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15 Minutes of Shame Has Nothing New to Say About Cancel Culture

To its credit, the new Monica Lewinsky–produced documentary about cancel culture takes the issue seriously without turning it into a cultural war bludgeon. But it can’t imagine a solution that isn’t dangerous, like tech censorship.

Hand sanitizer reseller Matt Colvin’s notoriety came directly from the way the New York Times misreported his story. (HBO)

Somewhere inside 15 Minutes of Shame, the new Monica Lewinsky–produced HBO documentary about the intensifying trend of media-driven public shaming, there’s a pretty good film examining one of the defining phenomena of recent culture. Too bad it’s buried under a jumble of incoherence.

We should give Lewinsky’s film credit for taking the matter of “cancel culture” seriously and for making plain to viewers the very real and devastating consequences of being “cancelled” or otherwise pilloried in our polarized, media-saturated world. The film spotlights a few notable episodes to make its point: Matt Colvin, the Amazon seller who bought up thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer to resell at an inflated price (largely, he says, to cover the hefty cost of Amazon’s “free” shipping); Emmanuel Cafferty, the Mexican American San Diego Gas & Electric worker fired after a white motorist mistook his finger movements for a white supremacist hand signal; Laura Krolczyk, the New York health-sector employee fired and dragged for posting in frustration that COVID-denying Donald Trump supporters should give up their ventilators for others.

We see up close the harrowing impact these bouts of public shaming have had on their targets: lingering trauma, physical threats to their and their families’ safety, and financial ruin — without a job, and their names too sullied to quickly bounce on to another, the “cancelled” are forced to lean on a dwindling sum of savings and emergency money. These are, unfortunately, only a handful of the many, many cases the filmmakers could’ve chosen: the customer-care manager who lost his job over accidentally liking a pro-Tibet independence tweet; the low-wage university workers called racist and fired for following their employer’s rules; an indigenous family physically harassed and laid off when a screenshot of a Snapchat video was construed as mocking George Floyd; the biracial makeup artist fired for saying a racial slur while singing along to a rap song; the Bernie Sanders staffers and other leftists fired over various offending content; and the many instances of journalists fired over years-old social-media posts, some written while in their teens, just to name a few.

If nothing else, the filmmakers do us a service by focusing exclusively on the low-level targets of cancellation, the ones most likely to feel its consequences and least likely to come back from them. Critics of the critics of cancel culture tend to hand-wave the issue away by selectively choosing their cases — Louis C. K., Dave Chappelle, and James Gunn are doing well, so how bad can it really be? (As Ben Burgis points out, it’s an argument that undermines the other leading pillar of pro-cancellation talk: that it’s in fact a crucial way to hold the powerful to account.) This is hardly surprising. We live in a society that’s already lopsidedly favorable to the rich and famous; of course they’re going to weather a bout of public shaming, or use it to get even richer and more famous, unlike an obscure truck driver or an unknown low-wage worker.

The film is also useful for reminding us that, contrary to what right-wing culture warriors desperately want us to think, public shaming and cancellation are in no way confined to the leftward side of the political spectrum. Krolczyk’s story of nonstop denunciation and slander across the right-wing media ecosystem over a Facebook post she quickly deleted and apologized for is complemented by a brief revisiting of Lewinsky’s own similar experience (though, of course, in Lewinsky’s case, her public shaming was by no means limited to right-wing hands, nor was it because she did anything wrong or even offensive).

This shouldn’t be news to anyone who can remember the Bush and Clinton years at the very least. The Right pioneered the histrionic outrage and public shaming that’s infected nearly all segments of today’s culture, from its years of fevered attacks on art and acts of protest it deemed immoral or offensive to its cyclical meltdowns over rap lyrics and Christmas decorations and the censorious hysteria it engineered after the September 11 attacks. It’s not like this is ancient history either. The Right still eats its own over what it defines as political incorrectness, as the case of the vile Milo Yiannopoulos reminds us, or as we see in elected Republicans’ ongoing terror at getting on the wrong side of Trump, demonstrated by this groveling letter from a GOP official he criticized.

Beyond this, though, the documentary goes a little off the rails. Part of the problem is the slipperiness of the terms and issues it tackles. The filmmakers are smart to frame the movie around the concept of public shaming, but at times wholly conflate that with cancel culture — two issues that overlap, for sure, but aren’t the same. Illustrating these are a disparate series of ill-fitting examples. Does the Paula Deen controversy really belong in the same category as what San Diego Gas & Electric employee Cafferty endured? Is the case of MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, caught lying repeatedly on air, really an instance of public shaming gone too far? Most incongruous is the case study of American University student politician Taylor Dumpson that ends the film, the victim of in-real-life racist harassment and then a subsequent racist online pile-on — incidents that count as neither public shaming nor cancellation.

It’s hard to tell at times if the filmmakers were giving voice to different viewpoints or simply weren’t sure where they stood. “It’s not cancelling, it’s consequences,” Roxane Gay tells us early on, arguing that if someone gropes or otherwise sexually harasses an employee, they should lose their job. “People in power do not willingly give up power. You take it from them,” says Kara Swisher. “That’s what’s happening right now.” Yet none of these points apply to the cases spotlighted in the movie.

“Does it sometimes happen to people who are innocent? Yes,” acknowledges Gay at one point. “And just like with the judicial system, we have to address that.” That’s a far cry from the traditional liberal critique of the US justice system, that it’s more focused on securing convictions at the cost of injustice for the innocent. But whether that’s what the filmmakers want us to take away is an open question. You start to suspect they themselves were worried about getting cancelled.

But where the film really falls short is in its ham-fisted, on-and-off attempt to boil the issue down to one of the internet, an argument at odds with almost the entire rest of the film’s running time. Of its four central case studies, only Cafferty’s public shaming can be said to have been driven by social media. As the documentary makes clear, hand sanitizer reseller Colvin’s notoriety came directly from the way the New York Times misreported his story; Krolczyk’s troubles may have started with her Facebook post, but her public shaming was at the hands of the massive right-wing media machine; and the incident of racist abuse at the heart of Dumpson’s story was very much off-line. Meanwhile, to the extent that specifically online outrage played a role in Colvin and Dumpson’s lingering mental health issues, it’s because both admit to going out of their way to read every single horrible tweet, post, comment, and article written about them — human and understandable, under the circumstances, but different from how a Twitter campaign quite unbeknownst to Cafferty led his employer to suddenly lay him off.

“I was patient zero of having my reputation completely destroyed worldwide because of the internet,” Lewinsky tells us at the start. But was she? The Starr Report, with all its invasive details, was made available online, sure, but those details were the subject of wall-to-wall coverage by the press (the New York Times published the entire thing in thirteen parts) before being picked up and run with by an entertainment media that delighted in taking potshots at Lewinsky. Like the dignity and reputation Bill Clinton accusers Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, hers were torn to shreds by the same mainstream media that, more recently, was responsible for doing the same to Joe Biden accuser Tara Reade. The internet may have complemented these efforts, but it’s a stretch to argue it’s the reason they happened in the first place.

This is what makes the film’s proposed solution — repealing the Section 230 clause of the Communications Decency Act, which gives tech companies as publishers immunity from being sued for what people post on their platforms — similarly dubious. “I’m in media. If I get it wrong, I get sued,” says Swisher at one point. Yet the film ends with the New York Times’ insistence that it reported Colvin’s story fairly and accurately. Even after facts emerged supporting Tara Reade’s claims about her academic history, the outlets who misreported that history have refused to correct their stories. This is a common experience for those who have gone up against major media outlets’ well-funded and constitutionally backed legal departments.

While social media companies desperately need to be regulated, chiefly over the algorithms and addictive features that profit has led them to design in deliberately unhealthy ways, pressuring them to censor more speech online would have done little to prevent any of the episodes here, which were largely driven by legacy media. Only in Cafferty’s case was social media the instigating factor, and even there, it’s extremely doubtful any Twitter censor would have been able to step in to stop the tweets that led San Diego Gas & Electric to fire him — those were, after all, mistakenly thought to be part of an anti-racist project of accountability. It’s very easy to imagine many more people like Cafferty wrongly targeted for censorship in such a world, given that this very kind of thing already happens all the time.

And while carefully written laws against both cyberbullying and revenge porn are a good idea — and in fact already exist in many states — those persuaded by the documentary may be disappointed with how far they’ll go to actually solve the problems it highlights. It’s hard to see how they would prevent the kind of moralistic Twitter pile-on, for instance, that seems to have contributed to porn actor August Ames’s suicide in 2017. Moreover, DC having hate crime legislation on the books didn’t stop Dumpson from being targeted with such a crime.

We understand that criminal punishment goes only so far as a deterrent when it comes to other crimes, which we know are driven by underlying structural factors. I don’t have all the answers for how we would go about tackling those, to end either rising racist hatred or the problems of cancel culture — though I suspect both are largely sociocultural byproducts of the many crises and problems afflicting our world that politicians have let fester for decades. But it’s a shame, for both the film and our wider political discourse, that these structural issues aren’t at the center of the conversation instead of the more reactive calls for censorship and more criminal sanctions.

Maybe one day that’ll change. Until then, please don’t cancel me for suggesting it.