To Cancel or Not to Cancel

To cancel, or not to cancel, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.

–Hamlet* in Shakespeare*’s Hamlet*

That’s the question, all right. For some reason, critics of cancellation seem to be under the impression that advocacy of cancellation in some cases requires advocacy in all, or at least advocacy that leads to a slippery slope involving all. The one claim is an obvious misinference, the other a much bigger assertion than its proponents have proven, or even tried to prove. To argue as they do is like claiming that litigation either entails or necessarily leads to frivolous lawsuits, or that law enforcement either entails or necessarily leads to abuse. No one (or almost no one) thinks that when it comes to litigation, arrest, or prosecution. And yet, when it comes cancellation, they do.

In any case, here are five cases of cancellation, presented in somewhat telegraphic fashion. Two strike me as legitimate, three do not. Together, they illustrate the possibility of distinguishing between good and bad cancellations, and putting those distinctions into practice. It’s worth noting that not all five are successful cancellations in the sense of bringing about the harshest intended consequences of the most zealous persons demanding cancellation. Some are failed cancellations, some partial cancellations, and some are cancellations of uncertain outcome. Part of my point in bringing them up is to underscore the fact choices can still be made to affect the relevant outcomes. (I’m going to refer to all five as “cancellations,” ignoring their success or failure as cancellations, at least as intended.)

The cases, described as impartially as I can manage:

  1. A police officer publicly defends an act of vigilante murder in a case where the courts have pronounced a guilty verdict on the vigilantes. He’s cancelled.
  2. Sportscasters belittle the physical appearance of the athletes playing on the basketball court in front of them. They’re cancelled. (See this as well.) 
  3. A famous actress declares her solidarity with the Palestinians. She’s cancelled. (See this as well.)
  4. A Jewish special education teacher (hired by a Reform temple to teach in a community service program) declares herself an anti-Zionist. She’s cancelled. (See this as well.) 
  5. A controversial German heavy metal band releases a song and makes a video about the grandeur and misery of being German, with band members enacting violent scenes from German history, including a few scenes involving a Nazi concentration camp. They’re cancelled. 

The officer in case (1) was cancelled on grounds of unfitness for the job. Likewise the sportscasters in case (2), “body shaming” being the particular cause of termination. The actress, the teacher, and the rock band in cases (3)-(5) were all cancelled on grounds of anti-Semitism, or in case (5) insensitivity to Jewish sentiment. As I see it, cases (1) and (2) were mostly justified. Cases (3)-(5) were not.

Case (1): Cancelling the pro-vigilante cop

It’s ironic that cancellation is so often described as “vigilantism.” Does it remain so when applied to the cancellation of those who advocate actual, literal vigilantism–the kind that leaves actual people actually dead? 

Rhetorical question. It doesn’t matter. A law enforcement officer who praises vigilante murder is a moral and professional problem by any standard. It’s one thing to disagree about the adjudication of legal cases. There’s plenty of room for reasonable debate. But it would be disingenuous to pretend that the publicly-stated convictions of law enforcement officers are irrelevant to the proper discharge of their duties or to the trust required of them. Every totalitarian regime, Left or Right, has come to power by co-opting and politicizing the already corrupt police forces of its predecessor regime. At some level, the proverbial “bad apples” in the police force actually have to be dealt with and weeded out. What they say and do, especially in public, is fair game.

You could try to argue that a sheriff’s deputy is a “minor public figure,” but “minor” or not, the fact remains that every cop carries a badge and a gun, has the authority to use both, enjoys an asymmetrical legal advantage over any non-cop in an adversarial encounter (which most encounters are), and enjoys the protections of sovereign immunity against accusations of abuse–to say nothing of the salaries, benefits and pensions they enjoy. So cops themselves are fair game for cancellation.

That said, I do think that advocates of cancellation go overboard in demanding termination for every offense. A lesser and often more appropriate response is official reprimand–my go-to for offenses involving speech acts as distinct from offenses involving conduct. I would have pressed here for reprimand, not termination. 

Case (2): Cancelling the body-shaming sportscasters

Absent some great provocation, I think it’s part of the job description of a sportscaster to show respect rather than contempt or derision for the athletes whose play one is describing. There may be some outlying contexts (boxing, sumo wrestling) in which discussion of an athlete’s weight might be relevant, but this wasn’t one of them. This was just old school misogyny and body shaming at work. The perpetrators got what they deserved.* 

Case (3): Cancelling the pro-Palestinian actress

Outside of the fevered imaginations of Zionist propagandists, it is not anti-Semitic to express one’s solidarity for or with the Palestinians. Case closed.

Case (4): Cancelling the anti-Zionist teacher

Again, outside of a fevered Zionist discourse in which rejection of an ethno-nationalist ideology (and of a form of ethnocracy itself) is equated with hatred of the ethnicity involved, it is not anti-Semitic for a Jew to declare herself an anti-Zionist.


Case (5): Cancelling “Deutschland” 

As far as “Deutschland” was concerned (see video above), Rammstein was accused of trivializing the Holocaust and even sympathizing with the Nazis. I don’t think this ridiculous judgment bears scrutiny, and simply invite any reader to watch the video and make this judgment for oneself.**  

So should one cancel or not? It depends. But here’s one thing to be avoided:

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Call me a hopeless optimist, but I think most of us can do better than that, whether in literature or in life.

*My uncle was a cricket sportscaster in Pakistan. I can’t imagine him, under any duress, acting as these louts did. 

**Not that you should forego any help you can get. See below.


5 thoughts on “To Cancel or Not to Cancel

  1. Regarding Case 1 (the pro-vigilante cop) I would say termination is appropriate. Reprimands seem fair for cases where policy or procedures are not followed; for professional “errors”. We all make mistakes.

    Advocating violent lawlessness is a full-blown breach of trust for a Law Enforcement Officer. They need to be gone.

    sean s.


    • I think it’s a judgment call. If you read what he said, he expressed a view on a past event without recommending action on it in the future. I would reserve a reprimand for a speech act of that kind, where the officer expresses a view egregiously incompatible with public trust, vs. termination either for a wrongful act or for a speech act that indicates a commitment to unlawful action in the future. But given the way cops cover for each other (as many professionals do), you have an undeniable point.


  2. Irfan,

    I understand your desire to not rush to judgement, but everything about Case 1 is a judgement call. I’m not trying to be snarky about your point; your judgement inclines you to one view, mine to another. This officer needed to be fired, imho.

    Before using any social media, everyone—especially cops, but everyone should review the Miranda Warning.

    sean s.


    • I don’t think the issue is a matter of rushing to judgment or not, but of line-drawing. We have to make some distinctions between lesser and greater offenses, and avoid treating every offense as deserving of termination, as though lesser sanctions either didn’t exist, or weren’t worth using. The way I’ve drawn the line is to distinguish between a (1) mere statement of opinion, (2) a verbal resolution to take an action (whether to self or others), and (3) an action or omission in the line of duty.

      In this case, that would be the distinction between (1) simply saying “Arberry got what he deserved,” (2) indicating in speech that the officer intends to translate his opinion into action, and (3) actually translating the opinion into action. I think in general that wrongdoing of type (1) should get a reprimand, whereas (2) and (3) should get dismissal. Granted this is the worst instance of a type (1) offense, and you could imagine cases of (2) and (3) that were less offensive than this statement. On my view, an officer who says, “Arberry deserves death” gets a reprimand, whereas an officer who said, “I think we need to give suspects a thrashing every now and then” would deserve dismissal, even if the thrashings were nowhere close to causing death. Obviously, an officer who actually administers a thrashing deserves more than mere dismissal (but does deserve dismissal, among other things).

      I’ve actually been in this situation a few times. I had a police officer falsely accuse me of “threatening” him. I complained to his superiors, and my complaint was dismissed. What I wanted was a reprimand, not dismissal.

      I also once exposed a fire chief who. just after 9/11, called (online) for burning down (!) the Muslim neighborhood of Paterson, New Jersey (he referred to the inhabitants as “cockroaches” who deserved that treatment). I think that claim deserved dismissal, but I never made the complaint. I just checked on LinkedIn, and the person still holds the position in the same fire department as he had back then.

      As I think about this, it occurs to me that we probably need to factor severity into categories (2) and (3). For instance, it is an offense for a police officer to speed or tailgate unless they are actively involved in a chase that requires it. (Many cops operate under false assumptions about this issue, but they don’t have the legal authority to speed or tailgate simply because they are police officers.) That said, I don’t think that a cop should be dismissed for tailgating, much less for saying that he intended to tailgate. Both call for reprimand. So we might need to slice the categories up more finely than I have. I still think type (1) offenses, as a whole, belong in the reprimand category.

      While I’m on this topic, I guess I should say that there are some acts commonly regarded as offenses that I don’t regard as offenses at all. There was a semi-famous case (in New Jersey, I think) of a cop reprimanded or dismissed because it was discovered that she had previously been a stripper, which supposedly brought disrepute on the department in question. That is, so to speak, a transparently ridiculous claim. The irony is that while we’re worried about whether this cop’s statement deserves reprimand or dismissal, there are actual departments where it’s regarded as obvious that a past history of stripping deserves dismissal. The wheels of progress turn slowly.


  3. Irfan;

    For the typical person, the distinction between (1) and (2) is significant, and I agree that for the typical person that an example of (1) would deserve nothing worse than a rebuke / reprimand.

    The problem is that, in real life, (1) often leads directly to (3); and Police Officers are not “average” persons; they have a special status with special rights.

    Waiting for (2) before dismissing a Police Officer places the rights and safety of others at unnecessary risk. Police officers are trained to be careful what they say; it’s not extreme to expect them to be careful what they say.

    Factoring in severity is quite fair, but in this instance it does not change the outcome.

    I have to agree that a prior occupation as stripper is not grounds for even a reprimand, much less dismissal.

    sean s.


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