Though there’s room to quibble about its exact definition, on some conception of it, almost everyone agrees that pedophilia is wrong–very wrong. When the acts in question involve very young children, and involve obvious reliance on violence or coercion, the issues left to quibble about rapidly diminish to zero. In such cases, we’re just left to stare pure evil in the face. I don’t think it much matters whether the incentives involved include pecuniary ones. Whether you monetarily profit off of pedophilia or not, it remains wrong.
Now imagine that a large multinational corporation did profit off of pedophilia, unapologetically so. Imagine that instead of making a good faith effort to dissociate itself from pedophilia, it turned a blind eye to its own clear complicity in pedophilia, partly just to get away with it in a spirit of epater le bourgeois, and partly to turn a profit. It doesn’t seem a stretch to think that if pedophilia is gravely wrong, so is knowingly and intentionally profiting off of it, whether the people making the profit are directly engaged in the pedophilic acts or just exploiting those acts for their own ends.
Before applying this entirely abstract description to a particular case, pause to ask yourself whether you agree with the principles I mean to illustrate by it:
1. Pedophilia is wrong, and should be stopped when it’s committed.
2. Profiting off of pedophilia is wrong, and should be stopped when it’s done.
In using the phrase “should be stopped,” I don’t mean to suggest that either act should be stopped by literally any means whatsoever, unconstrained by further moral considerations. I mean that concerted action should be taken to stop both things, consistent with the usual considerations of due process, proportionality, and discrimination (the intention to target only the guilty and spare the innocent).
There’s plenty of room here for reasonable debate on the details–about how to apply considerations of due process, proportionality, and discrimination to any given case. And of course, there are bound to be purely factual controversies about particular cases, e.g., whether pedophilia is really taking place or not; whether, when it is, the corporation is really complicit in it or not; etc. The point I’m making is simply that (1) and (2) are plausible if we set such details aside for the moment. Even if we disagree on the details in a given case, we should be able to agree on the underlying principles.
The only semi-controversial claim I want to make is that, ceteris paribus, cancellation is among the acceptable means of enacting both (1) and (2). Any bona fide pedophile, and any entity genuinely profiting off of pedophilia, deserves to be cancelled.
As you might imagine, this isn’t an entirely hypothetical case. It turns out that there’s an ongoing campaign against PornHub that answers almost exactly to the preceding description. The campaign has been spearheaded by an organization satirically called TraffickingHub. I don’t know all the principals involved, but one of the more prominent of them is Laila Mickelwait, Director of the anti-slavery organization Exodus Cry. The activists in question are organizing a series of anti-PornHub events tomorrow, Friday, October 2nd (there are, I believe, three sets of demonstrations, all taking place 11 am to 2 pm local time in front of PornHub’s HQ in Los Angeles, Montreal, and London).*
I’ll let the activists themselves make their case against PornHub; they have a better mastery of the facts than I do. I simply offer up this challenge to critics of “cancel culture”: I can’t think of a more obvious counter-example to their complaints about it. No one doubts that there are abuses of cancellation out there. But is it really plausible to adopt Kevin Vallier’s suggestion that we avoid cancel culture for fear of violating the burdens of judgment (in Rawls’s sense) in cases like this? And are critics of “cancel culture” sure on empirical grounds that “cancel culture” is not fundamentally about cases like this?
I guess I wonder which of the critics of “cancel culture” is doing half as much good in the world as activists like Mickelwait, or organizations like Exodus Cry. There’s something tiresome about the carping criticisms of people who insist on keeping their hands clean of the muck of the world while complaining about the people who’ve volunteered to clean it up.
If cancel culture’s critics have something better to offer in the way of action than “cancel culture”–better than curmudgeonly or fussy quietism–let’s see it. What is it? What has their ivory-tower quietism done on behalf of justice, freedom, or well-being in the real world? If the answer is “nothing,” or less than that, do such critics really have standing to criticize the people who the credentials to answer differently?
The least that any of us can do, it seems to me, is to consider the merits of the anti-PornHub cause, consider the idea of making a contribution to it, and dial back indiscriminate criticisms of “cancel culture.” If the abolition of slavery is a “culture,” it’s not clear why belonging to it is all that objectionable. And if cancellation can help undermine the activities of the slave-owning class, maybe we should consider the possibility that it can do more good than harm–and already has.
*You can follow the debate down into the weeds at Laila Mickelwait’s Twitter feed. Much of the discussion there makes the much-vaunted Harper’s Letter seem pretty silly and irrelevant by comparison.
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