Cancelation Keeps Us on Our Toes—Where We Belong | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Virginia Heffernan during a Newsweek podcast debate on cancel culture. You can listen to the podcast here:

I'm going to push in the direction of the linguistic philosophy that I want to bring to the conversation—so from the beginning, get the edge on definition. I'm with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who thought we don't need to bother with definitions: We know cancel culture when we see it. We don't have to talk about the limit cases, is this or is this not a cancellation?

We're in a time in which there's a pervasive sense that we're on tenterhooks all the time. If you're cancelled by the right, you could get swatted, you could get credible death threats. If cancelled by the left, you could lose your job and be excommunicated forever from polite society.

Those two threats keep us on our toes. That feeling of being on our toes is how I would describe cancel culture.

I came to the internet very early when it was ARPANET era in the 1970's and my first experience with polemics was mixing it up with HAM radio and CB radio and some merchant marines who were using communication technology in the very earliest days of the internet.

Virginia Heffernan
Virginia Heffernan

It was pretty bruising; it was very anonymous, and people were short tempered about other people's opinions. When I got in there, the first message board I joined had Dungeons and Dragons apparatus; there were damsels and steeds and lots of obsession with Led Zeppelin. We also had masters and slaves. It wasn't exactly an S&M kind of thing—and remember, I was a child—but the master could kill you and knock you off the entire Internet if you said something that displeased him. Often it was profanity.

So finding your way to stay on and not be canceled while you talked was really important. They kicked off people who used all CAPS or who made reply all mistakes. You were a bad player, you got kicked off.

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I could be a troubled street kid telling you that my beatings made me better, and in fact they just traumatized me, but I really came to believe that was the way to have rigorous discussions.

I was seven, eight, nine, ten years old trying to talk about Reaganomics, and nothing felt better than being taken seriously in this world.

Later, when I started writing the first article I ever wrote for Slate in the 90's, it was about Rosie O'Donnell, the responses were, "I'm cancelling my subscription, "You should be fired," "Does your mother have any children who don't have brain damage?" "I pity you"—you know, the usual, leading up to "Worse than ISIS," which I started to get in 2012.

I thought that was the way people were supposed to interact at high levels of debate, and it was aspirational how difficult it was.

Virginia Heffernan is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and co-host of Slate's Trumpcast.