Cancel Culture: A Recantation

In previous posts here, I’ve argued that “cancel culture” is fake news–an ideological confabulation devised by the Right to discredit the Left, which is usually “credited” with having created it. I now realize that I’ve been deeply wrong, and wish to recant. Cancel culture certainly does exist, just not in the way its usual ideological adversaries would have you believe.

Think of any event that requires scheduling, e.g., an appointment, a work schedule, business hours, a conference, a travel itinerary, a date. Think of how ubiquitous such events are, and how complex and expensive the infrastructure required to keep them going–to keep the slots filled, to keep the workflow efficient, to make sure everything runs on time. Consider how much reliance the various parties place on the others in the scheduling process. If A schedules with B, A relies on B to be there, and B relies on A to show up. If A doesn’t show up, the failure (whether culpable or not) adversely affects both B and any third parties who would have used A’s slot but couldn’t, given A’s (let’s say) sudden absence. If B doesn’t show up, the absence affects A as well as a set of third parties.

Where you have scheduling, you have the possibility of cancellation. Where you have cancellation, you court the risks of disappointment in your reliance on someone. The higher the stakes, and the more abrupt the cancellation, the greater the potential for disruption to everyone else. The more careless or reckless the cancellation, the greater the moral culpability involved.

Think, for instance, of people who book appointments with several medical practices or auto mechanics or plumbers (or whatever), all at the same time, simply to secure a slot that no one else can have, in the full knowledge that they’ll have to cancel with all but one of the practices or garages (etc.) with which they’ve made an appointment. Imagine that the person doing this knows of the disruption he’s creating for the other parties involved: if he cancels at the last minute, or simply fails to show up without even bothering to cancel, the slot that he had secured for himself may not, at the last minute, go to anyone else. It may not be feasible to give the spot to “the next person,” or use it at all. The people waiting for the would-be spot-holder might, out of a misplaced sense of courtesy, hold his spot in the belief that he was unavoidably late to his appointment rather than being a deliberate no-show. But when he fails to show, some people lose money, everyone wastes time and energy, and some people fail to get services that they needed and would diligently have shown up to get.     

Anyone with a modest degree of experience and attention will have encountered this phenomenon at some point. We all make appointments, have work schedules, etc. We all have either encountered people who cancel abruptly and ruin the plans or schedules of others, or have at least distantly heard of the practice, or have been tempted into doing it ourselves, or indeed, have done it ourselves. It happens far, far more often than “cancellation” in the ideological sense. But somehow, ideological cancellations have come to occupy more of our attention than the entirely culpable and harmful cancellations that happen everywhere, every day. Ideology tends to be sexier than pedestrian reality. That’s what it exists to conceal. Or to cancel, if you will. 

The culpable cancellation phenomenon really first hit me as an academic, when, as an adjunct, I saw department chairs cancel on adjuncts that they’d promised jobs, and saw adjuncts return the favor. At Felician University, where I spent thirteen years of my academic career (three of them as a department chair), it was common to give adjuncts a class in a certain time/day slot in the schedule, only to “bump” them when a full-timer decided, on a whim, that he wanted that class, or that slot, and was entitled to it “on grounds of full-time status.” Adjuncts were often hired, then simply dropped unceremoniously at the last minute, on the premise that no harm or foul was done to someone who was, after all, never going to be seen again on campus (or rather: not seen on campus until the next scheduling crisis, when some department chair or associate dean would beg the adjunct to teach such-and-such class in order to plug the hole in the schedule created by some other “unforeseeable” cancellation).

But don’t feel too sorry for adjuncts, because adjuncts often did the same thing, e.g., accept a position with a given department, only to drop it–cancel it–at a time of maximal disruption for scheduling and enrollment.*

When I ran philosophy conferences, I learned to accept one set of papers for the conference, but always made sure to have another set of presenters and papers “in reserve” for the inevitable cancellations that would take place the day before, or the day of, the conference itself. Some of these cancellations were, of course, unavoidable and non-culpable; I don’t mean to be issuing a blanket verdict on everyone who’s ever had to cancel. But many of them involved people multiple-submitting papers to conferences taking place on the same day, waiting to see which paper was accepted where, so as to attend the conference at the top of some lexical ordering, and cancel on all the rest. Students, of course, do a version of this too, when they fail to show up for class for bullshit reasons, or fail to do the reading, or fail to hand in their assignments, etc.

Obviously, the issue extends far beyond the academic context. Think of how often employers will promise a job, then cancel the offer on a whim, even after the would-be employee had been led to believe that the job was his, and had gone to the lengths of making plans around (what he took to be) a firm offer. But would-be employees do it, too. Think of how often a job candidate will “accept” a job, only to cancel just before he’s supposed to show up, because he’s found something better.

If you want to see a high stakes version of the culpable cancellation phenomenon, the place to look is health care. Health care scheduling is a time-sensitive, resource-sensitive, rigidly rule-bound enterprise. It matters whether you schedule a given surgery for 8 am in OR 1, or 10 am in OR 2, or 11 am in OR 3. Neither ORs nor the scheduled times of surgical procedures are interchangeable. And what’s true of surgery is true across the board in health care–radiology, oncology, gastroenterology, you name it. So it’s no surprise that health care workflow--in effect, computerized scheduling for hospitals and professional medical practices based on programming in first-order symbolic logic–is a gigantic business of its own, designed in part to give order to the scheduling process, but devoted to a surprising extent to the business of handling cancellations.

I happen to work for a company that generates incredible amounts of revenue–and pays my salary–by creating computerized workflow for hospital systems and large medical practices. A fair bit of this workflow is designed to streamline scheduling for Patient Access, and minimize the disruptions caused by cancellations. I’ve sat through hours-long meetings where the main topic was cancellation. The issue on the agenda was decidedly not whether “social justice warriors” had taken “cancel culture” to unwarranted extremes in a given hospital system or professional practice. It was how to handle the dozens of appointment cancellations that a hospital or professional practice can expect to get on a daily basis. In other words: how do you run an operating room, a surgical practice, a lab, or a radiology group given the predictable toll that cancellations will take on operations, on revenue, as well as on the health of any adversely-affected third parties?

What if an entire culture was addicted to cancellation in this sense? Wouldn’t that be a form of cancel culture that far exceeded anything dreamed up by right-wing ideologues? Wouldn’t it, by its very ubiquity, have farther-reaching effects than the ideological “cancel culture” that’s the favorite topic of right-wing intellectuals? Wouldn’t it, especially in health care, have adverse consequences that at least rivaled the adverse consequences caused by left-wing cancel culture?

Try that thought on for size. The next time you see some sensational article about the evils of “cancel culture,” multiply that single ideological cancellation ten-fold or a hundred-fold or maybe a thousand-fold. Imagine those consequences ramifying through a hospital system or a medical practice. Think of the malign intentions of deliberate, careless, reckless cancelers. Think of the adverse effects of cancellations on patients waiting to get an appointment with a medical practitioner–patients juggling work/child-care schedules, pre-authorizations, pre-registration, and insurance verifications, then missing out on a better appointment slot (or the only available one) because some asshole took it, then canceled as he’d intended to do in the first place.

And for all I care, imagine every culpable canceler as a sniveling little NPR Democrat, or a tree-hugging devotee of AOC, or a Bernie Bro, or a redneck Punisher Skull Republican, or an Islamo-fascist lover of the Taliban. Employ any set of ideological caricatures you please. You’ll soon realize that none of it matters in this context. Cancellation is a non-ideological, non-partisan phenomenon. Everybody does it. That’s precisely what makes it a culture. Which is more than can be said of the other “cancel culture.”

*Call it “virtue signaling” or “grandstanding,” or whatever you like, but I discontinued all of these practices as department chair. And in eight years as an adjunct, I never once dropped a class I had agreed to teach.

I am employed as a Junior Analyst at Aergo Solutions. The views expressed here are strictly my own, and are not intended to represent Aergo Solutions, or any of its clients or partners.

I’ve deleted a joke in the original version of this post that was, one might say, in poor taste. I’ve also deleted the last two lines of the original version, which in retrospect seemed cancellation-worthy.

4 thoughts on “Cancel Culture: A Recantation

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