It can happen to anyone. A bad tweet, viral video, or something you say (or text, post, e-mail, or Slack) gets blown out of proportion. Then comes a public pile-on or an official investigation, followed by punishment or ostracism. Cancel culture—the mob-like desire to punish politically incorrect speech—has made modern life into a minefield.

Those who deny the existence of cancel culture argue that the term is a smoke screen to excuse bad behavior from people who don’t want to accept the consequences of their actions. But the mere articulation of an unpopular opinion or uncomfortable truth shouldn’t make it impossible for ordinary people to live their lives. As the writer Jonathan Rauch has observed, criticism, or “expressing an argument or opinion with the idea of rationally influencing public opinion through public persuasion,” can be distinguished from canceling, which is “organizing or manipulating a social environment or a media environment with a goal or predictable effect of isolating, deplatforming, or intimidating an ideological opponent.”

If you find yourself the target of a cancellation campaign, as I did two years ago (about which more anon), you’ll understand the difference. What follows is a guide for what to do if it happens to you.

The most important task when facing a cancellation campaign is to define your goals. Obviously, you want the mobbing to stop and for things to return to “normal.” But ask yourself what, specifically, that means. Do you want to keep your job? Get the position on the law review that you deserve? Become famous? Deter further publicity? Make money off an unexpected opportunity? Retain your reputation for integrity, intelligence, and friendliness? Your strategy will follow from your ultimate aim.

Locking down your message means articulating a cohesive and consistent response to the charges against you and providing the context that the mob maliciously ignores. Once you know your goals, you can form a plan for achieving them and think through contingencies based on different ways in which the cancellation attempt unfolds. Those aims will also determine the answer to such key questions as, “Should I apologize?” Any strategy needs to adapt as events develop, but an anti-cancellation plan should always maintain a focus on your goals.

Each cancellation is different, but some general lessons apply. Professors and students should concentrate on refusing to be silenced and on finding their true audience. Nobody has the power to silence you—that’s the mob’s goal—so you must keep talking, keep speaking the truth. Early on, you’ll need to craft a message that you’ll stick to throughout, something simple that flows logically from the strategy you’re pursuing. But while you’re talking, you must know your audience—and it’s not the extremist rabble-rouser. It’s the onlooker silently watching. It’s the administrator who would rather resolve the whole thing with minimum fuss.

Some pushback on collegiate cancel culture has been successful. In September 2021, after University of Texas student Sterling Mosley defended his school’s fight song, “The Eyes of Texas,” against complaints that it created a “hostile environment for students of color,” the student government rescinded his appointment to a university-wide representative position. Mosley refused to back down, stating that he wouldn’t apologize and campaigning to serve as a voice for conservatives and others whose views are silenced on campus. His refusal garnered national media attention, and he ultimately won election to the same position.

Meantime, in December 2022, Oberlin College paid nearby Gibson’s Bakery over $36 million for falsely branding the business as racist and thereby destroying it. When a bakery employee had chased and tackled a black shoplifter six years earlier, Oberlin students, supported and joined by the dean of students, handed out flyers, protested, and boycotted the bakery. Oberlin also e-mailed a condemnatory resolution to all students and ordered its campus food provider to stop buying from Gibson’s.

These cases reinforce the value of not backing down from a defensible position.

For attorneys, it’s important to record conversations with firm administrators and human resources. Lawyers love writing “memos to file” because contemporaneous written records are strong evidence in court. So even beyond audio recordings of meetings, take notes on every aspect of your experience. And lawyers obviously should keep copies of all relevant e-mails, social-media posts, and other documentary evidence—and do so on devices and servers, and in physical locations, outside your employer’s control, because you could lose access to your firm’s computer system or office at any time. If you’re threatened with termination or internal investigation, you should get your own legal counsel involved in meetings with management. Depending on the size and nature of the organization, remaining there may become untenable, so these things can soon evolve into negotiations about the terms of departure.

In business, employees, particularly younger ones, may engage in forms of cancellation when they don’t like something that their coworker or boss is doing. What used to be kvetching in a bar after work has degenerated into orchestrated social-media and Slack-channel campaigns that throw around critical-theory jargon about “systems of oppression” and “privilege hierarchies.” Accusations of “causing harm” get made, escalating to lists of demands with thinly veiled threats of bad publicity, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, and litigation for mistreating queer or BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) employees. People facing this kind of cancellation should, as lawyers do, record everything and refuse to attend meetings that are thinly veiled struggle sessions where the mob shames its target into submission. Whenever “harms” or “violence” get invoked, require specific evidence and insist on shared definitions of key terms before engaging in discussion. You must not accept the opponent’s terms of debate.

Public pressure can be a useful countervailing force. For example, when Department of Labor lawyer Leif Olson was pressured to resign after Bloomberg News reporter Ben Penn alerted his bosses to an allegedly anti-Semitic Facebook post, his friends (me included) turned the tables. Soon after Olson’s arrival at DOL in August 2019, Penn unearthed an obviously satirical post that Olson had written several years earlier and inquired whether the agency found “comments that are disparaging to Jews acceptable for a senior appointee.” The disingenuous accusation ironically came on the eve of the Labor Day weekend, which no doubt jammed the decision-making process. Tweets and media reports pushing back on the false claim got Olson reinstated the following week. Penn then went silent, before being moved to a different beat.      

Anyone facing cancellation will need friends, both to maintain perspective and sanity and to push back on the overwhelming wave of negativity that tends to materialize. Victims of higher-profile cancellations will need allies with public platforms: the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the Academic Freedom Alliance, or notable people who have faced similar circumstances. I was able to connect Ohio Northern University law professor Scott Gerber—under fire from his school, purportedly for lack of collegiality but, more realistically, for his critical stance toward DEI—to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, whose publication of his op-ed spurred further publicity and froze ONU’s persecution of him in its tracks.

Publicity, in other words, can be worth seeking. The news cycle is head-spinningly short, as is the public’s attention span, so a social-media hiatus may allow time for the circus to move on to the next shiny thing. On the other hand, for a public figure to reenter the public sphere after such a blackout risks reigniting the controversy. For nonpublic figures, there’s safety in numbers: you don’t need to martyr yourself over every bit of craziness; just remember that you’re not alone. Banding together with like-minded others can be more effective in changing the narrative.

Other lessons are less obvious or are situational and can’t be generalized. You’ll have to consider whether you need to spend money to combat cancellation and weigh the pros and cons of litigation. Especially for lawyers and would-be lawyers, your first instinct indeed may be to sue. That can certainly work: Gibson’s Bakery recovered a nice sum from Oberlin, while MAGA-hat-wearing high school student Nick Sandmann got settlements from CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post after they insisted that he had insulted an American Indian activist, despite evidence to the contrary. But litigation has drawbacks: it’s costly, it consumes mental bandwidth, and the legal claims can be messy—the applicable torts, from defamation to tortious interference with contract or business relationships to intentional infliction of emotional distress, are notoriously hard to prove and win. The immediacy of today’s cancel culture, with developments unfolding on a near-instant basis, renders slow-moving traditional legal options, such as injunctions, less appealing. Fundamentally, lawsuits are a secondary consideration—for some later point when the dust settles and the damage has been done.

Should you apologize? The answer to this fraught question depends on your specific circumstances and, again, on your goal. If you Google “Should I apologize if I’m being canceled,” the overwhelming advice is not to do so; it makes you look weak, the thinking goes, and the sorts of people who cancel others will seize on any admission of wrongdoing to escalate their attack. Apologies can thus add fuel to the cancellation campaign. Conversely, refusing to apologize might win you support, as silent observers see that it’s your persecutors who are wrong. Sterling Mosley’s refusal to apologize for his defense of “The Eyes of Texas” won him the respect of his fellow students. Comedian Dave Chappelle kept making jokes about the excesses of the LGBTQ movement, which brought him only greater acclaim. “To the transgender community,” he said, “I am more than willing to give you an audience, but you will not summon me. I am not bending to anyone’s demands.” Netflix never pulled his 2021 special The Closer, which ended up being nominated for two Emmys.

“If you did nothing wrong, don’t apologize. If your apology is seen as disingenuous, it will lead to accusations of hypocrisy and alienate your supporters.”

The best rule to follow, then, is contingent: if you did nothing wrong, don’t apologize. If your apology is perceived as disingenuous, it will lead to accusations of hypocrisy, as well as alienate your supporters. One apology could invite more attacks, as your accusers might keep dredging up items from your past to use against you. If you do decide that you need to apologize because you’ve actually wronged someone—not just “offended” an overly sensitive soul—make the apology short, heartfelt, and specific. And be sure to avoid New Age language about needing to “do the work,” “educate myself,” or “be better,” which feeds into critical-theory therapizing. (Make no citations to “my truth,” either.)

Following the resolution of my own cancellation case (more on that, shortly), federal judge Stephanos Bibas published a thorough disquisition on “the corruption of apology” in our cancel-culture age. “Apology was once a cornerstone of our everyday moral practice, helping us to make amends and reconcile with those whom we have wronged,” he explained. “But today’s public practice of scripted apologies looks very different. These days, universities and corporations compel robotic confessions. . . . They want to save their skins by stifling scandal. But Twitter mobs are not sated by performative groveling or even sincere apologies.”

True apologies, or what Bibas calls “Apology 1.0,” are a “secular process of remediation” that heals the bond between wrongdoer and wronged. They also “presuppose that there is some sort of moral community that shares a sense of right and wrong,” such that apologizing lets us make amends—preferably in person—and move on with our lives. But today’s apologies, or “Apology 2.0,” care nothing about sincerity and carry no hope of forgiveness or redemption. Far from healing, they can sow discord. And they lack the elements needed for a successful apology: the violation of an agreed-upon wrong or norm against a specific person, who can accept the apology and let bygones be bygones. The intolerance of political disagreement absent a concrete victim provides no fertile field for reconciliation.

Apologies under such circumstances aren’t just pointless; they degrade self-respect. “The problem with going along with being told to bend the knee,” the writer Douglas Murray has observed, “is that it demoralizes you and it makes you a smaller person inside. You will be demoralized because you will know that you shouldn’t have done that and at some level you will think badly of yourself for having done it. You’ll feel regretful. You’ll feel cowardly.” True apologies are supposed to bring us together. But the now-common demands for apology tear us apart. They’re designed not to reintegrate wrongdoers into the community but to solidify their exile. They’re not a path to reconciliation but a kind of forced confession leading to permanent ostracism.

When someone tries to force you to apologize, without first convincing you that you made a mistake, don’t do it. People may convince you that you were wrong, but don’t let them bully you into caving in and denying what you still believe. To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, live not by lies.

The author, who endured a cancellation campaign at Georgetown University (Kenny Holston/The New York Times/Redux)

What about my own case? In January 2022, the Georgetown University Law Center hired me to serve as executive director of its Center for the Constitution. A week later, which was four days before I was to assume my new position, in response to the news that Justice Stephen Breyer was retiring from the Supreme Court, I posted a tweet that criticized President Biden for limiting his pool of replacements by race and sex. In a ham-handed hot take on racial preferences, I wrote that a merit-first approach “doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy,” such that the result would be a “lesser black woman.” The backlash was swift. Georgetown conducted a four-month investigation. Ultimately, I was reinstated on the technicality that I wasn’t yet an employee when I tweeted, so the harassment and antidiscrimination policies under which I was investigated didn’t apply. But after reviewing the report that I received from the university’s diversity office, and upon consulting with counsel and trusted advisors, I concluded that remaining in the job would be untenable.

Between the incident and the conclusion, my media strategy was deliberate. I went off Twitter for some time after my “scandal” broke—going public only with opinion pieces on the Olympics and local politics and a P. J. O’Rourke obituary—and then gradually started commenting on legal news before returning more fully with my dad-joke personality. I also declined all TV and radio requests for the first month, before easing back in once it became clear that there wouldn’t be a quick resolution. It was the right thing to do, though if my goal had been to spur Georgetown to fire me and glory in my martyrdom, I would have acted differently.

I was fortunate not to have to expend any financial resources. I leveraged friends and networks to get all the crisis management, public relations, and legal support that I needed. But then, I was also enough of a public figure, and became even more of one, that search-engine-optimization strategies, which can cost as much as lawyers, would have been pointless. In other words, even if I had spent a tidy sum on reputation restoration—paying writers to write good stories about me, promote positive hashtags, and otherwise manipulate Google search results—it wouldn’t have mattered for anyone whom I cared about, regarding my future career prospects.

In the event, I did apologize. I took down my “lesser black woman” tweet, conceding that it was “inartful” and acknowledging that I regretted “my poor choice of words, which undermine my message that no one should be discriminated against for his or her gender or skin color.” That evening, I sent a statement to the Georgetown community on the faculty Listserv, again expressing regret for my communication failure. I reiterated that message during a Zoom with Dean William Treanor a few days later. This clearly wasn’t enough for some—a denunciatory letter penned by the school’s black law students’ association was ultimately signed by more than 1,000 people—but it was too much for others. The writer Bari Weiss suggested that I had erred even in saying what I did. “The tragic reality here,” she wrote, “is that there is no reward for being decent or admitting regret or apologizing. In our increasingly graceless culture, decency can be a one-way ticket to exile.”

Should I have refrained from apologizing altogether because it showed weakness and fed the online mob? Or should I have said more, with greater contrition? I don’t regret my approach. I had indeed poorly phrased my tweet and thus undermined my message. I was sorry about that, and still am. But that doesn’t mean that I needed to go any further or accept future entreaties to prostrate myself. The social-media mob can never be sated. Nor can social-justice activists. Besides, who hasn’t phrased a tweet poorly?

As Weiss said to me (and later wrote), “These days, sincere apologies do not function as expressions of regret but as confessions of guilt.” Fair enough. But I was indeed guilty of inartful phrasing. And while I wasn’t trying to placate the mob, I wanted to keep my job—such that my audience was limited to the dean and anyone who could influence him. If this episode had happened when I was still safely employed at the Cato Institute, where I spent nearly 15 years, it wouldn’t have amounted to much. Twitter trolls would have had their fun decrying another right-wing racist, I’d have ignored them, and there wouldn’t have been any media attention. But I was in the vulnerable position of changing jobs, moving into an institution of higher education: hallowed progressive ground, where heterodox views aren’t tolerated.

Keeping that job, then, was my immediate goal. To achieve it, I had to show that I understood my error and to promise to be a better professional in future. It was a double standard, to be sure, but I knew what I was getting myself into. This was the advice I was getting from most trusted confidantes, including Georgetown insiders, ideological fellow-travelers, and savvy operators. Again, if my goal was to become executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, I had to give the dean, directly and personally, something to work with.

Perhaps the biggest crisis-management lesson I learned is that the goal that you set determines the steps that you take. Had I just wanted to become a poster boy for cancel culture and monetize the moment, I would have gone on the offensive. Had I wanted to abandon the public-intellectual side of my work and just become a quiet academic, I would have pursued a strategy of abnegation. But I wanted to hold on to the job that I’d been hired to do, to move into this next phase of professional life with as little disruption as was now possible. Everything else was secondary. In that context, and for that specific purpose, the limited apologies I issued were necessary.

Knowing what I know now about how things turned out, with the technical reinstatement that was a setup for eventual dismissal, I would have pursued the same course—because I’m better off now, having faced down the four months of farcical “investigation,” than had I gone scorched-earth and been fired right away. And I’d certainly be no better off had I gone on an apology tour, bending the knee to progressive tropes involving “white privilege” and “structures of oppression.” There is no conceivable world where the diversity office would have fully absolved me. I still ended up a martyr of sorts, but with my reputation and dignity intact.

It was only “four days of hell” for me, and then that weird purgatory that became a farce and garnered me support for weathering the storm, but I still feel uncomfortable reflecting on that period. Luckily, I never felt isolated and don’t suffer panic attacks or anxiety in thinking about it. But many people don’t have my support networks. It is for them that I offer this advice.

“Everything you say upsets somebody,” says comedian Dave Chappelle. “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it.” (PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Everything you say upsets somebody,” says Dave Chappelle. “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it.” Instead of operating from a position of weakness or fear, Chappelle addresses cancel culture directly, as part of his comedy routines. You may not be a celebrity, but there are plenty of lessons to learn from his experience, ones that are common to all cancellation campaigns. Set those goals. Have a flexible strategy that can adjust to new developments. Get a team of advisors, both professional and personal, so that you’re not just living in the frenzied echo chamber of your mind. Figure out whether you need a media strategy, and, if so, identify the people and platforms that can help with that. Consider whether you’ve done anything wrong and, if so, whether a true apology would help. Persistence and steadfastness pay off.

Facing down a cancellation will test your fortitude and force you to clarify your values, priorities, and aspirations. Even the most relentless cancellation can be overcome if you respond with authenticity and resolve. Getting away from lawyers, PR firms, and advocacy groups, remember your own humanity. Lean on family and friends, take a breather from the rat race, extricate yourself from a poisonous environment, and gain a change of scenery. Believe it or not, this, too, shall pass.

Top Photo: Paul Taylor/Getty Images


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