Picture this: it is 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Witchfinder General is patrolling the area in search of accused witches. The bodies of the women most recently found guilty are still hanging by their necks from the gallows; tensions are high, suspicions running wild. And suddenly, onto the town green, strides a middle-aged woman in a long cloak and tall, tapered hat. She scratches a pentagram into the dirt. She mutters incantations. She sacrifices a goat and eats its heart and declares eternal fealty to the Devil himself. And when someone points and shrieks, “Witch!”, she cheerfully replies, “Heck yes, I am!”

Within minutes, she’s been arrested. Within a day, her lifeless body is swinging alongside the others. And for the rest of the week, the townspeople find themselves at a loss to describe precisely what just happened. When a witch presents herself, admits her guilt, and all but throws herself on the pyre, can you even really call it a witch hunt?

As ridiculous a line of debate as this is, it has dominated the discourse about the recent cancellation (ah, or is it?) of Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, after he made comments during a YouTube livestream that were widely derided as a “racist rant”. Citing a recent Rasmussen Reports poll, which found that 47% of black Americans disagreed with the statement “It’s okay to be white”, Adams urged white viewers to “get the hell away” from black people, who he described as a “hate group”; within days, multiple newspaper syndicates announced that his long-running cartoon about the absurdities of corporate office life would no longer run in their pages. (According to Adams, the widespread shunning of Dilbert has cost him 80% of his income, although given his estimated $75 million net worth, one might surmise that this is not the financial catastrophe it would represent for a normal person.)

Yet as salacious a topic as Adams’s apparent support for the re-segregation of American society is, some media figures have chosen not to examine it but to use it as a cudgel. Within days of this incident, a certain cohort of writers, artists and public intellectuals received the following, bizarre request for comment from a reporter at the newsletter Popular Information:

In July 2020, you were among a group of writers that signed a letter saying that “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” My questions are:

Do you object to Adams being dropped by major papers and his syndicate? If not, why not?

Is what happened to Scott an example of “cancel culture”? If not, how do you distinguish what happened to Scott from “cancel culture”?

I was among the recipients of this email, having been a signatory on the aforementioned Harper‘s letter in support of free speech more than two and a half years ago. I did not, for what I assume are obvious reasons, respond to it directly — and yet, I do think it is an interesting artefact in its own right. For as long as “cancel culture” (a term I really loathe, and which, notably, the Harper’s letter did not include) has been a topic of discussion, there are those who have fundamentally misunderstood what is being discussed. To focus on the particulars of individual cancellations — whether they’re reasonable or unreasonable, deserved or not — is to miss the broader point that each cancellation, whether objectionable or not, exists against the same backdrop of generalised intolerance.

As such, demanding to know if what happened to Adams represents an instance of “cancel culture” is as absurd as asking if our hypothetical, self-described sorceress, swinging from the gallows in Salem, was the victim of a witch hunt. Cancel culture is the context, the medium, the social marinade in which we are all soaking. The most interesting thing about Adams’s downfall, coming as it did amid a national game of hunt-the-racist that has been ongoing for the better part of a decade, is not whether it was deserved; it’s that it was entirely predictable, and Adams of all people surely knew this. What we have witnessed was less cancellation than self-immolation. Whatever the point he intended to make — about cancel culture, or free speech, or the alarming ubiquity of divisive racial narratives that seem to have propelled the entire country into a death spiral of fear and suspicion — there can be little doubt that he was making it on purpose.

The tragedy for Adams — in the literary rather than literal sense — is that there’s not much cachet in being a martyr, especially now the hangman’s gallows and pitchfork-wielding mob have moved out of the town square and into the virtual world. The list of contemporary figures who’ve gained positive attention by sacrificing themselves (which is to say, their careers) for a cause is not just short but subject to the polarising currents of our media landscape: for every person who deemed Colin Kaepernick a hero and an inspiration when he took the knee in protest of police violence during the national anthem, there is another who thinks he’s a showboating putz. For every gender-critical feminist who stands with JK Rowling, there’s a trans activist who would dearly love to mount her head on a pike.

And even within the limited confines of this fractious category, Adams comes in low on the list of influential figures. His critics are not calling for his head so much as rolling their eyes. Even his supporters, of whom there are not many, seem to be in reluctant agreement with those in the former category that all he’s really managed to do is embarrass himself. Apart from a certain amount of earnest hand-wringing from the likes of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, the headlines about the incident largely lean into the notion that Adams is less evil than a bumbling idiot who just soiled himself in public while daring people to notice the smell. The Bulwark derides “The foolishness of Scott Adams”, while Slate exhorts readers: “Don’t miss the absolute dumbest part of this controversy.”

I, too, rolled my eyes at Adams’s comments when they first surfaced — because they were ridiculous, but also because buried ten feet deep in this inane controversy is a conversation which might actually have been worth having and now is less likely than ever to come to fruition: a conversation about the bizarre mainstreaming in rarefied academic and cultural spaces of explicit (and often self-loathing) anti-white rhetoric; about a media class that flogs false narratives of ubiquitous racial hatred for clicks; about the multi-billion-dollar DEI economy built on convincing ordinary Americans that they can neither understand nor trust each other. Personally, I’m less perturbed by the few dozen respondents to the Rasmussen poll who weren’t sure if it’s “okay to be white” than I am by the fact that people in a position to shape national discourse are going around asking this question in the first place.

I would also guess, based on Adams’s own commentary over the past week or so, that the point he wanted to make was something much closer to the points in the above paragraph than his original sputtering video would suggest — but it hardly matters. A poorly-articulated YouTube livestream has cost Adams not just his livelihood but his place of influence within the culture (which is kind of a shame, really: the Dilbert send-ups of corporate diversity training were often quite funny).

Of course, it is a good thing that old school martyrdom is no longer available to the morally and ideologically pure; nobody wants to return to a time when speaking your mind might cause the loss of your head instead of just your reputation, your career, or your comic strip. But the low-stakes, bloodless nature of taking a stand does seem to have the unintended side effect of rendering the whole enterprise somewhat meaningless, and sometimes ridiculous. As it turns out, self-immolation packs much less of a punch when, the smoke having cleared, the immolee remains not only standing but holding a flame-proof bag containing many millions of dollars.

What has been the point of this, then? Adams still evidently believes that he’ll be vindicated, even celebrated, as the guy who broke the American conversation about race wide open; everything that’s happened to him proves his point, it’s all gone according to plan. “It’s important to know when to avoid a thing and when drill through the middle of it,” reads one of his recent tweets.

Certainly, it’s hard to argue that something’s middle is being drilled. The response of the media to Adams’s comments has been wall-to-wall coverage — none of it in favour of him, of course, but that hardly matters if one’s goal is simply to get people talking. What seems unlikely, however, is that all this drilling will lead to a deep well of meaning as opposed to a hollowing-out. On Adams’ Twitter page, a poll of his own asks, “Does canceling me make race relations in America better or worse?”

Thus far, more than 24,000 people have responded. Of those, fewer than 10% answered “better”. The rest believe that Adams’s self-inflicted cancellation is either making things worse, or making no difference whatsoever.

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