited time on this earth. In our attention economy, if the constant hijacking of our attention has taught us anything in the last few years, it is that our attention is truly our most precious resource.
Recently, I wrote about how social media, and the culture of outrage it fuels, forecloses the possibility of redemption, making it harder for us to grow and evolve as individuals, which is one of our most fundamental drives. It’s also making it harder for us to progress and evolve collectively. Trying to engineer a culture in which people are perfect will lead us to an increasingly imperfect world. Twitter is not a public sphere that can solve a public crisis. “You know what Twitter is great for?”, Stewart says. “Telling you the thing that someone will never forgive you for.”
Shortly after it was announced that Trevor Noah would be replacing Stewart as the host of “The Daily Show,” old tweets resurfaced in which Noah made anti-Semitic and misogynistic jokes. Instead of just offering the perfunctory apology he was urged to make, Noah instead wanted to focus on how he’d grown. “We live in a society,” he said, “where people are more concerned with the platitudes of apologies than they are with the actual change in human beings. I just don’t think it’s healthy for us to berate and destroy people for who they were versus who they are because ‘are’ is more important. And that’s the problem I have with the ‘cancel culture’ a lot of the time — you condemn people to only being that forever. What’s the value of atoning if it doesn’t mean you’re welcomed back into society?” Noah, of course, ended up keeping his job, and he’s continued to grow as a truth teller in the years since.
However, Noah’s approach is decidedly against the grain. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum recently wrote in The Atlantic, “Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything — jobs, money, friends, colleagues — after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.”
It’s not that those who have taken their place in the virtual dock are blameless. Public accountability is essential, and nobody should be given a pass on unacceptable behavior. The question is about proportionality, and allowing for the possibility of learning, atonement and growth. Cancel culture is our society’s equivalent of applying the death penalty to all crimes regardless of their severity, a practice free societies severely condemn. When we refuse to let someone move forward, how does that affect our ability to move forward collectively? Who among us wants to live in a world where we are defined by the worst moments of our past, mercilessly rooted in the eternal present of our online world? How much of our energy is spent tracking down the latest infraction? And how high is the opportunity cost? Or, as Applebaum puts it, “How much intellectual life is now stifled because of fear of what a poorly worded comment would look like if taken out of context and spread on Twitter?”
A poll last year by the Cato Institute found that over 60% of Americans, including 52% of liberals, say they’re afraid to speak up about their political views. Applebaum has written extensively on repressive regimes in the 20th century, and sees troubling echoes in our society today. “The censoriousness, the shunning, the ritualized apologies, the public sacrifices — these are typical behaviors in illiberal societies with rigid cultural codes,” she writes.
In June, Lin-Manuel Miranda issued an apology for the casting of In the Heights, the movie adaptation of his hit Broadway musical. The criticism was that the cast, though largely Latinx, was too light-skinned to represent the dark-skinned Afro-Latino population in Washington Heights. Miranda is a person who, one would think, has earned a certain credibility about diversity and originality in casting decisions. But none of that seemed to matter. And so Miranda apologized and said he would “promise to do better.” As Bill Maher put it, “You’re the guy who made the founding fathers Black and Hispanic! I don’t think you have to apologize to Twitter.” But making us see our past in such a new way doesn’t mean you can escape our punitive present. That same month, President Obama warned about the “dangers of cancel culture” and “this idea of purity,” saying that call-out culture online is “not activism.”
In March, Alexi McCammond, a 27-year–old Black woman who had just been named Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue, resigned after it was revealed that she had written homophobic and anti-Asian tweets while she was a teenager. She had already apologized for them, and deleted them, in 2019. When they resurfaced, she apologized again. But that wasn’t enough — even at a magazine devoted to teens, who, as much as any of us, stand to benefit from the power of forgiveness and growth. As her colleague Axios Jonathan Swan put it in a tweet, “Where the hell are we as an industry if we cannot accept a person’s sincere and repeated apologies for tweets when they were a teenager?”
In August, Tina Tchen, stepped down as CEO and President of Time’s Up, after it was revealed that she and Roberta Kaplan, the group’s board chair, had given feedback on an opinion piece by defenders of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo attacking the credibility of one of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan. It was a great example of “context collapse,” a phenomenon fueled by online culture in which not only the original context of an incident is stripped away, but also the entire context of a person’s life and work. As the Time’s Up board noted in its statement accepting her so-called resignation, Tchen has “dedicated her life to making workplaces fair and equitable for workers and safer for women.” That includes her time as an assistant to President Obama, Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. After co-founding the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to help survivors, she helped raise $22 million in the very first year. As the board said, Tchen “has made a difference in the lives of so many.” And had she been allowed to learn from the mistake she made, she no doubt would have continued to make a difference in the lives of even more women. How exactly does not allowing for a mistake by an undisputed champion of women do anything to help the daily lives of countless women — especially those most vulnerable to sexual harassment and most in need of support?
The debate on cancel culture gets broken down in reductive, left-right terms, but as human rights attorney Dan Kovalik, author of Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture, says, our culture of outrage and retribution makes creating a more equitable and just world harder. “Getting people fired or socially ostracizing them because they ran afoul of the ever-changing language norms or made a mistake is a strategy that hands more power to bosses and authority figures,” Kovalik says. “It may make the finger-pointers feel good, but in both the long and short term it is destructive to a progressive agenda.”
So we have to ask ourselves, what is our end game? What’s the opportunity cost of our culture of outrage? What’s the most effective way to direct our energy? In 2019, it was revealed that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam may have appeared in a medical school yearbook photo showing a man in blackface and another in a K.K.K. costume. There were many calls for him to resign. But Black leaders in Virginia used the incident as an opportunity, choosing, as Astead Herndon put it in The New York Times, “to focus on policy goals rather than resignation.” And those goals, which they achieved, included becoming the first state in the South to end the death penalty, sending $300 million in aid to Virginia’s Black colleges, and passing major police reform policies. “Black people have always had to believe in forgiveness, and understanding,” said Alonzo Jones, Mayor of Danville, Virginia. “And I know a lot of times people want to argue that it hasn’t gotten us anywhere, but I tend to disagree.” It was, Herndon wrote, a story showing “the power of redemption, humility and growth.” Would the lives of any of those impacted by the reforms and incremental policies passed in Virginia have been better if Northam had been forced to resign? That’s what it means to keep the eye on the prize.
The only way to allow for growth collectively is to allow for growth individually. The stakes are high. In talking about his new show, Jon Stewart said the thing he loves about critiquing politics is exposing how “everything you see is an intention, somebody built it, somebody made a decision.” And that’s just as true of our social media culture, which has been built on algorithms that favor outrage and discord and devalue collaboration and solutions. Modern technologies have made it harder to act with intention about our attention. But we can still choose to focus on what really matters in people’s lives, instead of being endlessly distracted from making progress on the multiple four-alarm fires we have raging (including actual fires).
There is a huge cost to our culture of outrage. And unfortunately, it falls disproportionately on those most vulnerable and most in need of our energy and attention. It’s time to say: enough is enough, and turn our attention to alleviating the suffering of real people.
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