If You Actually Want to Cancel Someone, Ignore Them

There’s a comedian who produced some TV content I watched over a decade ago but whom I never felt more than mild interest. He released exclusive content on a streaming service I never subscribed to. The odds of me bothering to watch this were zero.

That is, until the controversy blew up. A controversy which made people talk about this comedy special for weeks. Based on what I’ve read, I’m sympathetic towards the people who claim this comedian crossed red lines. Since I was never a customer, I can’t boycott the streaming service more than I already am. I have no subscription to cancel.

The strange part is: despite my sympathy towards the people calling out this comedian, the odds that I would pay to watch this comedy special have risen from zero to 0.1%. An infinitely large increase!

How is that possible?

Previously, I was in a position of ignorance and indifference. I didn’t know what this comedian was up to, and I didn’t care. Now I’m aware and care more than I did six months ago. That alone increases the odds that I’ll do something which sends money his way.

Hate and love are similar. That’s why love-hate relationships are so common. What’s not common are love-indifference or hate-indifference relationships.

As Linda Carroll says:

I mostly write about feminism, writing tips and history. Feminism gets a lot of response and pays well, but I don’t write it often because the hate in the comments get to me. Ironic that it’s probably hate reads that make it pay well.

Her essays about history and writing interest me more. I already agree with most of her feminist ideas and feel like those pieces have nothing new to offer me.

(That so many people have such a vicious reaction towards boilerplate feminism disturbs me, but that’s another topic.)

If you ‘cancel’ someone by getting them fired from a salaried position and get them on a blacklist which prevents their rehiring, okay, you’ve hurt them financially. But that’s rare, and practically impossible to do to any media/content creator with even a little name recognition. In fact, the act of ‘cancellation’ increases their fame, and thus their ability to make money.

As Freddie deBoer says in “To Slightly Reduce How Much the Internet Sucks, Use Positive Reinforcement”:

I hate to invoke Glenn Greenwald, as I will inevitably be accused of trying to cape for him, but he really is the perfect example: he has a large audience, has been successful to the point that he has an unusual amount of freedom, and he is very, very disliked by media liberals. There are a lot of reasons for that, part of which is that the antipathy is very much mutual and he participates as lustily in that war as his critics do. But the fighting’s all very ugly and it goes on constantly and it’s hard not to wonder why it continues. Well, the answer is pretty simple: it continues because, whether they’re conscious of it or not, the endless Glenn vs Every Liberal You’ve Ever Heard of War serves the interests of both. For the liberals, it demonstrates their commitment to the professional and social cultures in which they jockey for rank; perversely, criticizing Greenwald over his accusations of insiderism is itself a way to be an insider. For Glenn, it’s the oldest media nostrum there is: there’s no such thing as bad press. Greenwald might be one of the most hated people among high-follower Twitter users, but he also has 1.6 million followers himself, and not coincidentally tens of thousands of paying subscribers for his newsletter. Controversy is instant marketing.

Ironically, the ‘media liberals’ could hurt Greenwald’s finances most by ignoring him. That may be hard if he continues to harangue them, but if they refuse to take the bait, he’ll draw less attention and thus fewer paying subscribers. In other words, they can defang him by making him boring. The ‘media liberals’ who make money by creating drama with Greenwald could easily generate that drama by targeting someone else. Greenwald needs their hostility more than they need his.

(It occurs to me that ‘media liberals’ target Greenwald because they secretly admire him and want him to get the paying subscribers rather than someone truly awful.)

Though I disagree with some of Greenwald’s opinions, I appreciate his investigative journalism, which is why I don’t mind giving him a little free publicity. On the other hand, I haven’t named that streaming service or that comedian. That’s on purpose.

I came close to not publishing this blog post at all because it would give that streaming service and that comedian that extra drop of publicity. However, this won’t make a real world difference to them, which is why I’m publishing anyway. I’m withholding their names to make a point.

(Ironically, making a point of not saying someone’s name gives them even more attention than just saying their name… like I said, if I believed this post could directly affect that streaming service or that comedian, I wouldn’t publish.)

Sometimes publishing harsh criticism of someone is justified. For example, done right, it’s educational. I’ve learned things from the most thoughtful criticism of that comedian’s behavior. Public criticism also vindicates victims. But it doesn’t ‘cancel’ people. Even if it leads to a criminal prosecution, it’s the criminal prosecution, not the initial criticism, which ‘cancels’ them (and even that’s not guaranteed).

If someone’s money/influence depends on their name recognition, and I want them to have less money/influence, the most effective ethical action I can take is to ignore them. Indifference will hurt them more than hate. Even in a political election, raising the name of the candidate I want to win furthers my goals more than attacking (and increasing the name recognition) of the candidate I want to lose. Something like this is happening in politics right now, though I don’t want to be more specific than that, since additional publicity, I fear, will increase the odds of an outcome I don’t want.

What if we redirected all that attention lavished on that famous comedian who behaved badly towards underappreciated comedians who use their humor to do good? Since I don’t follow standup comedy, I don’t know who is underappreciated, but I’m sure they would benefit from free publicity.

Here’s another Freddie deBoer quote, this time from “Cancelling Is Powerless”:

I don’t think there’s a political justification for any of this. But there’s an obvious psychological one. People enjoy canceling. It makes them feel powerful. (Which, lol.) It’s fun to be part of a mob. It’s enjoyable to feel righteous. It takes no effort and, once the ball is rolling, involves no risk whatsoever. It’s a game played by the overeducated and bored. And some people are able to keep a straight face while they call it activism.

Refusing to mention someone to damage their name recognition feels less satisfying than righteously denouncing them in public. But it’s more powerful. I want to make the most of what little power I have.

7 thoughts on “If You Actually Want to Cancel Someone, Ignore Them

  1. Since you are not writing the name of the feminist internet creator either, shall we infer that you want us to ignore her? Just following the logic of your article…

  2. I resonate to this a lot. Aside from denying platform, ignoring something I disagree with tends to me better for my mental health. On the other hand, there’s an issue which is pointed out by Linda Carrol. Getting vicious reactions garners more attention and spreads information faster than ignoring, so in Internet, stuff that doesn’t garner attention could easily fall of the radar and not get talked about, which is like a power that negates itself? Also polarising opinions do tend to get more attention.

    Unless it’s like what you did: writing about not talking about someone, with the effort on my side to not try to google the person you’re talking about lol. It’s just something I’ve been mulling over. To put it frankly, I’m wondering if it’s possible to make positive reinforcement more effective than controversies/hate. I suspect it’s an unending battle between the two.

    • Yeah, I myself find the ‘trainwrecks’ of polarizing back-and-forth verbal attacks on the internet more riveting than other content, even when the other content is more useful/important/helpful. It takes conscious effort not to let that kind of drama suck me in (I do want at least a little awareness of that kind of thing going on, but it draws attention so well I can keep minimal awareness even without trying, lol).

      Vicious negativity, in moderation and used with wisdom, can do good. But throughout much of the internet (and tbh, offline social interactions too) it is not used in moderation and with wisdom.

      I can’t control how other people deal with all this, but I at least want to set a good example with my own behavior.

  3. Yeah. I’m trying for something similiar. Not reacting to something hateful (let’s say, on Facebook) might be hard, but actually, if you don’t react, less people are going to see the hate. Same goes for not linking to content that I don’t wish to promote. I have only so much time and energy, why should I read/watch/share stuff that is designed to make me and my bubble angry?
    There’s actually a German ballad from the 1800s that specifies that kind of strategy: A king is being cruel to a travelling singer, and the singer then curses the king for his name to be forgotten. Consequently, we never learn the dastardly king’s name. (Des Sängers Fluch by Ludwig Uhland, or listen to Spielmannsfluch by In Extremo.)

    • Alas, I couldn’t find a version of that song with English subtitles (tbh I didn’t look hard).

      Many people probably are already selecting to ignore the hateful stuff on, say, Facebook to keep it from spreading, and that otherwise this problem would be even larger in scale.

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