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Oh god, I'm Writing About Cancel Culture
The Bodega Bro, The Woke Mob, And Other Things I Don't Want To Comment On
Here is a list of things I care about more than “cancel culture”: the mini vegan ice cream cones at Trader Joes. The song “I’ll Come Running” by Brian Eno. The awful humidity and ensuing lack of air conditioning in my fifth floor walk up. Going to the car wash. Really, truly, most things. And yet, discussions around cancel culture persist. Who enjoys having them? I feel like the phrase alone elicits a collective groan among most of the people I know, people who have bills to pay and jobs to go to and books to read and things to do other than sit around and debate about free speech on the internet.
Sometimes, people ask me why I write about the things I do. Here is the simple truth: I will see something, typically on the internet, and find it particularly brain dead and annoying. I will become so consumed by this persistent irritation—like a mosquito buzzing in my eardrum—that the only solution is to vomit thousands of words into an essay crafted during an iced-coffee-and-ADHD-medication induced mania so that the thoughts can then exit my head. As such, I will openly confess that I care far too much about minutia and off-hand comments. In all honesty, I think that’s where you find the real truths within people or ideologies, the things people say that they don’t expect you to read into, making them perhaps the most deserving of a thoughtful unpacking.
Here is the brief context for this piece: a few days ago, I saw a video of a young man who had just moved to the Bronx. He was very confused that he could not find a grocery store; an Apple Maps search for “groceries” only brought him to corner stores, delis, bodegas… take your linguistic pick of phrases that mean “small stores on the corner with names like NYC FINEST FRESH 24/7 BEER LOTTO GROCERY” that sell two-dollar cans of beans. He went to five of such stores, dejected that he was not led to a Whole Foods. I saw this video not in its original form, but in a response by someone asserting that this young man was living in a food dessert. While food deserts certainly exist, including in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, the reality was much simpler: if you want your groceries in New York, you have to search for “supermarket” rather than “grocery store”.
I thought the video was funny (especially considering that he went to five separate delis rather than realising his mistake after the first or second). In all kindness, the man seemed like a bit of a meathead. I saw a video he made at NYC Pride where he expressed amazement at the amount and pageantry of New York’s queer community; he says “This is crazy. There’s so many gay people down here. I don’t hate it—I’m not gay, but like, I’m all for it. Do whatever you want… is being gay, like, the new thing?” He takes videos with people celebrating pride, the paraders excited by his Midwestern eyes experiencing New York gay culture for the first time. I found the video funny, almost as if someone had cryogenically frozen a 90s small-town teen sex comedy protagonist twenty years ago and then let him loose in the streets of 2022 Greenwich Village. It made me laugh, I tweeted the video. My post now has 18,000 likes and over 1,000 quote tweets, ranging from disgust with the “degeneracy” of New York City, disgust with the naiveté of this man, and horniness for the man as a “himbo”. The bulk of comments surrounded the fact that he had been fired from his brand new finance job as a result of his social media presence, most likely due to his persistence that the Bronx was a “shithole”, his donning of an NAACP t-shirt to go to a majority-Black gym, or even the simple fact that he posted his job offer letter on social media, something typically frowned upon. As is the case with all internet Moments, the narrative that captured the zeitgeist was reduced to sub-ten-word headlines like BODEGA BRO FIRED AFTER WOKE MOB WITCH HUNT, painting the story of an innocent Midwesterner brought to the galleys of social media for not being in touch with New York City liberal queer culture.
Here is the thing: I really don’t care about that guy. I honestly couldn’t even tell you his first name. I guess it sucks that he got fired from a job he moved across the country for. He also probably shouldn’t have posted on public social media some tasteless jokes at the expense of residents of a low-income, predominantly Black and brown neighborhood. I don’t think that anyone’s job should be proactively monitoring the social media posts of its employees, but I also think that had he said any of his more inflammatory statements in front of his coworkers within his first month of employment, a simple HR slap-on-the-wrist would be a best-case scenario for him.
The revitalisation of “cancel culture discourse” was most notably conjured by the release of “The Story of A Canceled Teen” in The Cut, a story about a teenage boy who faces social ostracization at his high school after showing private nude photos of his underage girlfriend to assorted strangers at a party. A few weeks ago, in early June, David Weigel was suspended from his job at the Washington Post for retweeting the sentence “every girl is bi. you just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.” I will openly say that these are not equivalent transgressions: one betrays the basic consent and autonomy of a teenage girl in the uniquely harsh social environment of a high school, the other is re-sharing an old, mildly misogynistic joke. While I don’t think Weigel’s retweet was in good taste (and that given that it was shared with his 500,000 followers, he should understand the potential for pushback on his statements), I think the worst parts of it were that it is A.) an old joke! This Amazon t-shirt has the same sentence verbatim and it’s been on the market since 2018 and B) categorically untrue, speaking for the Bipolar-and-Bisexual community.
I think both of these incidents embody what we characterise as “cancel culture” despite being two distinct phenomena. Weigel’s case (and even that of the Bodega Bro) does speak to a new form of carcerality and an incredibly punitive mindset occupied most often by liberals. This thinking comes not from a desire to uplift marginalised people or to identify and take down oppressive power structures. It comes from this idea that if someone is not totally up-to-date with the HR handbook language spoken by costal vegans with useless Master’s degrees, they have somehow failed as a person. There is something incredibly dystopian about being constantly under the gaze not of “wokeness” but of your job, your boss not only staring down your neck eight hours a day but also infiltrating your private life. I wrote about this abstract, aesthetic view of social politics in an earlier piece, how it centers the ego of the liberal for being “right” over an analysis of where and how harm to actually vulnerable people occurs. If there is such a thing as a “woke mob”, they may be reporting strangers on Twitter for making racist comments but they are also clutching their purses when they cross Black people on the street. It is the same zeitgeist force that will turn some kinda flaky Brooklyn guy into West Elm Caleb, a cultural force not concerned with anyone’s actual well-being but appeasing their own upper-middle-class liberal white guilt. I will say this with only some irony: ACAB includes the P.C. police.
But equally important is this other notion, embodied both by the story of Diego and the Bodega Bro, that experiencing consequences for your actions is some sort of social oppression.
The phrase “cancellation” is thrown around in the Cut article. Its protagonist/antihero, given the pseudonym Diego, is “cancelled”. In the context of this article, maybe its only shocking detail, it means that his peers—including his male peers—openly discussed his actions and agreed that they were fucked up and harmful. People did not want to be his friend because they knew about what he had done to his girlfriend and decided they did not want a friend like him. The article continues to paint Diego as the victim of some sort of systemic wokeness, while admitting that he faced no disciplinary action. In fact, he went to four different proms. The article concludes with the fact that Diego is due to start college in the fall, hundreds of miles away, removed from the drama of his hometown. It is written as if this is some sort of grand cosmic tragedy, rather than a great big RESET button on his reputation. He will go to college, he will be around all new people that will not know about his past unless he choses to disclose it. In an ideal world, Diego will have learned that to violate someone’s trust and vulnerability as he did not only betrays an individual but also reveals a failing of personal character. Knowing that, he will move forward with a kindness and a sensitivity towards others, his newfound clean slate remaining unmarred because of the lessons he learned. (On the other hand, his former girlfriend will have to work incredibly hard to trust others in an intimate capacity, her pain not coming from her own actions and others’ response to her transgressions, but from a founded fear that she will continue to be taken advantage of when vulnerable and trusting.)
Almost all stories of “cancel culture” are predicated on this idea that it is a new cultural evil if people do not like the things you have to say or the things you did. No longer is your social reach only people of similar backgrounds, people unaffected by snide remarks concerning identities they will never hold. The incidents of people fired from their jobs for comments they made will usually say that they weren’t thinking or they were speaking from an emotional, irrational place. I will offer this solution: think before you speak. To ask people to assess their statements and actions given their audience is not some sort of novel cultural moment brought on by Democrats in office or trans people on TV, it is something taught to everyone, usually in kindergarten.
When people like Washington Post writers and young white boys in tech get fired for off-color statements, there is a national backlash, a think-piece written, thousands of empathetic voices ready to support the offender. These people are “silenced” by “cancel culture” and major news outlets remind us what a dangerous slippery slope self-censorship is. But there are people who have been practicing this restrained self-censorship for far longer, people for whom “think before you speak” is not a mantra of kindness but a reminder to perpetually walk on eggshells lest you loose your job.
It took me about 30 seconds and one page-one Google search to find two separate articles about employees fired for speaking up against discrimination, both written in the last month. One, about a Black woman at a nail salon who was fired after complaining about being paid less than her white coworkers. The other, a woman fired from her job with the county of DeKalb, Georgia after complaining about harassment from her supervisor. It seems the designation of “cancel culture victim” only applies to those who make jokes and comments at the expense of historically marginalised groups, a luxury not afforded to those workers within them who are instead deemed “difficult” or “not team players”.
Inflammatory articles in places like the Daily Mail and New York Post promote this idea that disenfranchised groups now occupy such power in the world that to even joke at their expense means a swift end to your employment. Certainly, a few people have been fired from their jobs for making racist or sexist or homophobic statements. But what does it mean to be “cancelled”? Roman Polanski, a man who pled guilty to raping a 13 year old girl while in his 40s, has received 14 Academy Award nominations and 7 wins since his trial. Louis C.K. has returned to playing sold-out comedy shows across the world. Which dissident voices have actually stopped speaking because of political pressure? It seems the only people whose free speech is truly limited are those that dare to speak up against American and European hegemony, the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and most recently Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist killed by the IDF while clearly labeled as a journalist in the West Bank.
Here is my final thought on the saga of The Bodega Bro, a narrative I admit to having accidentally-kind-of-in-part created: whatever. For every person offended by his general-issue stupidity, there are an equal (if not greater) number of people who will now champion him as some sort of white knight of free speech. He will be fine. I think that there is an extra-special irony that he was fired from a financial analytics firm for making racist comments. These companies will profit off a recession, a housing crisis, the military-industrial complex, and keep 14 African countries on the CFA franc, but it is national news for one employee to public statements that every CEO, CFO, and COO is making behind the closed doors of their corner offices or Skull-and-Bones reunion.
I like to end these essays with some sort of grand optimistic call-to-action but it is a Friday afternoon, it is sweltering and violently humid, and I am left with only one fitting conclusion: I must immediately find my own nearest bodega for popsicles and beer.