I can’t tell you exactly what inspired me to review the 1,000-odd crowdsourced edits made to the “call-out culture” Wikipedia page, which is something that I, idiotically, recently did. Maybe I imagined that somewhere in those crowdsourced edits I’d find a press representative trying to scrub a fallen figure off the “cancelled” list, or at least a minute-by-minute rundown to help me parse all of the people who were cancelled over what felt like a very long year. It is certainly an experience I do not recommend.
What I discovered instead is that cancel culture is an abstraction willed into being, mostly by people disagreeing with each others’ posts online. There are far more writers sweatily pounding their keyboards over the threat of millennials’ vast and nefarious social media reach than there are examples of effectively cancelled people, making a concrete definition of the concept almost impossible to divine using the information on hand. More than any particular person’s fall from grace, these opinions are most of what makes up the “culture” of cancellation in 2019.
And Wikipedia’s assumption
—that by reviewing and regurgitating unbiased source material, a swarm of individual editors can approximate something resembling the truth—works just fine for, say, scraping demographic data or summarizing a book. It is less effective when applied to a made-up concept, propelled by a politicized generational divide. Rather than examples of called-out people, on Wikipedia I found a handful of editors performing the grim task of attempting to explain a concept without citing any direct examples—the so-called “ideological echo chamber” without the source of the original sound. This seems to have something to do with how impossible it is to say that cancellation has actually come for any single person, an issue further muddied by the painfully literal standards of Wikipedia’s rules.
During this journey I learned, for example, that Chelsea Clinton had been cancelled for being anti-Muslim after she criticized Illham Omar online. I know she was cancelled because it was on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia knew this because an Atlantic opinion writer published 2,000 words on the incident, concluding that “once callout culture takes hold, it never ends.”
Until I began this ill-considered bit of research, I hadn’t fully appreciated how much of Wikipedia’s collaborative editing structure foreshadowed what makes being on the internet such a fucking drag. Editors have the option to plaster their individual profiles with colorful text boxes resembling the world’s most specific bumper stickers, declaring affiliations: “this user is a middle-aged adult,” for instance, or “this user supports deep reform of the United Nations” or “this user likes to wear a crop top” or “this user voted green in 2014.” The “five pillars” of Wikipedia’s bylaws provide simple shorthands for editors to blast each other for being uncivil (WP:5P2) or showing their biased point of view (WP:5P4). It’s like all the other corners of the internet where people argue over facts, but with the subcultures refracted into every conceivable combination and the exhausting moral affectation institutionally enshrined.
This means that over the last two years, as the page has developed, it’s been forced into the unenviable position of trying to define a thing using a well of source material created either sloppily, in the interest of pumping out a quick reaction to an allegedly fallen icon, or entirely in bad faith. Instead of finding a well of information about cancellation on the free encyclopedia, I found so little that I can now say with deep certainty I do not believe that cancel culture exists. This appears to be a sentiment shared by at least one editor of the page, who a few months ago because so frustrated he nominated the page for deletion—a fitting, if doomed, ploy to cancel the cancel page itself. Truly, I wish it had worked.
The inaugural version of the “call-out culture” Wikipedia page was written in October 2017 by a user named DeRossitt, a person with a longstanding interest in the works of the Brazilian scholar Roberto Unger. (They have created 13 entries dedicated to Unger’s various works.)
The stub, Wikipedia’s term for an article that is more of a placeholder than a fully fledged entry, was created the same month Alyssa Milano reintroduced the term “Me Too” to Twitter and Kevin Spacey was booted from House of Cards. (Though neither of these instances made it into the “call-out culture” page, several months later, another editor would add and then delete a reference to Me Too: “On second thoughts [sic], Me too is not part of an outrage culture,” they wrote, “it was real crimes and criminals being exposed, not just wanton accusations,” a particularly stubborn misunderstanding of the context in which survivors make their claims.)
In its first incarnation, the page described what it called a “social phenomenon” originating on American college campuses “of expressing outrage at microagressions, beliefs that are alleged to be bigoted, and social faux pas.” DeRossit sourced this definition to two articles. One, a collection of letters from college students sent to an Atlantic writer as part of a series on the “oppressive” environment encouraged by social media, described the “stresses of call-out culture.” (“Students get worked up over the smallest of issues, which has led to the disintegration of school spirit and the fracture of campus,” wrote one kid planning go to into crisis PR.)
The other was a reaction to a reaction to a paper in an academic journal slamming “mutual evisceration in the name of holier-than-thou rectitude.” The original paper, which was written in 2o15, compared Rachel Doezel’s “transracial” identity to Caitlin Jenner’s transgender identity, and was criticized by a number of the author’s colleagues. Following the controversy several magazine writers condemned the condemnation, penning lengthy think pieces about the encroaching threat of ideological “witch hunts.” Its author remains employed, and in fact highlights the controversy on her Rhodes College faculty page, a neat illustration of the fact that many people said to be “cancelled” in fact make their cancellation a central part of their identity and are rarely effectively silenced for their beliefs. The original page also mentioned James Darmour, the man ostensibly canceled when he was fired from Google over a memo he wrote about womens’ “neutoricism” and biological predisposition to be worse engineers. Less than a year after the memo leaked he was featured in a splashy Wired Magazine spread about “censorship.”
The page really picked up in the early part of this year, a function not of effective cancellations but of an increasing sense that innocent people were being unfairly punished for their beliefs. A person named Paul who lives on the Upper West Side edited Wikipedia to add British actor Stephen Fry’s earth-shattering take that call-out culture is an erosion of free speech. Another added social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s opinion, which is that young peoples’ sensitivity—what he calls famously in one book “the coddling of the American mind”—is very bad.
The thing about “calling out” or “cancelling” is that most of the people earnestly addressing the thing by name are those already predisposed to bluster endlessly about the left’s sensitivity—or people for whom being cancelled is an identity. This was illustrated perfectly in a remarkable artifact of a story in the New York Times this November that featured a number of people allegedly excommunicated, many of them for creating work widely viewed as anti-trans. Katie Herzog, who wrote a story about detransitioning that was swiftly panned, spoke of the transformative power of being cancelled: “I hope everyone is cancelled,” she said. “Katie thought what we all thought: The truth will save me,” the historian Alice Dreger told the paper. “That’s what Galileo thought, too, and he died under house arrest. The same thing has happened to us”—though, as the Times helpfully notes, neither figure is currently under house arrest or dead.
This New York Times story was eventually added as a reference to Wikipedia’s “call-out culture” page, and it’s this kind of thinking from a self-selected cancel club that informed many of the page’s additions. By mid-2019 it was mostly a lengthy collection of quotes from pundits and obscure figures attesting to the practice’s “mild totalitarian undercurrent” (Asam Ahmad), its ability to render a person a “nonperson” through “vigilante justice” (David Brooks), its tendency to attract “boring, pompous adults” interested in “whining about others” (Julian Vigo), its “anti-democratic stigmatization of the Other” (Michael Shammas), its extra-legal lack of “systematic regulation and procedure” (Oscar Schwartz) and the broader “parallel between the authoritarian dogmas or orthodox religion and social justice activism” in the “quest for purity” (Frances Lee).
All of this might be explained if the people editing the page believed that cancel culture is, in fact, an invention of whimpering social justice nerds, but that doesn’t actually appear to be the case— in discussions over these additions, editors made serious attempts to qualify biased information and dig up counter-points to every source. But Wikipedia’s mandate to cite direct references significantly narrows what’s possible to describe. At one point, the “pop culture” section of the page listed, among other not-really-cancelled people, Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of Homeland Security. The source was a New York Times columnist’s op-ed about family separation policies. It was headlined “Cancel Kirstjen Nielsen.” Nielson, along with definitely not being cancelled in any sense of the term, rejoined the administration this fall.
Over the spring, an Australian labor activist attempted to take control of the page, trimming it down to delete all the opinions that had been registered as fact and getting into lengthy arguments over whether an “in pop culture” section was warranted at all. He did have a point. It was this same editor who nominated to delete the page in something of a fury, after what looks like several sleepless weeks of back-and-forth over what constitutes a primary source. As he pointed out, for some time the fact that Kanye West had been cancelled was sourced to West himself.
Currently, the page clocks in just under 500 words, barely more than it started with two years ago. For every addition, another editor will make a subtraction: “A lone example of online outrage does not equate to outrage ‘culture,’” one wrote. This is true, and a more honest, if not completely literal, article might describe the production of call-out culture through the online outrage of columnists like Jonathan Haidt and David Brooks. But Wikipedia isn’t really built for anything as reasonable as all that.