Here’s my take on cancel culture at the moment: there’s not enough cancelling, and there’s not enough culture.
Ollie Robinson [has been] suspended from all international cricket by the England and Wales Cricket Board, “pending the outcome of a disciplinary investigation”. Y’all don’t know anything about Ollie Robinson, Gentle Readers, so here’s a little background: Mr. Robinson was recently named to the national team for the first time at the age of 27, after six years of playing first-class cricket. Before that, he had a couple of years playing in the equivalent of the high minor leagues, including in 2014 being sacked from the Yorkshire Second XI (equivalent of AAA) for “unprofessional behavior”. If you know anything about other sports, you can imagine it’s not very common for players who the sport gives up on when they’re 19 to make it to the very top level for the first time when they’re 27. That’s true of cricket, too.
Well, it turns out that in the year or two before that 2014 sacking for “unprofessional behavior” Mr. Robinson tweeted some racist and sexist things that were intended to be jokes—from what I’ve seen, the joke in question was more like “ain’t I a bad boy” then anything actually humorous about the tweets, but that was and is a pretty common joke category, starting with the kindergarten kid saying “pee-pee poo-poo” in class. And getting a lot of laughs, too.
These tweets came to the attention of the England and Wales Cricket Board and the world’s cricketing press on the day that Mr. Robinson made his debut for England; his excellent bowling on that day was, in my mind properly, a secondary story. After the end of that Test, the Board made the announcement I linked to above. Both the sports minister and the Prime Minister of the UK have criticized (or rather criticised) that suspension, arguing that the tweets were long ago and that boys will be proverbial.
And then, of course, other old tweets resurfaced. It turns out that more than one young athlete has done stupid things! Jimmy Anderson, the great English bowler, tweeted something narsty when he was a callow lad of 27 or so. There are rumours of other cricketers having deleted their accounts, just in time—or possibly not in time, the internet being what it is. Will the ECB punish them? What is the statute of limitations on anti-gay or anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant tweets? Where will it end?
Well, I’ll tell you: the suspensions aren’t the thing that should end. The vicious, abusive or bigoted tweets are what should end.
Yes, I suspect that all those players have grown and learned in the years since then—the whole story of Ollie Robinson was the story of a kid who was a screw-up, wasting his talent, and then matured and buckled down and prospered. That was the feel-good story, and I’d kind love to have this just be a part of it: he was bad and now he’s good, and isn’t that precisely the sort of redemption we all need? As the P.M.’s spokesman said: “these were comments made more than a decade ago written by someone as a teenager and for which they’ve rightly apologised”. (Eight years is often considered to be less than a decade, but BoJo and facts, amirite.) Use each man after his deserts and who shall ’scape whipping? Isn’t it, after all, unfair to Mr. Robinson to punish him now for mistakes he made so long ago?
And yet, what sort of fairness does that offer the people who were hurt by those tweets? What fairness could there be for the victims of the millions of micro- and macro-aggressions that have been Tweeted and Insta’d and whatevered over those years? What harm does sending Ollie Robinson back to first-class County Cricket do to him compared to the harm done by bigotry, misogyny and homophobia?
And, of course, what if it doesn’t end with Mr. Robinson and Mr. Anderson—or with Mr. Buttler and Mr. Morgan—or even with the entirety of the England Cricket team? What if it turns out that every single one of the best hundred cricketers in England has publicly posted vile things as a teenager or young adult? What if every one of the best five hundred cricketers has? Take it to that level and then, instead of thinking about England Cricket losing every match for twenty years, think about what it has been like for people who saw those tweets about themselves all the time for the last twenty years because they lived in a culture where such tweets were normal? I love cricket and I love it when England win, but if it’s a choice between loving cricket and hating bigotry and viciousness… it’s not even something to think about.
When people talk about cancel culture, it seems, always, to put at the center the unfairness (supposed or real) being experienced by someone who is white, or straight, or cis, or male, or often all of those things. It rarely talks about those people whose lives, careers or even just good moods were cancelled by the culture that minoritizes them and centers those white, straight cis men—such as Your Humble Blogger.
And look, I’m a Good Guy, right? And I’m sure I have said some very stupid and even vile things in my life. And gotten away with it, in part because there was no instant public posting in my misspent youth. But let’s say that something did turn up from something I said in my teens or early twenties, and fifty-year-old me was as appalled by it as you would be. And I was cancelled—really cancelled, not go-on-tv cancelled. It cost me my job, my friends, such respect as I have in my communities. Would it be fair? Would it be fair for me to suffer for having done that hateful thing (whatever it might have been) when I have done nothing of the kind for years and years?
And it seems to me that the correct answer is: no, it would not be fair, but it would still be hugely, immensely, mind-bogglingly, epically, cosmicly and all around superlatively less unfair than were the lives of people who have been hurt by such things. And the lives of people who continue to be hurt by such things. All the time.
So, let me say this again: the thing about cancel culture is that there is not enough cancelling and not enough culture. Or rather, there has been far too much cancelling in our culture for far too many generations—that those who are Black or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or Gay or Lesbian or Trans or Blind or Deaf or Autistic or Female or Jewish or Islamic or Sikh or any of those minoritized groups (the majority of people, always, but never the majoritized group) have had far too much of their potential cancelled. And there has been nowhere near enough focus on culture, the culture we have, the culture we want, and the culture that those tweets helped make. I want a lot more cancelling of the bad culture we have, and a lot more of the good culture we can’t get to without doing a lot more cancelling than sending a handful of cricket players back to their county teams.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,