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General Unstructured Thoughts On “Being Cancelled”

John Scalzi

Because it’s been in the news recently, enough that even though I’ve been lost in my own world this last week — a good thing, if you want a book from me — the various stories of people being “cancelled” in the last several days came onto my radar. What follows are thoughts not particularly well-organized or following any real thread of thought, other than “so, here’s what I’m thinking about ‘cancellation’ today.” This is not the entirety of my thoughts, merely what I’m mulling on at the moment. Which could turn out to be terribly wrong! Yay, pre-emptive qualified statements! Let’s get into it, shall we?

1. Being ‘canceled’ basically means learning that you’re replaceable. And apparently this is new to a lot of white people! Especially those who currently claim the “conservative” label for themselves (more on that in a bit). But I think everyone else knew that fact all too well: it turns out if the people with the money decide you’re more trouble than you’re worth — for whatever reason, not all of them virtuous — then you can be gone in a snap and someone else can easily (easily!) take your place. This is particularly the case in creative fields, which have always been and likely will always be a buyer’s market. There is always a new actor, director, writer, musician or whatever — or an established one who needs a gig and who is not going to be a pain in the ass.

And this is especially the case now, in an era where the franchise is the star, not the actor or the director. Disney, of course, has this down to the proverbial science — its Marvel and Star Wars universes are so vast and popular that, for example, a troublesome actor in a secondary role is not worth the hassle. Out they go, their character to be replaced with another previously minor character from the vast store of minor characters in those universes. Actors are the most visible replaceable people, but directors, writers, etc., are equally swappable.

Which is not great for creative people! We like to say, and not inaccurately, that we are not swapple widgets: If you want a John Scalzi story, for example, the best person to give it to you is me, I promise you. But — who is the best person to give you a Star Wars story? Or a Marvel story? Well, see, that’s the thing; almost from the very beginning, and as a consequence of their business model, those universes were made by multiple voices. When you have many voices building a universe, there are rules to the universe everyone must follow (the canon, the story bible and the style guide), but otherwise individual voices can be taken in and out when necessary — “necessary” having a very broad meaning here. Only I can give you a John Scalzi story, but I am a cottage industry, a veritable roadside kiosk next to the belching factory that is Disney or any other studio. Disney needs storytellers, but it doesn’t need any one story teller, or actor, or whatever.

As, again, everyone but certain white folks knew already. These folks are learning that bit now, and apparently it’s really difficult for them. But that does conveniently bring us to the bit about ‘cancelling’ —

2. ‘Canceling’ is certain people discovering that capitalism doesn’t love them as much anymore. I don’t want to say that capitalism is value-neutral, because, whoooooo boy, it is not, buuuuuuut it is pretty much 100% percent accurate that capitalism will always, always, follow the money. And where is the money? Well, in America two decades into the 21st century, the large capitalist structures have decided that the money will be multicultural* and socially inclusive* and politically liberal*, and all those asterisks are there because it should be understood that the capitalist take on each of these concepts is heavily modified and strained through the “to the extent we can make money off this” filter, i.e., don’t expect capitalism to lead us to a multicultural American utopia, just expect it to be happy to rent-seek inclusively on the way there.

But because this is the (current) way the wind is blowing for capitalism, it’s now slightly harder out there for a “conservative.” Which feels wrong! Conservatism is the pet political theory of capitalism! Conservatism is designed to protect capitalism! The venn diagram of a conservative and a capitalist is a perfect circle!

And, well. It was, but then the Republicans had to go and elect Donald Trump, and now American Conservativism is definitively a corrupt fucked-up cult of personality, unmoored from any recognizable economic ethos beyond “pay to play.” Look, America has its problems, but from the strictly capitalist point of view it was the best country on the planet because it was politically stable, and capitalism works best when things are stable. It’s hard to rent seek in chaos!

But then January 6th happened, and American Conservatism, which had been tromping away from stability for quite some time, thank you very much, finally served notice that it’s no longer on capitalism’s side: it would rather mob in chaos than make money in stability. There was a tiny window in the aftermath where American Conservatism could have come back to capitalism’s side, but then it decided, nah, it would rather kiss the ring of the insurrectionist criminal that lost it the House, the Senate and the Presidency all in four years, oh, and, also, to be more anti semitic, racist and completely awash in conspiracy theories than it usually was. So, yeah, that’s a thing.

(Hashtag NotAllConservatives, etc, but come on, at this point people with an actual political/economic conservative worldview should be aware that their movement has come to its final grifter form and they’re currently without a home in American politics. And I am genuinely sorry for them, and also, they need to look at who they walked with all this time. For the people who are the “fascist cult” conservatives, of course, they did this shit to themselves, deal with it, my dudes.)

So now capitalism is doing what capitalism do, which is to shrug, say, “fine,” start working with the people who will let it function more or less to plan, and start punting the people who won’t. Again, this doesn’t mean that suddenly we live in a Delightful/Horrifying Multicultural Dream/Nightmare — hey! Most of the hands on the tiller of capitalism are still attached to white dudes, y’all! Check out the billionaires list! — but if that means a “conservative” loses a gig because they talked shit on social media, well, son, that’s the free market for you. Which is another thing —

3. “Being Cancelled” doesn’t mean you never work, it means you work in the minor leagues. “Cancelled” means you publish with Regenery or Skyhorse rather than with Macmillan or Simon and Schuster. “Cancelled” means you make a movie with (ugh) Ben Shapiro instead of Disney. “Cancelled” means Gab, or — heavens! — your own web site instead of Twitter. “Cancelled” means being a talking head on Newsmax and not CNN.

Is this so awful? Well, yeah, apparently, it kind of is — but again, this is not anything that anyone who isn’t a privileged white person didn’t already know about how capitalism works in America. Entire commercial and political ecosystems exist and have existed for decades, created by and for the people who have otherwise found themselves shut out of or simply ignored by the commercial mainstream — marginalized economies, in effect. The idea that American Conservatism would have its own side economy (or in its case, grift) is not exactly new; it too has existed for decades. What might be new is the idea that it will possibly no longer be a stepping stone into the mainstream — that it is its own terminal destination, and that those participating in it might now be locked out of a wider appeal.

Which from an economic point of view is probably fine! There are lots of people in the American Conservative grift economy who do quite well for themselves financially — the “marginalized” market here is still many many millions of people, after all. You can still make as much money as any one person can make, and be as “famous” as any one person could be, and still never climb out of the right-wing media trough. But ironically for ostensible capitalists, merely making money is not enough. They want to be thought-leaders, too, and they want their views given the cultural currency that only comes through, you now, hanging with Disney or CNN, as much as they sneer at those organizations when it’s convenient to do so. You won’t starve not working for Disney. But you don’t get what working with Disney brings.

Like access to Disney money, you might say, and you’re right — the sort of high-end production values that come with mainstream studios are something they won’t have anymore. Which, well, again, welcome to what everyone else goes through. Almost no one gets $200 million for a movie! Or even $20 million! If you go in with the expectation that you are owed that $200 million movie, where are you coming from, culturally speaking?

But that’s really the thing about “canceling,” isn’t it:

4. When you’re privileged, consequence feels like oppression. I am not the first to make that observation, even among white people. But boy, is it ever true! And also, look, I do actually get it — if you’ve gotten away with shit for literally years with little to no consequence, getting called out on it and being judged for it and being penalized because of it, in what appears to you a sudden fashion, feels unfair, in no small part because, well, you did get away with it for years, and no one told you to stop (or if they did, you were able to overlook it).

That thing where certain people are looking through their lives and actions and social media posts, wondering frantically what’s there to trip them up in this new age where suddenly their actions do have consequences? This is not an unfamiliar thought to me! I’ve said before that when people say “Oh, but Scalzi is one of the good ones” my reaction is well, shit, I sure hope that’s true. I have three decades of being an adult and being in the public eye, one way or another, through my writing. That’s a lot of time and many many opportunities to show my ass, and I’ve taken advantage of those opportunities in the past, I’m sad to say.

The thing is, if did turn out I’m not “one of the good guys,” and I face the consequences for that, I am no different than many other people over the years — and still, weirdly, more privileged than most, because facing consequences for what I did is manifestly different than the people who have faced consequences for calling out terrible things other people did, and did to them. Yes! Being “cancelled” for being a shitty human being is an inherently more privileged position than being deprived of work or status for acknowledging someone did a shitty thing to you! And that has happened! I mean, shit, it is happening, right now, elsewhere.

When I hear or read “I have been cancelled” I mostly translate that to “I am facing consequences for something I got away with before and I don’t like it.” When I hear or read “I will not be cancelled,” I mostly translate that to “I refuse to change my behavior, it’s the rest of the world that’s the problem, not me.” Which, you know, okay. You do you. Enjoy Newsmax.

5. The age of (unmediated) celebrity social media is (probably) coming to an end. At least for some people, and that’s not a horrible thing. If you don’t have social media, you make it more difficult to inadvertently show your ass on it, and on the flip side, if someone wants to drag you into the social media mudfling du jour, it’s more difficult for them to do so when you’re not there. Several is the time where I’ve seen someone say something like “Why isn’t Scalzi talking about this, his silence is telling” about a thing I had absolutely no clue about, was not qualified to speak of in any way, and had no interest in volunteering an opinion on.

Both of these is why more people with any appreciable level of celebrity that is independent of their actual social media are handing their socials to staff, and/or sticking to the most anodyne of pronouncements and participation, and/or pruning their socials of inconvenient past posts and/or leaving social media entirely. Which is fine! Not everyone is good at social media, and social media is not good for everyone. Even the people who are “good” at it see it turn on them for various reasons, some deserved and some not. At some point people who are not endlessly argumentative or heedless have to ask themselves if what they get out of social media is worth the potential downside. For lots and lots of celebrities (and even people who are not), the answer is no.

That’s a valid choice, and I think more people ought to consider it, for their own personal emotional well-being, and additionally, for the well-being of their careers. Especially if they are worried about being “cancelled.”

— JS

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