Cancellation and the Great Resignation

I realize that I’m very late on responding to comments, but my plan is to press forward with all the cancellations on my initial list (still a handful left), then double back to respond to comments. I wish I had the time to do both things at once–post and comment–but I don’t. Cancel me.

In a pair of earlier posts on cancellation, I described “cancellation” (as currently used in specifically ideological disputes) as an “anti concept” designed to cast unwarranted aspersions on the concept and practice of moral accountability outside of legal contexts, and defined “cancellation” (in a broader, and to my mind more legitimate sense) as “the nullification of a prior arrangement or expectation on grounds of justice.” The existing understanding of “cancellation,” as conceived by its critics is, in my view, tendentious and question-begging: it identifies ill-conceived or badly executed cancellations with cancellations as such, then insists, by repeated iterations of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, that no cancellation qualifies as a “true” cancellation unless it’s ill-conceived or misapplied by the critic’s standards.

Even apart from questions about the standards themselves, I simply reject this whole approach to the topic as ideologically-driven semantics par excellence. In its generic sense, “cancellation” is an everyday phenomenon with an ordinary name. I just canceled a hotel reservation. Last night, many of the trains from my workplace to my hometown were canceled. I’ve previously written about the disruptions that arise from cancellations in the context of health care. Each of these sorts of cancellation is a nullification of a prior arrangement or agreement on grounds of logistics or convenience. They’re all in some sense regrettable, and in many cases, lead to abuse, or even spiraling chains of abuse. Once you accept the idea that promises and agreements are defeasible, people can come to cancel them for entirely frivolous reasons, and often do. Sad but true.

Frivolity aside, certain cancellations point to the inherent pitfalls of a certain institution or practice. Forty percent of marriages fail, and half of all business ventures fail. By my definition, divorce is a cancellation, and the closing of a business involves a series of cancellations. But no one could legitimately regard those facts as reasons for never getting married, never starting a business, or condemning either venture as inherently irrational.

Similarly, a remarkably large number of scheduled medical procedures, including some major ones, get canceled for reasons ranging from the clinical to the logistical. There’s an entire field in health care logistics devoted to the transmission of HL7-SIU and HL7-ADT messages, computerized messages bearing on scheduling and cancellation issues. Though I sympathize with academics who lose their jobs to “woke mobs”–having lost one myself under similar circumstances–I don’t think they suffer anything comparable to medical patients whose procedures are repeatedly canceled and re-scheduled for reasons having to do with, say, hospital staffing. Yet no one thinks that the adverse consequences of ordinary cancellations entail that cancellations necessarily involve a death spiral of catastrophic consequences.

Suppose that a given patient suffers a premature death because her surgery was canceled, but not re-scheduled in time. This would be tragic, but no reasonable person would infer that such a death would prove that surgeries should never, ever be cancelled or that “cancellation” named an intrinsically or inherently immoral act that implied malpractice on the part of medical practitioners. It bears repeating that many ordinary cancellations have adverse consequences that far exceed the severity of the kinds of ideological cancellations that make the news. Ideological cancellations make the news because people–or rather, intellectuals–prefer expressing their outrage on ideological matters over logistical ones.

Here, as elsewhere, we accept the phenomenon of double effect: the same act-type, cancellation, has both positive and negative consequences in different contexts. To abstract entirely from aim and motivation is to guarantee distortion.

I’ve defined cancellation in the generic sense as the nullification of a prior expectation or agreement. I think of cancellations so conceived as having different species, differentiated by aim and motivation. Broadly speaking, we can divide cancellations into two species: there are cancellations that arise from considerations of logistics or convenience, and cancellations that arise from  explicitly moral considerations having to do with justice.

We have, admittedly, been focusing on the latter in our conversations here at PoT, but the claim that I’m making is that justice-motivated cancellations ought to be seen as a species of the generic phenomenon, not as some sui generis phenomenon that can be detached from our ordinary understanding of ordinary cancellations. Once we put the specific phenomenon (including its most problematic instances) in its broader context, we’re forced–as in the ordinary cases–to weigh pros and cons, not simply to fixate on cons and treat them as “the real topic.” We’re also forced to broaden our understanding of what counts as a “cancellation” in the first place. If someone asks why I insist on doing this, my response is that we already have a word to denote the relevant phenomenon, and there’s no good reason to invent a homonym totally unrelated to it simply because doing so serves the ideological purpose of delegitimizing political activism.

That’s a long preface to a simple point. For whatever reason, critics of cancellation have come to think of “cancellation” in the context of the labor market to refer exclusively to unwarranted, ideologically-driven terminations of employees by hiring managers. usually for some transgression of left-wing norms. I don’t dispute that that occurs, and (when clearly unwarranted) is problematic when it occurs.

But focusing on that phenomenon misses the cancellation forest for the trees. We are in the middle of what has come to be called “the great resignation“: a mass voluntary exodus of employees from jobs they regard as unsatisfactory, not simply on grounds of logistics or convenience, but on grounds of justice. People are quitting their jobs because they feel that they deserve more or better than they’re getting. That, by my definition, is not just an instance of cancellation, but the single most poignant instance of cancellation taking place in the United States at present (and indeed beyond the United States, in Canada, Europe, India, and China).

Unlike the sorts of ideological cancellations that are common currency in discussions of “cancellation,” we have hard numbers here, and the numbers are huge (see the preceding link). They eclipse “cancellations” in the ideologically-motivated sense by orders of magnitude. And yet, for the most part, they have produced none of the adverse consequences that critics of “cancellation” have held against cancellation. Whatever you think of it, it simply is not plausible to say that the Great Resignation has had the air of an ideological auto da fe, or of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. If you do think that, I’d say that your tolerance for social conflict is excessively low, and incompatible with the pursuit of human progress. (For an excellent discussion of this general topic, see Sarah Schulman’s book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair.)

This is not to say that the resignations in question haven’t created disruptions, sometimes serious ones. Nor is it to deny that some of the resigners are chronic whiners and malcontents who would quit anything when the going got rough. But to the extent that the quitters are right about not getting what they deserve, those disruptions are not their responsibility. In those cases, the resignations would end if working conditions and pay improved–and resignation is as good a goad to inducing improvement as anything is likely to be.

There is no way to know or generalize about how right the quitters are, at least in any precise way. The numbers we have convey very coarse-grained information that doesn’t permit inferences down to the level of individual employees, jobs, employers, work sites, salaries, benefits, and work conditions. Like all cancellations, these ones have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But it is plausible to say that many, many of these employees have a point, and in quitting, have forced the issue with many employers who need, at long last, to get a clue.

Bottom line: quitting is as much a cancellation as being fired. Quitting your job because (whether rightly or wrongly) you regard your treatment there as unfair is a matter of quitting from considerations of justice. Any quit is a cancellation, but quitting from considerations of justice is exactly the kind of cancellation whose legitimacy critics of cancellation are disputing. They may insist that what they really have in mind are leftist over-reactions to ordinary behavior, but this move is simply ad hoc. “Leftist over-reactions to ordinary behavior” are a misapplication of justice-oriented cancellations, not the thing itself.

It’s one thing to argue against a misapplication, and another to argue against the legitimacy of the category of the act being misapplied. The latter move would entail that quitting your job over bad work conditions was somehow unjustified or irrational, and a fortiori imply that the Great Resignation was a society-wide act of irrationality. None of these things is true. Their falsity is, so to speak, a strike against the critique of “cancel culture.”

4 thoughts on “Cancellation and the Great Resignation

  1. “Cancel culture” is noted for ending employments, not because the employee or employer is dissatisfied with the contract, but at the behest of third parties, and for reasons not related to the employee’s actions under the contract. The injustices this can create are to the employee first of all; thus cases where an employee resigns on his own initiative out of (as he sees it) considerations of justice don’t raise the questions that “cancel culture” does. In those cases, the one (perhaps unjustly) injured is also the one responsible for the injury, and has no one to demand recompense from but himself.

    You remind me of something I found in a collection of Bill Buckley’s columns: that there are people who think that a man who pushes an old lady into the path of a truck, and a man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a truck, are morally equivalent because both of them are pushing old ladies around.

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    • Virtually every phrase in your comment is an example of exactly what I was criticizing in my post. Let me take it piece by piece.

      “Cancel culture” is noted for ending employments, not because the employee or employer is dissatisfied with the contract, but at the behest of third parties, and for reasons not related to the employee’s actions under the contract.

      That is one way in which employment is ended: A persuades B to terminate C for reasons “unrelated to the employee’s actions under the contract.” But you’ve given no rationale for restricting the reference of the word “cancel” to that one case, and I can’t think of any good reason for doing so. Employment is cancelled whether it ends that way or some other way. All you’ve done is to hijack the word “cancel,” change its ordinary meaning, and assign it a new, tendentious, revisionary meaning that suits your polemical interests. But that’s what I’m objecting to. I’ve given a perfectly intelligible rationale for treating “cancellation” as a generic concept with two species, either of which can be properly used or misused.

      But let’s go back a bit. You take the case in which an employee is fired because the employer is “dissatisfied with the contract.” Most employees in the United States are employed at will. That means that they can and very often are terminated without any reason or cause. Termination without reason or cause is precisely an instance of being terminated for reasons “unrelated to the employee’s actions under the contract.” To the extent that any “contract” exists, it is treated as irrelevant precisely because there is no penalty for non-cause termination. Such terminations far, far outnumber the ones you have in mind. Yet they don’t elicit nearly the outrage that your ideological sorts of terminations do. That’s an instance of the ad hoc-ery I was criticizing. If termination for “reasons unrelated to the contract” is such an outrage, why is there so little outrage over the fact that most employees don’t have contracts that protect them from termination without cause?

      But consider the sentence once again. It begs the question to think that any case in which A persuades B to terminate C is unrelated to C’s performance simply because A is a “third party.”

      No one thinks that if A is a customer or client rather than employer, A’s complaint somehow renders C’s termination unjust simply because A is a “third party.” No one thinks that if A is a shareholder, either. So why think it if the value for A is broadened to include others? Why think that an injustice must be done simply because a third party has initiated the process of complaint? That would imply, absurdly, that if C commits a tort against A, and A asks B to fire C for it, some terrible injustice has been done. No, it hasn’t. We have to look at cases, not simply make the misinference from “a third party was involved in a personnel matter” to “the third party’s action eventuated in termination; hence it was a cancellation, hence a terrible injustice.” Every inference there is a non-sequitur.

      You speak of the injustices that “can” arise in the specific cases where an employee is unjustly terminated. I grant that such cases arise. What I dispute is that those are the only cases that exist, or that the word “cancel” can be hijacked in such a way as to be restricted to them. I also deny that there is some special injustice involved in those cases that is not exemplified (and much worse) in plenty of others.

      It’s simply false to say that voluntary resignations do not raise “the considerations of justice” that cancel culture does. Both raise the same question: did the employee deserve the treatment that came his way? If a person voluntarily resigns his position because of being mistreated on the job, he resigns it because he was maltreated; if a person is canceled without warrant, the same thing is true. In both cases, he’s on the receiving end of undeserved mistreatment. But if a person is canceled with warrant, that response to his behavior can be entirely deserved. So the question, once again, is whether he deserved it. Obviously, every instance of moral desert will differ from others, but that’s true of any moral predicate. The common denominator is there.

      The cases in which a person voluntarily resigns a position are not necessarily cases in which he is “responsible for the injury” and has no one to demand recompense from. If I resign a position because I was mistreated and have no hope of fair treatment from those who mistreated me, that is hardly my fault. Indeed, by definition, it is not my fault: fault presupposes wrongful action, and ex hypothesi there is none here. So I can’t be responsible for my own injury, unless we grant that victimization is the victim’s fault. But though I may not have a legal case, I may certainly be owed recompense. To deny that is simply to give a blank check to malfeasance, and blame the victims as a matter of principle.

      I don’t think that your Buckley quote applies to anything I’ve said. I’m the one who has made the relevant distinctions here. I’ve identified a generic notion of cancellation, identified two species, and said explicitly that both species can be properly used or abused. It’s the other side in this dispute that sees only phenomenon here, fixates on it, denies the significance of anything beyond its fixations, then accuses the other side of equating right with wrong.

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      • No, sir. In your original post you yourself raised the specific question: Can it be right to demand that the associates of a person cut their connections with him, on the grounds that he has performed immoral acts which cannot or will not be punished by the law? And you defined “cancellation” to mean such demands – as, in fact, it does in the usage “cancel culture”. Every word of that post was directed to that question, and nothing else. (I’ll just mention again, by the way, that those who use “cancelling” in this sense without scare-quotes are those who are actually making such demands, not their critics. If you’re pained by this abuse of the English language, make your complaint to the “cancelers”, not to me.)

        What you’re doing now is equivocation. You wish to discuss things that fall under the dictionary’s definition of “cancel” – which the thing you were talking about at first does not, for to demand that another person abrogate a prior agreement is not at all the same thing as to abrogate it oneself. Nothing wrong with that, if you make it clear that you’re changing the subject. But you’re claiming that you haven’t changed the subject – that the (still unnamed) critics of “cancel culture” have committed themselves to opposing everything that has ever been called “cancellation”. Well, they haven’t, and you ought to know better.

        On at-will contracts: Such contracts can be terminated without giving a reason. That doesn’t in the least mean that, when they are, there isn’t a reason. Indeed, I dare say that if someone were fired for literally no reason, that would inspire outrage, just as ideological firing does. People don’t get up in arms over most firings because most firings are due to the employee’s not doing his job properly, or to the employer being unable to pay his wages because of lost business. Similarly, nobody thinks there is any injustice when an employee resigns because he wants higher pay, better working conditions, or less strenuous work – or even because he dreams of giving his boss a black eye. Ideological firings cause outrage because they happen for reasons extraneous to the work.

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  2. Irfan;

    I’ve been following these posts and comments for a while now, and I’ve come to some conclusions.

    (1) “Cancellation” is a broad term encompassing many things, including “cancel culture”.

    (2) There seems to be general agreement that sometimes cancellation is appropriate or justified. By cancellation I mean demands that the associates of X cut their connections with X on the grounds that X performed immoral acts which cannot or will not be punished by the law. Clearly these demands are sometimes appropriate or justified.

    (3) Cancellation can be abused. That is not unique. Abusive cancellations need to be called out and opposed, but it is no small irony that the likely response to abuses will be counter-cancellations. So be it.

    I appreciate the broader view you are taking; context is important. There’s nothing new about cancellations, they can be abusive or justified; context matters.

    Some comments here object to your wider view of cancellation and “cancel culture”, focusing on the risks or instances of abuse (actual or purported) and insisting on a narrow view in which “cancel culture” refers only to instances of abuse.

    That is an odd and inconsistent position for anyone to take. Every culture must and will respond to the presence of persons who performed immoral acts that escaped legal sanctions. Even a Libertarian culture, in which the State is quite limited, would need to engage in cancellations. Abuses will happen, but they do not invalidate the necessity of cancellations.

    Cancel culture is very consistent with what any culture would do when the law cannot respond to immoral acts as that culture defines them; especially if the State’s power is limited.

    sean s.

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