THREE YEARS AGO, when the filmmakers behind the documentary Finding Neverland accused Michael Jackson of being a pedophile, smart, thoughtful people debated whether they could ever listen to his music again.
I couldn’t figure out how exactly that would work—was I supposed to erase “Beat It” from my mind? Rewire my brain so that instead of associating the song with dancing at bar mitzvahs, I thought only of pedophilia? Could I at least listen to the Eddie Van Halen solo, since he didn’t do anything wrong?
I never did figure out the answer, but it turns out that I didn’t have to. Because on February 1 of this year, MJ: The Musical debuted on Broadway.
Since then, a whole cavalcade of once-canceled stars started moonwalking their way back into the mainstream. Louis C.K., banished in 2017 for masturbating in front of unwilling visitors, won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album in April. That same month, Charlie Rose, who allegedly turned his PBS studio into “a sexual hunting ground,” launched a new interview series on his website—with no less a get than Warren Buffett. Around that same time, accused sexual assaulter Alexander Wang had a fashion show in L.A., and Mel Gibson, whose list of offenses includes antisemitism, homophobia, and domestic battery, opened Father Stu, a new movie with Mark Wahlberg. And in May, alleged sexual predator Ryan Adams played Carnegie Hall.
Why are they being let back in now? Is it pushback against cancel culture that went too far? Are liberals letting their guard down now that Donald Trump isn’t president? Are institutions getting too weak to gatekeep? Is the speed of consumerism so fast that we’ve already arrived at the same place we eventually did with composer Richard Wagner, which is basically, “He didn’t do any Nazi stuff to me personally.”
Like so much with cancel culture, it’s all very confusing. Some of these men did horrible things. Some were merely inappropriate. And I need to parse it all out, because I’ve been conscripted into enacting some of their punishment myself—a rock has been shoved into my hand to throw at the sinner by the voices insisting that I expunge offenders from my entertainment choices.
Obviously, people who do bad things should face some sort of consequence. But not all crimes are created equal. I’m not entirely sure what Alison Roman did to get herself suspended from the New York Times—something about calling Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen, both Asians, “sellouts”—but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t nearly as bad as what Matt Lauer did. Still, we’re giving out life sentences to all of them. That’s not an effective system of justice.
The rules of cancel culture appear to me entirely arbitrary. For instance, picking on Jews isn’t cancelable. Nick Cannon spouted conspiracy theories about Jews controlling finance and didn’t miss a day of hosting The Masked Singer. Ice Cube never stopped working, no matter what he said about God’s chosen people. And Gibson—who’d been publicly dumped by his superagent, Ari Emanuel (who went so far as to call for his former client’s “shunning” in Hollywood)—has a whole slew of projects lined up after Father Stu, including directing and starring in the upcoming Lethal Weapon 5 and appearing in a John Wick prequel. If the Jews can’t keep Gibson out of Hollywood, what hope is there in keeping anyone out of anywhere?
Also, how long are cancellations supposed to last? I mean, Michael Vick returned to the NFL and was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year just two seasons after going to jail for running a dogfighting ring. But Kevin Spacey, who’s never been convicted in court of anything, looks like he’ll be spending eternity in isolation, seen only in those weird Christmas Eve videos he keeps posting on YouTube.
TO TRY TO detangle some of these questions, I called a few of the canceled people I know personally—which I was a little nervous about admitting to in this article. I was hoping they fell more on the Alison Roman end of the spectrum than the Louis C.K. side.
One of them, Stephen Elliot, has yet to be uncanceled. He’s a writer and teacher who hasn’t taught or been published since suing the creator of the crowdsourced Google spreadsheet “Shitty Media Men,” which accused him of rape in 2017, even though no actual person has ever come forward. “Just to know that Louis C.K. is getting back to life at all makes me feel good,” he said. “And it’s good for society because it pushes back against our punitive instincts.”
Mike Pesca has come back from banishment, having started independently putting out his podcast, The Gist, on January 24. A year earlier, Slate fired him for his internal Slack messages defending Donald McNeil, who was pressured out of his job by the staff at the New York Times after saying the N-word out loud when talking about people who said that word. Pesca doubts that there will ever be an appropriate banishment time or method of rehabilitation that will please everyone.
“We’re so fractured, there is no such thing as societal forgiveness,” he said. But he noted that it is possible to try to rebuild your business once the Twitter mob has moved on to the next target. “The driving force in so many cancellations is the perceived risk to the institution; they worry about the possibility of it boiling over. With these kind of feckless intuitions, the fecklessness swings one way, and the fecklessness swings another way, and the person can be reintegrated.”
Then I called my friend Julia Wolov, who was more of a reluctant canceler than a cancelee. She and her comedy partner, Dana Goodman, went to Louis C.K.’s hotel room during the Aspen Comedy Festival, where he started masturbating in front of them.
Julia is hilarious and filthy and sweet and badass, but she said that if she could do it over, she would have never told the New York Times about what happened. Because it turns out cancel-culture victims sometimes find themselves getting canceled along with the perpetrators.
“Powerful people encouraged us to do this,” she said. “The argument they made was ‘You’re helping other women.’ How can you say no to that? They were like, ‘If you go out there naked, it will help women all over the world. We will support you.’ And then they’re gone. And you have to run down the street completely naked for the rest of your life. trying to work in comedy.”
What she wants far more than Louis C.K. not working again is for people to stop talking about Louis C.K. working again. Because every time they do, she becomes the victim all over again. After all, every institution that might hire her has to factor in the cost of doing business with two female comedians that some people hate for taking down Louis C.K.
Just to know that Louis C.K. is getting back to life at all makes me feel good, he said. And it’s good for society.
“Dana and I thought that if we stayed quiet, it would go away. But because he doesn’t go away, it doesn’t go away for us,” she says. “I didn’t run for the position of policymaker. We didn’t ask to carry this torch. Can someone please fucking take it?”
After talking to all these people, I don’t find cancel culture any less confusing. But one thing is becoming clearer to me: cancel culture does damage—not just to the perpetrators, but to everyone. Maybe someday soon, we’ll find our way to a more subtle form of teaching people to be kind—one that is itself a lot more kind.
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