“Cancel culture” has become a reliable way to achieve upward mobility, establish social connection, and identify allies and enemies by isolating people who have violated ideological rules about race or gender. The phrase itself is suggestive: we can cancel Netflix subscriptions or smartphone services, so why not cancel human beings through reputation destruction and social exile? “Cancelling” has become an entertaining hobby—an indulgent, dopamine-feeding activity practiced on social media until its cruel practitioners, ultimately bored, follow the algorithms elsewhere.
I arrived as an undergrad at Yale in August of 2015, the year that Erika Christakis, lecturer and associate master of one of Yale's residential colleges, was targeted by student protesters for writing an email to her students, shortly before Halloween, questioning the administration's costume guidelines. She encouraged students to speak with each other if they found someone's costume distasteful or offensive. The reaction against Christakis and her husband Nicholas—a Yale sociologist—was fierce. Students claimed that Christakis defended “cultural appropriation” and that her email was an emblem of systemic racism within the university. Hundreds of students marched in protests and demanded that she be terminated. They claimed that Christakis violated the “safe space” of the residential college and that her presence posed a threat to their mental health. Students succeeded in turning her into a pariah on campus. Eventually, she withdrew from her positions. She was cancelled.