How To Be Cancelled

This newsletter is my process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets.

The purpose of this newsletter is always to be useful. Hopefully, if you or someone you love experiences cancellation this will be helpful.


I just finished A Short History of Financial Euphoria by Kenneth Galbraith. It’s a beautiful little book that explains crypto and market crashes, but also witch trials, McCarthyism, and #Metoo.

Every financial collapse has a villain. We blame short sellers, banks, thieves, conmen, regulations, deregulation, and fraud. But we never blame ourselves. People that should know better join in the euphoria of the moment and lose everything in the crash that, seen from a distance, would appear obvious to a five-year-old child.

Mob activity determines all of human history and is surely written into our DNA. Something happens when we are standing inside of a mob, like standing in rushing water. It’s almost impossible to stay still, let alone move against the current.

I had a conversation with an old friend who told me they believed false murder accusations were common but false rape accusations were not.

I clarified, “You believe more people are falsely accused of murder than rape?” That was exactly what they believed, though it was obviously not true. People are more than capable of believing things that are obviously not true and abandoning principles they’ve held their entire life.

I should have just said they had joined a cult. We haven’t spoken since.

That’s how we explain a #MeToo mob destroying someone’s career over invented allegations, or, more often, allegations with a hint of truth. The crowd has to convince themselves that this time it’s necessary to put our principles aside because the cause is so great. This time it’s OK to make blacklists and assume guilt, despite everything we know about history. The same way we convince ourselves a market is invincible, despite numerous crashes in the not so distant past.

There are several types of cancellations and a lot of back and forth over the meaning of the term, but I’ll say that basically everybody knows what cancel culture is, whether they want to admit it or play word games.

If the mob comes after you and you lose your job, that’s one type of cancellation. Or perhaps you keep your job but have a harder time publishing or acquiring speaking engagements. Maybe the mob inspires people to vandalize your home.

By far the worst form of cancellation is when you are cast out of your own tribe. When we lose our tribe we often lose our identity.

I spoke yesterday with someone who has recently been cancelled. I’d never spoken to this person before but their story was no different from the others I’ve heard. He was shocked to realize how many people didn’t like him. I tried to explain that most of those people did like him and have only recently convinced themselves that they didn’t. I told him, don’t apologize. Don’t make excuses for people who want to destroy you. Don’t let them convince you you’re a bad person (truly bad people are rare). Don’t get bogged down in the details unless you’re talking to a journalist, because you’ll bore everybody.

Mobbings are predictable; all mobs behave the same. People who are mobbed think their circumstances are somehow unique.

What’s different now is a more interconnected world, but mobs and mob behavior are consistent and will always be with us. Because ultimately, we really are created equal, which means every group is capable of any atrocity perpetrated by any other group.

I told the person that reached out to me that eventually they would know how they felt about what happened. Their position would harden. And when someone tried to defend their cancellation they would dismiss that person as an idiot, or a moral coward. But it takes a while for most people. Most of us are not so sure of who we are. We know much more about outer space than the bottom of the ocean. We know more about the exterior world than we know about ourselves. But eventually a cancellation event comes into focus, and you have immunity. You can’t be cancelled twice.

That seemed the most helpful thing that I was able to tell this person, that eventually they would understand their own cancellation.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Stick around long enough,” I replied.

The best thing is to take a strong position right away and make it clear that you will publicly point out lies. This creates a disincentive to your attackers, but very few people are that strong. By the time you’re ready to push back your attackers will have moved on; they’ll likely have no idea what you’re talking about.

When your friends turn on you it’s normal to wonder if they’re right. Even when you know they’re not.

One of the first things that will happen in a well publicized cancellation campaign is the 2nd accusation. If you were accused of something very serious, and your case is getting a lot of attention, there will always be another accusation. There are no exceptions to this rule because there is an economy of attention and unclaimed attention is like a pile of money in the middle of the street. But also because people have bought into a position and they have to defend it (which explains a lot about market collapse as well). If you’re innocent of the rape charge and there isn’t anyone coming forward with something similar to rape (and the initial accusation is anonymous) then someone will say you made them uncomfortable. That will be reported as “multiple accusations of sexual misconduct” though of course nobody would care about the 2nd accusation if not for the first. Then someone else will join, encouraged by their tribe to participate. And soon it seems as if you’re such an awful person that maybe your case is not the hill to die on. Maybe your acquaintance doesn’t think you raped anyone, but if so many people are saying such awful things about you then you must be an awful human, they’ll wait for a better person to defend.

That better person will never come along.

Louis CK made a joke about being cancelled. People kept saying to him, “At least now you know who your friends are.” But you don’t want to know who your friends are. Because it’s not who you would choose.

No one with a large platform who hasn’t already been cancelled (and therefore has immunity) is going to publicly defend you. Some will reach out privately to say it’s terrible what’s happening. Some of the people who were afraid to defend you publicly will make jokes about how cancel culture doesn’t exist. Others will re-examine their past experiences with you in a much dimmer light and decide they never liked you. Small transgressions will become monstrous under the new microscope.

Here is the thing, in absolute terms, no one is a good judge of character. But everybody thinks they are.

The normal reaction to being cancelled is to retreat. Everybody I have spoken with who has been through it talks about suicidal ideation. There is something so horrific about being publicly humiliated, especially when your friends participate. That’s why public humiliation was outlawed as a form of punishment. But mobbing is human nature, so of course flogging in the public square made a comeback. We had good reasons for enshrining the principle of innocent until proven guilty, but we ignore that principle because that’s what human beings do. We make exceptions because we’re convinced we’re exceptional people living in exceptional times. And we are not.

Mob behavior emerged thousands or millions of years ago (who knows) and probably had an important evolutionary function. The emotional pain of being cancelled is likely so enormous for similar reasons. At one time being cast out of the tribe meant certain death.

It’s best to fight back but almost impossible for most people. The other thing you can do is nothing. Wait a while. Meditate. Wait until you understand what happened. Time is clarifying and most cancellation campaigns are very simple given the perspective distance of time. Just don’t apologize for something when you don’t know what you’re apologizing for. If people are telling lies about you, don’t focus on the grains of truth. Don’t make excuses for your enemies, because they will not give you the benefit of the doubt.

A friend who went through a vicious cancellation campaign in 2018 told me that multiple people reached out to him within 6 months asking for his help with something (he was known as a helpful person), forgetting altogether their participation in the mob that cost him his life’s work. When he reminded them they were surprised. They literally didn’t remember. They apologized though for not reaching out to see how he was doing in the midst of it all.

The people who seem to do best are the ones that continue to create. That can be hard to do when you lose your publisher and your editor and your agent and your income, but not impossible. After all, publishing a book or making a movie is always a miracle. It might not be fair but if you pulled off the impossible once perhaps you can do it again.

The benefits of being cancelled include insights into crowd behavior and the human condition. Ultimately, mob behavior is part of life, and in the end no one survives life.

Galbraith points out in A Short History of Financial Euphoria, we blame everyone except the responsible party, which is always the crowd. When predicting the next financial euphoria Galbraith said there were no answers, but the next great speculative episode was inevitable. He’d given up on trying to prevent financial bubbles.

Thus it has been for centuries; thus in the long future it will also be. - Kenneth Galbraith


p.s. Thank you for reading. Consider subscribing or making a donation if you can (but not if you aren’t doing well financially). You can send a paypal here. Venmo is @Stephen-Elliott-7.

p.s. 2 It’s very helpful when you like posts or leave comments. Emotionally I mean. And please share if you can.


p.s. 3 If you’re interested in learning more about the social dynamics of cancellation campaigns I strong recommend Galileo’s Middle Finger and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.