When conservative Judge Kyle Duncan stepped up to speak at Stanford Law School earlier this spring, outraged progressive law students tried to heckle him into silence. When transgender actress Dylan Mulvaney promoted Bud Light on her Instagram post, enraged conservatives boycotted the company, causing its sales to tumble 12.5 percent.
And so it goes in a world where cancel culture runs unchecked, said Evan Nierman and Mark Sachs, co-authors of “The Cancel Culture Curse: From Rage to Redemption in a World Gone Mad.”
A hyper-toxic form of bullying, cancel culture targets Americans without fear or favor. From university professors to politicians, from small business owners to celebrities, no one is safe, according to the authors. And while Americans once relished a comeback story, that’s no longer the case. As the pair detail in the book, people of all political persuasions and backgrounds are not only at risk of being canceled for what are sometimes minor offenses, they are rarely afforded the chance to make amends — something the authors say is antithetical to Jewish values.
“We have absurd standards that have gone too far. We felt compelled to write this book because there are people out there who want to be a part of getting us back to a place where we have more forgiveness and grace. Our hope in writing this book is that we’re going to make a small contribution to bringing about that day more quickly than it otherwise might have come,” Nierman said.
The co-authors, who spoke with The Times of Israel in a joint video interview, bring decades of experience in crisis management to bear in the book. Nierman is the founder and CEO of Red Banyan, an international crisis management and public relations firm. Sachs is Red Banyan’s senior vice president of client success.
Aside from including several anecdotes drawn from academia, politics, and culture, the book also provides a step-by-step guide for anyone who might find themselves in the crosshairs of cancellation. As they write in the book’s foreword: “To once again be perfectly blunt: it could happen to you.”
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Times of Israel: You write that apologies are essential to healthy societies. It does seem that in the United States, at least, we would rather cancel people than allow them to make amends. Is that unique to American culture?
Mark Sachs: It’s not uniquely American. I think we’re seeing it across Western Europe and other democracies. For any number of reasons, we’re less willing to be gracious or be forgiving; as a result we longer recognize the importance of human error in the advancement of who we are. If someone errs, they should learn from their err, and we should help them do so by recognizing they made an error. Oftentimes it’s innocent, sometimes it’s not. But in either case, if someone is offering a genuine apology then it’s our obligation in a healthy society to accept it and learn from it.
Why are some people being canceled for something they said or wrote years ago? Who from history would be canceled?
Evan Nierman: The internet has a long memory, and in an era where everything is cataloged for the whole world to see, and it’s all searchable and findable in cyberspace, it puts people under a microscope. They are being judged today for things they may have done a long time before.
The extreme example of this is you now see cancel culture being brought to bear against people who already died. Moses would have been canceled today. He talks back to God, he hit the rock when he was supposed to talk to it, he smashed the Torah when he came down from Mt. Sinai. And, most importantly, he murdered somebody; he killed an Egyptian.
Talk about how cancel culture seems to thrive in a climate where so many people believe they have the right to speak without facing the possibility of criticism and also where so many people believe they have the right not to be offended.
MS: We are at an interesting time right now where there is a convergence between “safetyism” and moral absolutism. Those two things create a set of circumstances that are really quite volatile. If you are so morally absolute that you are right and you’ve been told that since you were however many years old, and at the same time you live in a world where words and violence are equated, then moral absolutism is not just about language. It becomes about violence. And that’s the really dangerous place we are in right now.
For the book you interviewed Rabbi Daniel Gordis about the Jewish tradition of forgiveness and atonement. What did he say that resonated with you the most?
EN: His comments were very incisive when it came to decrying cancel culture and how it is fundamentally at odds with Jewish tradition where we believe in questioning everything and where vociferous debate is encouraged. We also have this belief that every single human commits sins and transgressions, but that they also have an opportunity to ask for forgiveness. If cancel culture is permitted, then we’re eliminating people’s ability to make mistakes. We’re eliminating people’s ability to be human.
Another part that got my attention was when I asked him whether he thought cancel culture would take hold in Israel. He said no because Israel’s ethos is not one of a victim mentality. So much of what produces cancel culture is that it champions victimhood and going after people who allegedly victimize others.
Are book bans a form of cancel culture?
MS: I would acknowledge that book bans are indisputably illiberal whether they come from the right or the left.
EN: Some instances of book banning would meet the definition of cancel culture, especially if they’re trying to shut down authors or eliminate the reading of certain books because people disagree with some of the ideas or the language in them.
In 2014 the University of Chicago set forth the Chicago principles, also known as the Chicago Statement. It was intended to show a commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression on college campuses in the United States. And yet, more than ever it seems so many universities are not heeding those principles. Why do you think that is?
MS: It’s that moral absolutism and safetyism as well as whether a university has a balance of viewpoints. The most balanced, interestingly enough — balanced meaning you have 30 percent identifying as liberal, 30 percent identifying as conservative, and 40 percent identifying as independent — University of Arkansas is the most balanced.
Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Brown all have diversity ratios of 15:1. That means for every 15 people who identify as liberal there is one who identifies as conservative. This means the odds of someone who is liberal being exposed to opposing ideas are very low. This creates an environment where words are equated to violence. And that creates more fertile ground for these scenarios than you would find in corporate America where you have a code of conduct.
EN: I would add that things are changing. What happened at BU shows things are evolving because the administration was very clear-throated in the aftermath. The president wrote a very compelling paper decrying the students’ behavior. He was saying universities are places where people are supposed to be exposed to different ideas, that you shouldn’t try and silence other people. Maybe six months or a year ago, the administration would have been hesitant to do that. They would have been afraid that would have prolonged the controversy. They wouldn’t have called it like it was — which is cancel culture.
You both said you see signs that people are ready to change the trajectory of cancel culture. Where do you see this happening?
EN: Companies are starting to rethink the speed with which they cut ties with people who become victims of cancel culture attacks. They are also starting to understand that what is initially reported in the press isn’t necessarily true. I think we’re seeing a slowing down in the rush to judgment and the quick termination of employees based on public sentiment.
What do you think is the right recourse for those who are unrepentant, who double-down and triple-down on offensive behavior, language, and actions?
EN: The notion that we need cancel culture to hold people accountable because otherwise bad behavior is just going to proliferate and continue unimpeded is nonsensical. We’ve always had various means by which people enjoy due process.
MS: Society should be holding people accountable. How we do that is up to our legal system, our codes of conduct we sign when we work with companies, and our codes of conduct we sign when we attend universities.
If the person doesn’t want to repent, then okay, suffer the consequences. I think Kanye West is a perfect example of someone who continued to double down. As a result each punishment escalated in its ferocity. He had the opportunity to say, “Look I really screwed up, and I really apologize, and I’m really going to figure this out.” My guess is, if he had done that early, on he wouldn’t have lost all of his deals.
Any parting thoughts?
MS: We need a little more humility so that we don’t approach things with such arrogance that we think we know all the facts before any of the facts are actually out there. We need to be more forgiving of other people’s foibles and recognize that we too have our foibles and make our mistakes.
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