Katie Herzog was a largely unknown freelance journalist living in Seattle. Then she published an article in The Stranger about trans people who halt or reverse transitions. Two days later she started getting hate mail.
“It is, by far, the most-read thing I’ve ever written,” Ms. Herzog said. It also made her “wildly reviled.” Seattle residents burned stacks of The Stranger and posted stickers calling Ms. Herzog a transphobe.
Ms. Herzog lost “dozens” of friends over the article, she said. She soon felt unwelcome at lesbian bars. She began to hesitate to give strangers her name. She felt like a “pariah” in her hometown, she said, and eventually moved out of Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
Her main social contacts now are her live-in girlfriend and a small group of older female friends. “I’m not invited to brunch anymore,” Ms. Herzog said.
The term for people who have been thrust out of social or professional circles in this way — either online or in the real world or sometimes both — is “canceled.”
There are varying degrees of cancellation. Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and other men have been canceled for serial sexual assault or harassment,; non-famous abusers and predatory media executives have been canceled as well.
The merely offensive (Roseanne Barr, Shane Gillis) are somewhere down the scale, adjacent to the provocative or clueless or callous (Dave Chappelle, Scarlett Johansson).
At the bottom end, cancellation consists of some mild, inconsequential criticism. On YouTube, vloggers cancel each other and even themselves with startling regularity, often for petty or invented grievances.
Ms. Herzog became a member of a unique emerging class of people — journalists, academics, opinion writers — canceled for bad, conservative or offensive opinions.
As it happens, cancellation is bringing many of them together.
Here Is the Attention We All Ordered
Alice Dreger, a former Northwestern University professor, estimated she has counseled “about 100” people through their experiences being canceled. In doing so, she has become part of an “informal peer network” that includes two pugnacious writer-personalities from Canada: Christina Hoff Sommers, who rose to prominence defending Gamergate and coining “victim feminism,” and Meghan Murphy, who opposed adding gender identity to Canada’s human rights act.
Ms. Herzog had interviewed Ms. Dreger for her piece on trans people. “I told her, ‘You’re going to get slaughtered for this.’ She just laughed,” Ms. Dreger said. “Six months later, she gave me a call.”
“Katie thought what we all thought: The truth will save me. That’s what Galileo thought, too, and he died under house arrest. The same thing has happened to us.”
Ms. Dreger is neither dead nor under house arrest, but she has become a resource for the canceled because of her 2015 book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger,” about when intellectuals are vilified. (In part, it recounts the story of J. Michael Bailey, who endorses a theory called “autogynephilia” as a factor in gender transitions; many trans people say that tying their identity to sexual arousal is offensive.)
Ms. Dreger’s chief concern is ensuring that the canceled person has access to mental health care, she said. The experience of public scorn is psychologically damaging.
“There’s an effect to being constantly told, in public, that you’re wrong and evil,” said Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex in England.
She has also corresponded with Ms. Herzog and Jesse Singal, another journalist who has been scorned for his writing on trans people, and has developed genuine friendships with like-minded academics. “Some of us have even been on holiday together,” Ms. Stock said.
The Cancellation Media Ecosystem
“I’m an ambulance chaser for the canceled,” joked Jon Kay, an editor of Quillette, an online publication that touts itself as a defender of free speech and has emerged as a home for the canceled to plead their cases.
Ms. Stock used Quillette to reassert her views. “I’ve found defending myself in print is the best thing I can do to feel better by myself,” she said.
Mr. Kay clarified that Quillette will not publish just anyone, however. “Being canceled is like autism — it’s a spectrum,” he said. Harvey Weinstein would be a “no” for him.
“We’re much more interested in the opposite end of the spectrum, where you have people who have been accused of things that are much less serious, and don’t nearly approach a criminal level,” Mr. Kay said.
Readers want to hear from the canceled, but the larger motivation is philosophical. Quillette’s editorial point of view is that so-called cancel culture is overly punitive and lacks nuance.
“When I went to law school, in the ’90s, the presumption of innocence was seen as a progressive value,” Mr. Kay said. “Because who is mostly wrongly accused of crime? Racialized minorities. Blacks, Hispanics, the poor. More often than not, it protects marginalized communities. And now the presumption of innocence is seen as a conservative value. And that troubles me.”
Bridget Phetasy hosts the “Walk-Ins Welcome” podcast, which she said “has become the island of misfit toys.” The show has featured people like Andrew Doyle, a British comedian, and Mitchell Sunderland, a freelance writer who was fired from Vice.
“I don’t see myself as someone who’s been canceled as much as someone who’s willing to sit down and associate with the canceled,” Ms. Phetasy said. “I’m an ally of the canceled.”
She is also friends with Art Tavana, who has the dubious distinction of having been maybe-canceled twice. In 2016, he wrote an ode to the sex appeal of the pop musician Sky Ferreira for LA Weekly. (The editor of the article apologized.)
Mr. Tavana’s second cancellation came at Playboy in 2018; he was hired as a conservative columnist. “My three best friends straight up told me, ‘I don’t want to talk to you anymore,’” he said. “One friend, we had known each other since kindergarten.”
Playboy, he said, decided that he was not a good fit for its more progressive look. His ouster spurred a kinship with Ms. Phetasy, a fellow former Playboy columnist.“We both felt like we had been shoved out for not being woke enough,” Mr. Tavana said.
Her podcast has also featured Dave Rubin, who has created a media organization, the Rubin Report, around his cancellation.
“My show has become a hub for misunderstood or canceled people or to-be-canceled people to express themselves honestly,” Mr. Rubin said.
Mr. Rubin began his digital media career in 2013 at The Young Turks, a leftist news organization, but branched out on his own in 2016.
“Suddenly all of these people who were being lambasted in the media came on my show, and we became legitimate friends,” Mr. Rubin said. He did a tour with Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor turned motivational speaker. Mr. Rubin also regularly dines with Peter Thiel, the libertarian venture capitalist, and is friends with Ben Shapiro, who is against abortion and diversity but for Ted Cruz.
On Mr. Rubin’s show, Mr. Shapiro said that organizations should be able to refuse service to same-sex married couples on religious grounds, and that straight couples are better parents than gay couples. (Mr. Rubin lives in Los Angeles with his husband.)
Obviously, Mr. Rubin declined to cancel Mr. Shapiro. “We can remain friends and agree to disagree,” Mr. Rubin said. “I believe in the long game: If you show people respect, then some of these guys who are religiously against gay marriage, they’ll probably come around because they’ve met some decent gay men.”
This association with right-wing figures has cost Mr. Rubin several friendships, including with people who attended his wedding. Mr. Rubin says he is happier being canceled. “Woke progressives are a pretty miserable bunch,” he said. “Try joking with that group.”
The Intellectual Gray Area
Meghan Murphy and Cathy Young used to square off regularly on Twitter. “She wrote some really nasty things about me,” Ms. Young said.
But they buried the hatchet at, yes, a Quillette party in Toronto. “She basically said that she really came to understand the importance of letting people have their own opinions, even if some people consider them offensive,” Ms. Young said.
That Quillette party is also where Ms. Murphy met Jamie Kilstein, a comedian who was fired from a progressive radio show after a number of women accused him of sexually predatory and emotionally abusive behavior. “We hated each other on Twitter,” Ms. Murphy said. “And he was at the Quillette party, and I said, ‘Hey!’ And he was like, ‘Hey!’”
Mr. Singal also connected with Mr. Kilstein. “I probably would have been too scared to get breakfast with Kilstein before I dealt with this,” Mr. Singal said.
Mr. Singal has written frequently on trans people in ways that have upset vocal members of that community. His stature has only grown, including on Twitter, where he mocks woke culture and identity politics. He is one of many who simultaneously talk about their cancellation experience while also noting that they also haven’t really been canceled.
“I have lost Twitter friends, but I haven’t lost real-life friends,” he said. “My friends are normies.”
On Oct. 28, completing some kind of circle, he appeared on Quillette’s podcast, discussing his experience. (He also appeared on the podcast in January.)
“The experience of seeing an insane caricature of yourself pop up online makes you more sympathetic to anyone else who has been through this thing,” he said.
Mr. Singal and Ms. Murphy may be case studies for people who don’t believe “cancel culture” is real, or effective. Twitter-based outrage hasn’t had a lasting, adverse effect on their careers or social lives. It has become a central part of their online personas.
For Ms. Murphy, getting canceled has brought her into contact with people she once considered her “political enemies.”
She was banned from Twitter for “targeted misgendering” and then sued Twitter over the decision. (She lost the suit but said she is currently in the appeal process.) While she thought it would hurt her writing career, she said the opposite occurred. “People tried to cancel me, and I was un-cancelable,” Ms. Murphy said. “It backfired, and I gained a bigger profile.”
She was defended by “people I never would have considered and talked to before — anti-feminists, men who think feminism is stupid and it’s about hating men,” Ms. Murphy said. Mr. Shapiro reached out to her to offer his support.
The Canceled-Adjacent Problematic Club
In May 2016, Mandy Stadtmiller wrote a first-person essay about her husband being a supporter of Donald Trump. She was inundated with messages urging her to divorce him. She lost a couple of “close” friends. She grew increasingly disillusioned from the New York media clique she was once eager to join.
“It was crazy making to have a lot of people telling me, ‘You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong,’” Ms. Stadtmiller said.
She also experienced a “chill in work,” she said. “Some of the top decision makers at different media outlets very much made it clear they were not as excited to use me as they once had been,” she said.
“There’s never been a ‘Mandy Stadtmiller is canceled’ party,” she said. “I look at as being — I don’t know what the word is. ‘Canceled adjacent,’ maybe.”
She also found solace in speaking with Ms. Herzog and Mr. Sunderland, whom she had known for a while. But the closest relationship Ms. Stadtmiller formed was with Keri Smith, a self-identified former “social justice warrior.”
Ms. Smith was a leftist comedy producer. She was an executive producer of “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” which is what she calls “the first SJW late night show.” (“SJW” stands for “social justice warriors.”)
Then she wrote an essay for Medium: “On Leaving the SJW Cult and Finding Myself.”
Ms. Stadtmiller traveled to stay with Ms. Smith for a month, in her home north of Austin, Texas. “I actually helped her turn it into an Airbnb!” Ms. Stadtmiller said. “I need friends like I need oxygen. So in reaching out to people who wouldn’t start screaming at me because I was Eva Braun or something, I developed richer, more real friendships.”
Who Runs the Culture?
The social cost of associating with the canceled can be greater than being canceled, said Andrew Doyle, the British comic. People remain silent.
Mr. Doyle runs a parody Twitter account about identity politics and cancel culture. He said his work has been described as “racist” and “misogynist.” (“I’ve had one friend literally scream at me in the pub,” he said.)
He reached out to Lisa Hardcastle when her similar Twitter account was suspended in 2018.
Now they, too, are friends, and attend shows at a comedy club Mr. Doyle founded, where the operating ethos is “no self-censorship.”
“In any witch hunt, the people who get the worst treatment are the ones who try to defend the witches and not the witches themselves,” he said. “Anyone who’s read ‘The Crucible’ knows that.”
Cancellation does present a question about power, and who has it.
“The biggest problem we have as a culture is that we can’t define who the establishment is,” Mr. Tavana said. “Is the establishment the woke media people who own 99 percent of the keyboards in the country, or is it the old, canceled guys in media? Who’s the punk rock band and who’s the corporate rock band?”
Mr. Rubin imagines a near future where everyone is canceled for 15 minutes.
“The woke progressives are going to implode, and pretty soon they’ll destroy everything,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how much will they take down with them. They’re going to cancel Barack Obama one day, because Obama ran against gay marriage at one time.”
Mr. Shapiro said, “Our culture is dying because we have no capacity for forgiveness or discussion.”
That Which Does Not Kill Them
“There have been attempts to cancel me, but I cannot be canceled, because I refuse to be canceled,” Ms. Herzog said
“I’ve certainly lost a lot of friends and had a lot of abuse online and damage to my reputation and livelihood,” Mr. Doyle said, “but that’s not the same thing as being canceled. I’m still able to do the work I want to do. If you retreat away, it makes you the victim. We don’t want to be considered victims.”
“They can’t cancel you if you don’t care,” Ms. Phetasy said.
“My cancellation, if you want to call it that, has been the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Mr. Rubin said.
“SJWs don’t have friends, they have allies,” Ms. Smith said. “And your allies leave as soon as you’re not speaking the ideology anymore.”
Ms. Murphy describes her cancellation as “a gift.”
As Ms. Herzog has begun to advise other people through their cancellations, her advice to them is to embrace being canceled.
“It’s deeply painful, but it can be positive in many ways,” she said. “Before this happened, I was much more dogmatic, I was more of a purist. I’m smarter, I’m more skeptical, I’m more empathetic, and I’m much less quick to judge than I was before. And I’m much less sure of my own correctness.”
“Which is why I hope everyone is canceled,” she said.