The Curious Case of Cancel Culture’s Selective Effectiveness

Why do nominal fuckups receive the ultimate penalties, while more severe instances of questionable behavior—like putting characters in yellowface—get a few outraged articles?

Cancel culture is a bit like a tornado: There is no logic behind why it decimates one house and leaves the rest of the block untouched.

Today I’m thinking of the disparate reactions to a handful of racially insensitive and downright racist attitudes towards the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community. Alexi McCammond, the newly hired editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, recently stepped down from her job (before officially starting) because Condé Nast HR didn’t or couldn’t handle the headache brought up by a Twitter-fanned blaze regarding racially insensitive tweets from when she was a teenager.

She had already acknowledged and apologized for those tweets prior to being hired. Those tweets were not new information for Condé Nast. And after McCammond addressed the tweets again, both publicly and in staff meetings, Teen Vogue employees remained incensed that she had been hired at all, diligently taking to Twitter to voice their displeasure to the masses. As a result of the media conflagration — including at least one advertiser pulling its ad dollars — McCammond resigned.

One of the leaders of the push to have her removed, Teen Vogue social media director Christine Davitt, tweeted the n-word three times in 2009 and 2010. That revelation has not resulted in her stepping down from her job. Instead, she made her Twitter account private.

Or how about Alison Roman, a breakout New York Times Cooking star, criticizing Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo in an interview last year? For singling out two women of Asian descent, she was excoriated online and put on temporary leave from The New York Times. That leave has since become permanent.

An episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—a series that includes an Asian character named Dong, played by Ki Hong Lee, and a deeply debated plot about Jacqueline Voorhees’ Native American ancestry—places a character in yellowface. Co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock did not ask Netflix to have that episode removed when the petitioned streaming services to purge multiple (!) blackface episodes of 30 Rock over the summer.

Fey also never referred to it as blackface in her apology, using the phrase “race-changing makeup” to no major backlash.

Roman has now been forced to publish recipes in an independent newsletter. Fey co-hosted the 2021 Golden Globes.

So why are some things considered beyond the pale, and others merely fodder for content creators at online publications? I have a sneaking suspicion it all stems from attempts at damage control. Fey has long held a “Fuck you if you can’t take a joke” attitude about her work, once vowing she would never apologize for a joke. She doesn’t react because she doesn’t have to, partly because she’s insulated by celebrity and money. Roman, meanwhile, immediately fumbled an apology, shared a better-informed one, and has spent the last 11 months trying to convince people that she’s doing the work around understanding her own privilege.

I hate that the takeaway from being publicly called out for bad behavior is to ignore it and thrive, but that seems to be the case. No one doing the shaming is interested in having a conversation. They’re interested in the rush that comes from feeling morally superior, and that rush can only come if the victim puts up a fight.

Maybe it truly all comes down to this: Just don’t be on social media. Or at least delete all of your old tweets.

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