Cancel culture is a class issue
Opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss is out at The New York Times. The details of her departure are unclear, but in a resignation letter addressed to Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger posted on her website Tuesday, Weiss describes an untenable work environment in which coworkers complain of her "writing about the Jews again" and editors discourage heterodox opinions.
I can't say whether Weiss depicts the Times newsroom fairly. Yet one broader point I know she gets right: Cancel culture is about the professional class. Cancellation is a class behavior that, by targeting employment and career aspirations, ultimately threatens ouster from what an older generation would call "polite society."
The class dynamic appears in Tuesday's column from Weiss's now-former colleague, Ross Douthat, an incisive "10 theses about cancel culture." As he notes in the first thesis, cancellation proper "refers to an attack on someone's employment and reputation," particularly if it comes "from within your professional community." The threat here is that you will no longer be able to work in your field of choice.
The language here is revealing: "career," "professional community," "field of choice." We're talking about the professional-managerial class (PMC). This isn't the same as the middle class, which is a designation about income, wealth, and quality of life. The professional and middle classes overlap, but the PMC is more strictly white collar, consisting specifically of "college-educated professionals — especially lawyers, professors, journalists, and artists" as well as more prestigious medical workers, engineers, architects, teachers, mid- and upper-level managers, and the like. PMC members can have incomes below (e.g. a freelance writer) or above (e.g. a doctor) the middle class. Though not politically uniform — Weiss, Douthat, and I all fit the description — as a group the PMC leans progressive but not far-left; Hillary Clinton has strong PMC energy.
Psychologist John Ehrenreich and Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, who coined the term, estimate the professional-managerial class to be about one third of the country. It is unusual among classes, observes Amber A'Lee Frost at American Affairs, in that members must "earn [their] status through educational credentialing, qualifying employment, and professional achievement."
And if class membership is earned, it can be taken away. That is why, as Douthat writes in his seventh thesis, the threat of cancel culture "is most effective against people who are still rising in their fields." It is also why, as he says in the sixth thesis, with a certain degree of wealth, professional establishment, and/or fame, "the bar for actual cancellation is quite high." Author J.K. Rowling is presently the subject of intense and sustained criticism because of her views on transgenderism. But Rowling will not be canceled for what she's said so far. She'll have no trouble getting her next book contract. She has, crudely put, "'f--k you' money" and fans to spare. For people in her elite sphere, such resilience isn't infinite. Cancellation is possible, but it requires a graver offense, perhaps even criminal allegations.
The threat of cancellation recedes at the other end of the wealth spectrum, too, among the working and lower classes. Again, cancellation is not impossible here, but you are comparatively unlikely to lose a working-class or minimum wage job via cancellation. I don't expect many McDonald's managers do social media deep dives on applicants to run the grill. Does anyone really care about their plumber's politics?
But those in the professional-managerial class can expect their name to be googled in every job application. As Douthat muses, "under the rule of the internet there's no leaving the village: Everywhere is the same place, and so is every time." Once PMC members have been canceled, it sticks. Will the woman in the Washington Post Halloween party story, a graphic designer, ever work in her chosen field again? After the video of Amy Cooper, dubbed the "Central Park Karen," went viral, Forbes published an analysis of "three things [she] did to damage her reputation and career." Will she ever find another investment job? Or what about this museum curator who resigned after being accused of "toxic white supremacist beliefs" for saying his museum would not categorically exclude white artists? Will another museum take a chance on him? These are truly open questions. Who would risk hiring these people if they can instead select an equally qualified candidate without national or industry infamy?
Justine Sacco, whose "AIDs" tweet occasioned a prototypical cancellation, was eventually hired back at the firm that fired her — but she also spent multiple years on reputation rehabilitation, including sympathetic features in a book and a TED Talk on public shaming.
Others, who are not PR executives like Sacco, may not be able to do the same. Their careers won't make a comeback. Unless they have family to support them or enough wealth to coast to the grave, they'll be pushed out of the professional class and into the type of work where the manager doesn't google you. "I don't want people like that to keep getting jobs" that let them achieve PMC membership, a teenager told the Times in defense of call-out accounts which seek to end allegedly racist peers' careers before they begin.
This is why cancel culture is so effective. This is why it frightens people in what is self-evidently not a "classless society." The threat of cancellation isn't merely intense public shame, though that too is significant. The threat is class expulsion couched within and magnified by our national mythos of self-advancement — that is, the American dream. It is a threat of being stripped, for the choice of a day or moment, of the class status you've ordered so much of your life to attain.
Cancellation is a white-collar phenomenon, and its threat is tearing away your white collar for good.