Cancel culture will not meaningfully mar Kobe Bryant's legacy, but a furious mob of online fans has been efficient in silencing Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez.
Amid the outpouring of admiration for the basketball legend following news of his death on Sunday were reminders of a black mark on Bryant's reputation — a 2003 rape allegation by a 19-year-old hotel worker, a claim supported by physical evidence and Bryant's own apology after the case was dismissed (a separate civil suit was settled for an undisclosed amount).
Sunday afternoon, Sonmez, who was reportedly reprimanded by the Post last year for discussing her own experience of sexual assault on social media, tweeted a link to an article from The Daily Beast detailing the accusations against Bryant. Reactions to the tweet were swift and unrelenting. In a follow-up tweet, Sonmez estimated she'd received some 10,000 abusive and threatening messages, including, according to the Post, her home address.
This wave of online anger and abuse threatened Sonmez's reputation, her personal safety, and her career, not to mention her mental health. Ultimately, the threats were successful in their mission to shut her up. The tweets were taken down and she was suspended, losing her platform and putting her professional future in doubt.
Powerful public figures (mostly men) have turned the phrase "cancel culture" into a punchline, griping that political correctness in the hands of the online mob signals the death knell of free speech. In fact, online hordes do pose a threat to free speech, but it is, as ever, women and marginalized communities who most often feel the damage of these campaigns. And while complaints about cancel culture imply solidarity with all victims of online harassment, the women whose lives are upended by online targeting are often the ones cancel culture critics rail endlessly against.
On Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, Bill Maher remarked to guest Megyn Kelly that they had both lost jobs due to cancel culture run amok. Notably, Maher has hosted his HBO show for the past 16 years, which has given him a platform to say and do many, many, many objectionable things over the years, with no discernible ill-effect. Kelly, a powerful and conventionally attractive white woman, was recently the subject of a favorable biopic, Bombshell.
In his 2019 standup special on Netflix, Sticks & Stones, Dave Chappelle centered his set on the evils of cancel culture, mocking Michael Jackson's accusers and Surviving R. Kelly director dream hampton, defending Kevin Hart's homophobic comments, and railing against #MeToo. For this special, Chappelle was awarded the 2020 Grammy for Best Comedy Album. Louis C.K., supposedly one of the most canceled of canceled men, is still touring. SNL star and head writer Michael Che uses his enormous platform to mock critics and journalists with impunity. George Packer, after winning journalism's Hitchens Prize, published a lengthy piece in The Atlantic declaring that fear of social media ostracization has destroyed good and principled writing. Honestly, what toll has so-called cancel culture really taken on the lives and careers of these people?
Contrast that with the outcomes for the individuals who point to the systemic injustice and violence propped up by these very men. These are the people who most often experience the devastating consequences cancel culture critics claim to feel themselves.
When Bernie Sanders' campaign embraced the endorsement of popular podcaster Joe Rogan (seen by many as an unrepentant purveyor of misogyny, transphobia, and racism), members of these communities expressed dismay at the decision. Die-hard Sanders and Rogan supporters reacted to these critics with unsurprising venom.
Writer Ella Dawson's tweet criticizing the Rogan endorsement received hundreds of comments, many following a pattern of lazy misogyny: insults like "c**t" and "b***h" were common, as were complaints that cancel culture was at it again. But unlike Dawson, Rogan remained completely unscathed by the "canceling."
Freelance journalist Danielle Campoamor tells The Week she gets harassed online "every day." Sometimes the harassment is particularly bad, like the months-long campaign wherein trolls uncovered pictures of her children and "told me that I would do them a favor if I killed myself." She says the harassment hamstrings her ability to focus at work or be a good romantic partner, and makes her fear for the safety of her family.
Campoamor also tweeted about Bryant in the wake of his death, anticipating the media would gloss over the rape allegation. As a mother she says she empathized with the horror of Bryant's last moments with his daughter. But as a survivor of assault herself, she knew how difficult it would be for other survivors to watch their trauma and humanity go unacknowledged just because Bryant was famous.
A cornucopia of death threats and insults followed her remarks on Twitter. "Hope you die in a massive grease fire you filthy c**t," read one message.
Powerful men and those who support them decry an alleged pattern of knee-jerk overreactions to harmless jokes and long-forgotten verbal mishaps by derisively nicknamed "social justice warriors." They might say that reacting to news of a beloved public figure like Bryant's death by recalling a 16-year-old rape allegation is an example of cancel culture gone too far, callous insensitivity in the name of social good.
At its most benign, this assessment simply misses the point — women and sexual assault survivors insist the allegation against Bryant be remembered because sexual assault is so often forgiven, ignored, or softened in order to preserve the reputation of the perpetrator. Objections to Rogan are not petty attempts to smear Sanders, they are a defense of the marginalized people Rogan's views further isolate and endanger. Social justice warriors, in essence, are simply calling on those in power to be held to account.
At its most sinister, the term cancel culture is wielded as both weapon and shield, an all-purpose defense of objectionable opinions and a tacit green-light for fans — unwilling to admit faults in their heroes — to unleash their own fury. The premise assumes there are unfair consequences for its targets, but this cultural phenomenon is largely imaginary. As always, we should ask: consequences for whom?
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