In February 2019, I appeared on the now-defunct NRATV to discuss anti-Semitic comments that Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib had made. Timothy Johnson, a so-called researcher for Media Matters for America who has spent nearly a decade lying in wait for conservative pundits, was watching. He didn’t like that I opposed the new de facto leaders of the Democratic party. In revenge, he posted several screenshots of inappropriate jokes about Jewish people I made on Twitter seven years earlier. The screenshots went viral. My mentions and DMs flooded with demands for an apology, calls for my firing and orders that I kill myself. Bookers reached out to tell me that upcoming television and radio appearances were canceled.
I apologized unequivocally because I agreed that the jokes were offensive. My intention was never to hurt anyone. Of course, the people who were the angriest about my old tweets didn’t really care if I was sorry or not. In their eyes, I was a raging anti-Semite and unworthy of forgiveness.
Remorseless cruelty from people on the internet can be damaging to one’s mental state. On a Sunday night, after several days of anxiety and reflection, I decided to go for a run to clear my head. It was then, pounding the concrete, drenched in sweat, that I came to realize the level of cynicism behind the Media Matters smear campaign against me.
Timothy Johnson didn’t care whether or not my tweets revealed a hatred for Jewish people. If he did, he would have reached out to me before posting. Had he done so, he would have learned that I was a 17-year-old high-school student at the time and was sending the jokes to my Jewish boyfriend.
In fact, my then-boyfriend and I highlighted the absurdity of anti-Semitism by googling ‘most offensive Jewish jokes’ and tweeting the results to each other. Never mind the fact that making provocative jokes is practically a rite of passage for teenagers and I was just a member of the first generation with enough technology available to post such stupid things on the internet.
If Johnson had cared about what I said, he wouldn’t have saved the screenshots of the tweets I had deleted a year earlier, only to post them when he thought they could do the most damage to my reputation and career.
The number one thing to know about cancel culture (and Media Matters in particular) is that the people who engage in it are not acting in good faith. They don’t have a deep underlying concern for racism, anti-Semitism, transphobia, ableism or whatever their cause du jour may be. An ulterior motive almost always drives them, and it is political.
Media Matters wanted to shut me down for criticizing ‘the Squad’, the four Democratic members of Congress who have inexplicably ascended to dizzying heights of power and influence. More generally, the organization’s goal is to silence anyone who challenges liberal orthodoxy. Rather than logically defending their positions in the public square, the new digital priesthood would rather destroy lives over decades-old transgressions, even if they have been atoned for.
This truth was memorably illuminated when surrogates for President Trump announced that they had dug up dirt on hundreds of members of the left-wing media to give them a taste of their own medicine. Instead of being disturbed that so many of their colleagues had objectionable pasts, as true fighters of bigotry would be, these journalists cried that it was unfair to use their own tactics against them. In short: how dare you leverage human error against our side?
There is a long list of liberal-media members who haven’t had to face the same consequences for their past mistakes as people on the right. The New York Times’s Sarah Jeong survived the revealing of dozens of racist tweets about white people (she left her job eventually, but the paper defended her). MSNBC anchor Joy Reid enjoys a weekend spot on the network despite blog posts featuring homophobia and 9/11 trutherism. Perhaps most telling, Media Matters president Angelo Carusone still runs an organization dedicated to boycotting ‘bigoted’ conservative pundits, despite his own history of what his own website would call transphobic, anti-Semitic and racist remarks.
The lesson is clear: old tweets, blogs and comments aren’t really the issue. What counts is the politics of the person who made them.
So what’s a person to do if they risk being canceled? One approach taken by the likes of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham is to fight back. This avenue is generally reserved for big stars who have large, fervent bases and support networks that will back them up. The value they provide to their organizations must outweigh the ease and desire of appeasing the outrage mob.
Another option is to ignore the fuss, a tactic recommended by Washington Examiner culture writer Eddie Scarry, who has faced his own share of internet backlash. Refusing to feed the internet fire with more oxygen can effectively leave liberal banshees screaming into the abyss. ‘Cancel culture is only real so long as anyone gives it meaning,’ Scarry told me. ‘What hysterical people say online should mean very little, even nothing, and the moment the rest of us accept that fact is the moment we do what we should have always done: ignore the self-important online morality police.’
Finally, there’s the apology. I chose this route because I was actually sorry and at the time I didn’t understand that the people the apology was directed toward either didn’t believe I was contrite or just didn’t care. Saying you’re sorry (and meaning it, of course) carries little weight when our culture doesn’t value forgiveness.
Robby Soave, a senior editor at Reason, explains the disconnect: ‘I think under normal circumstances, it would be ideal for the person to apologize for their mistake, we would forgive them, and that would be that. The problem is that the broader culture demands the apology but refuses to supply the forgiveness…I think the kind of people who want to cancel someone else are not really looking for an apology. They are looking for vengeance. When they get the apology, they reject it. It’s not what they were looking for.’
The constant-outrage machine is going nowhere: social media algorithms are finely tuned to ensure that online rage perpetuates itself. It will take some serious soul-searching, or maybe even further cultural decay, before we reach a point where vindictiveness is replaced with forgiveness.