The Real Cancel Culture Mobs

and what to do about them

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You probably read last week’s CNN report detailing allegations that Chris D’Elia exposed himself to women over the years. I want to briefly discuss one small part of it:

"He got up with us and followed us to the door and said, 'Are you sure you want to leave?' And he pulled out his penis and it was fully erect," Vitarelli told CNN. "It was very uncomfortable for the both of us, and we knew we had to get out of there so we left as fast as we could."

Her friend, who confirmed the incident to CNN, asked that her name not be included in this story for fear of backlash from D'Elia's fan base.

Last month I wrote about the comedy industry’s overwhelming silence about Jeff Ross. A few readers rightfully responded that I’d overlooked a huge factor in that silence: the GamerGate-style hordes of comedy fans actively retaliating against criticism of their faves.

It’s an important point, one I should know better than to forget. Over the last year I’ve been on the receiving end of multiple waves of harassment from people mad that I tweeted videos of Shane Gillis’s podcast. At this point it’s near impossible for me to write about certain comedians without my inbox and mentions filling up with all manner of anti-Semitism, ableism, homophobia, and outright threats. Just last week someone told me that if I didn’t “tread lightly,” their private subreddit devoted to digging up “dirt” on me would release it. (To which I said: do it already! I’d love to see what people who take every chance to harass me have been holding onto for the moment I go too far.) And I’m just some cis straight white guy doing posts for a small audience of direct subscribers. The treatment I get is fairly gentle, all things considered. As we’ve seen, these hordes reserve much greater depths of cruelty for survivors who dare come forward about abuse they suffered at the hands of celebrities, and for those who dare speak up in support of those survivors. The backlash feared by people like CNN’s anonymous source is real and nightmarish. They cannot speak about trauma without risking new trauma.

In the myth of cancel culture, woke mobs scour the earth making a mockery of liberal values by destroying the careers of innocent people over perceived transgressions of ever-changing rules, hungry for a taste of power they never gainfully earned. In reality, the more significant threat to free speech comes from fame-loving starfuckers who’ll do anything to defend the honor of powerful abusers who don’t give two shits about them. The real cancel culture does not threaten the current order, but protects it.

What to do about the mob, the real mob? One obvious answer is for platforms like Twitter to ramp up their efforts to curtail harassment and abuse, something they’re famously bad at. Until then (until never), those at the level of fame that insulates them from the material threats of online harassment have a greater responsibility to condemn their peers’ misconduct where they see it; the powerful must stand up for the powerless. This phenomenon also lays clear the failure of institutions to root out abuse in their own backyards, leaving the onus on survivors to risk everything by going public. So long as comedy workplaces are financially disincentivized from alienating their star talent, I suspect this dynamic will not change until there is increased labor power in comedy. As it so often does, the answer lies in organizing.

To an extent, though, these are all treatments for the symptoms rather than the disease underlying our culture’s perverse relationship with celebrity. One great irony of this golden age of comedy is that the technology behind it made so many of its darkest excesses inevitable. Just as podcasting, YouTube, and social media empowered comedians to build deeply personal bodies of work and loyal mass audiences outside traditional avenues (clubs, theaters, television), so did they facilitate the sort of unhealthy parasocial relationships that inspire those audiences to go to the ends of the earth defending someone like Chris D’Elia. The bad, unfortunately, is built into the good.

Every now and then I succumb to morbid curiosity and chat with one of the comedy fans telling me I’m an autistic failure creep nobody loves or pays attention to. Invariably they say there’s no difference between what I do (substantive criticism and snarky tweets about podcasters they like) and what they do (vitriolic targeted harassment). They tell me they’re simply acting out of loyalty to X comedian, and since I must know X comedian has a passionate fanbase, to criticize X comedian is to willingly solicit harassment. They might even express sympathy for how bad it gets, then say it’s just a fact of life. Often they’ll straight up tell me I have no right to say the things I say: you can’t call someone a racist just because they make racist jokes (and also, the jokes aren’t racist). Most disturbing is when I encounter someone who’s extrapolated an elaborate fantasy of my life from scant information they found online. They’ll reference something I did or wrote in college, or my parents’ jobs, or the listed value of my childhood home, as part of a bigger (imagined) narrative explaining why I do what I do: for instance, that because my dad works at MIT, my family is rich, and I live in New York City on my parents’ dime, which is why I’m able to write about comedians whose lives I wish I had, which of course is work no one would ever pay for, so I’m also poor and unemployed. (It tends to get a little convoluted.)

These conversations are deeply unpleasant, but without them I don’t think I’d grasp just how much influence some comedians have over their fans. This is how they get away with everything they get away with. The nature of fandom in the 21st century is of a complete, religious devotion offered in exchange for a few morsels of validation and escape. Obviously this phenomenon spans all media, not just comedy. It’s the natural product of capitalism’s intersection with the internet and mass culture, of a society designed to turn artistic engagement into consumption. Every brigade of zealous stans reflects a deep cultural sickness: a pervasive alienation that drives people to attach their own senses of self to imagined ideas of famous strangers, and a dissatisfaction that invites them to experience those strangers’ fates as their own.

Bleak as this is, it’s an important reminder that comedy’s problems are everyone’s problems. The fight for a better, healthier industry is the fight for a better, healthier world—one with universal healthcare, UBI, guaranteed housing, guaranteed jobs, stricter regulation of social media platforms (or better yet, public ownership), free college, a reinvestment in public education, climate justice, at this point I guess I’m just listing what I remember of Bernie’s platform. But the point is very simple. We defeat the real cancel culture mobs by building a world where we all have more fulfilling things to do.

In the meantime, it sure would be nice if John Mulaney said something about Jeff Ross.