The Children's Crusade
Recalling cancellation and its gleeful proponents, as well as, and with love, the people who get back up and speak up and keep putting work into the world
Found notes for an old book while working on a new one. A few bits here have previously been published, but the book itself will not see the light of day. New horizons!
In June 2018, in response to a number of news stories where people demanded public redress for what they claimed were hurtful incidents, I started a file called, “Facts Not Feelings.” I did this because some of the claims seemed to me appropriated from the current crop of complaints and bent to a purpose.
What I did not realize, in June 2018, was how conventional appropriating the pain of others had become. While I might have seen it as an embarrassment to say, “This atrocity happened to my friend, or to someone halfway around the world, and thus, essentially, to me,” it was evidently in vogue to call this caring; to call this solidarity.
If I did not see how self-hobbling helped anyone or made you more empathetic, or not in more than appearance-only, I was not factoring in the weight appearance-only had assumed in the arena of social media, how ready those who’d congregated on opposite sides were ready to fight to the virtual death over what qualifies as pain and who gets to claim it.
Those of us who did not want to join the action were struck by how viciously participants went at it, at how intent they were on punishing others. Offering purported guilty parties up for condemnation seemed a part of the pleasure, not in order that they might offer an apology (or, not only an apology), or money, or to wait for a day in actual court. What was required was the recognition that a wrong had been done, the pain of which would compound until the accused was ground down, their shame ballyhooed, by which means (the logic went) the original grievance would be, if not neutralized, then converted into a source of power for the victors.
Those caught in the strobe of digital vigilantism were variously bewildered, frightened, belligerent and in denial. Suggestions that an errant tweet or bad date or verbal misunderstanding be settled privately, or chalked up to common disagreement, or allowed to die in the memory hole, were brushed aside or met with hostility. (In any case, the Internet had sealed up the memory hole.)
I was alarmed at the lack of skepticism, by the virulence and heedlessness with which people mashed their ❤ buttons. Were they not troubled that a claim of sexual harassment on the word of someone they did not know might not have basis in fact? That they were branding someone a racist based on a retweet of a retweet of a retweet? I wondered if they saw themselves as l saw them: looking for reasons to be offended, fueling up for the next fight, often with no more skin in the game than a screen-name.
I could not blame them for wanting to hide; could understand not wanting risk abuse raining down on their heads. Still, concealing one’s identity struck me too coy by half; also, strategic. I could appreciate that someone who said they’d experienced trauma might not want to confront the person who’d hurt them. But the retribution the accusation unleashed, there was no way to scale it. Very few people can withstand hundreds of thousands of people yelling at them at once, with having their cars spray-painted with the word RAPIST and their children targeted for death. Those who saw these campaigns as regressive would sometimes try to cool things down, whereupon the crowd would come for them, resulting in a lot of people wanting to stay the fuck out of the whole thing.
I was not good at staying out of the whole thing. I increasingly saw the Internet as populated with people in a love affair with pain. I pictured them spending private time raking their fingernails over themselves, opening new access points, keeping the wounds fresh for the next ostensible offense.
The accused, meanwhile, sometimes became suicidal, or went into hiding, or embarked on apology tours meant to appease but which instead cast them in neon that blinked, “Direct your outrage here!” And if on some level people intuited these things could get out of hand, could turn the aggrieved into the aggressor, maybe, the rationale went, the destruction of certain people was necessary for society to progress, to give the previously marginalized or abused or dismissed full voice.
In her 1972 essay, “The Women’s Movement,” Joan Didion wrote, “To make an omelette, you need not only those broken eggs but someone ‘oppressed’ to beat them. Every revolutionist is presumed to understand that, and also every woman, which either does or does not make 51 percent of the population of the United States a potentially revolutionary class.”
Did I see much of the current movement, this new revolution, as driven by women? I did. I knew it was, and I knew because it was so cyclonically powerful. What I did not know, in 2018, was who else would be swept up in it, or how high.
“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or sickening villain… What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?” Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Those reading The New York Times on September 18, 2018, could have seen an article on page B2 entitled, “Ex-L.A. Times Beijing Bureau Chief Resigns Amid Sexual Misconduct Claims.” A year earlier, the claims went, Kaiman had been at a party with Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez. They were drinking heavily and kissed a few times. Sonmez then loaded Kaiman onto her scooter and drove them to his Beijing apartment, where they had sex.
“Even though parts of the evening were consensual, while on the way, Jon escalated things in a way that crossed the line,” Sonmez wrote in a May 2018 letter to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, where Kaiman was then-president. “Many parts of the night remain hazy. I am devastated by the fact that I was not more sober so that I could say with absolute certainty whether what happened that night was rape.”
Sonmez did not, it would turn out, need to say with absolute certainly whether what happened that night was rape. Based on her allegation, and another on its heels by a former housemate of Kaiman’s (who, in a Medium.com post entitled, “Sharing Something from 2013,” detailed how Kaiman had coerced her into a sexual encounter that left her feeling “gross”), Kaiman was stripped of his club presidency and suspended from the job he was now resigning.
The Times piece mentioned that “Mr. Kaiman has disputed the allegations and said that ‘all acts we engaged in were mutually consensual,’” a position that, six months into the #MeToo era, might have be seen as a sign that the accused had learned nothing, if not as further aggression.
Whether Sonmez took it either way was unclear. “I knew that not speaking out about it was going to do far more damage,” she said, after Kaiman released a statement explaining how the allegations “have irrevocably destroyed my reputation, my professional network, my nine year career in journalism, and any hope for a rewarding career in the future; they have branded me with a scarlet letter for life, and driven me to the brink of suicide.”
As it turned out, I was not one of the people reading the Times story that day, though I recalled it on February 28, 2019, just after I received an email from Kaiman’s girlfriend. The epistemological allegations against Kaiman – no criminal charges were ever brought – had, she said, “blown up our lives… we lost pretty much all our friends/community.” She was writing also to thank me for the Los Angeles Times op-ed I had written a week earlier.
“You eloquently put into words,” she said, “what I have been thinking and trying to find a way to say for a while now.”
“Eloquent” was not a word I had seen applied to my work for the past six weeks. I had seen “rape apologist.” I had seen “cunt.” I had read that my opinions were so dangerous as to imperil the citizens of the city in which I then lived.
I did not, as Kaiman did, become suicidal. With one exception, I did not lose work. On the contrary, media outlets were concerned about the effects of these sorts of campaigns, sometimes called cancel culture or outrage culture, and asked that I write contemporaneously about my situation. An Opinion piece the Los Angeles Times asked me to write went, in part:
The current pitch of outrage culture [is such that] voicing an opinion someone says she sees as a threat qualifies you for instant annihilation, no questions asked. Why ask questions, when it’s more expedient, maybe more kickass, to turn anything you might disagree with into an emergency?
A sense of emergency is what people on all sides have developed an addiction to. Show us the next person to hate and we are so there…
Maybe the fractiousness in which we are currently living, people sectioning themselves into smaller and smaller tribes, is a side effect of the addiction. It needs an unlimited supply of people to hate, and the smaller the in-group, the larger the potential enemy pool. That this creates rancor and instability for everyone is a price addicts are willing to pay; indeed, it may taste like victory…
For Reason, I wrote “A Guide to Surviving Your 15 Minutes of Hate,” which included the admonition, “If you do not think this can happen to you, you have not been paying attention.”
But I had been paying attention.
“What is the right answer to the person who demands something because he is offended? Just this: ‘Too bad, but you’ll live.’” Jonathan Rauch, Kindly Inquisitors
“You are scum. Rot in hell you dirty bitch.” Message sent to author by some random guy on Facebook