Sun. Jun 20th, 2021

In March, Alexi McCammond, the newly hired editor of Teen Vogue, resigned following backlash over offensive tweets she’d sent a decade ago, beginning when she was 17. In January, Will Wilkinson lost his job as vice president for research at the center-right Niskanen Center for a satirical tweet about Republicans who wanted to hang Mike Pence. (Wilkinson was also suspended from his role as a New York Times Opinion contributor.)

To debate whether these punishments were fair is to commit a category error. These weren’t verdicts weighed and delivered on behalf of society. These were the actions of self-interested organizations that had decided their employees were now liabilities.

That suggests a different way of thinking about the amorphous thing we call cancel culture. Cancellations — defined here as actually losing your job or your livelihood — occur when an employee’s speech infraction generates public attention that threatens an employer’s profits, influence or reputation. This isn’t an issue of “wokeness,” as anyone who has been on the business end of a right-wing mob trying to get them or their employees fired — as I have, multiple times — knows. It’s driven by economics, and the key actors are social media giants and employers who could change the decisions they make in ways that would lead to a better speech climate for us all.