In the face of a global pandemic, climate change and escalating threats from China and Russia, the American right is laser focused on cancellation. As commonly used, “cancellation” is excessively vague and encompasses a range of things from celebrities being fired over Tweets, to Dr. Seuss’ estate deciding to stop publishing certain books, to Major League Baseball deciding to change the location of a game. Because of this vagueness, I will be focusing on specific types of “cancellation” in the essays in this series. While discussions of cancel culture are fraught with hyperbole and lies, there are significant matters buried under all this garbage and I will endeavor to focus on these. This first essay is about “cancelling” people by firing them for expressing their views, typically on social media.
While non-famous people do get fired for expressing their views, most of the attention is on celebrities who suffer this fate. One recent example is Disney’s decision to fire Gina Carano in response to her social media posts. Like many “cancelled” celebrities, Carano has found new employment: she is slated to produce and star in a film funded by the Daily Wire. This is fortunate, since being unemployed in America is difficult. While I do not want to get bogged down into the specifics of Carano’s situation, it does provide a clear focus for the discussion to follow.
The narrative presented by many on the right is that out of control woke leftists are cancelling people like Carano for expressing views that are not politically correct. The danger, they claim, is that the left has the power to cancel anyone and will eventually get around to doing so. As such, one way to explain what happened is that the left overpowered a hapless multibillion dollar multinational corporation and bent corporate leadership to its will.
The obvious problem with this narrative is that it collides with another narrative of the right: the left aim to destroy America by imposing socialism. If the left had the power to make corporations like Disney do their bidding, then they would force these companies to do more than fire a celebrity. They would make these companies pay their workers better, they would force them to improve working conditions, they would compel them to be more environmentally responsible and so on for the rest of the agenda of the left. For some corporations, there is also the narrative that those in charge are leftists and therefore they fire people for their politically incorrect expression. Once again, the obvious problem with this explanation is that these “leftists” do not operate the businesses they control in accord with leftist economic values. For example, one does not see Amazon embracing unions or Disney paying their workforce based on the value their workers generate.
This is not to deny that certain business leaders express views that are left of the far right on certain social issues. For example, a gay CEO might openly endorse same-sex marriage and criticize homophobia. As another example, a female CEO might condemn the pay gap between female and male CEOs and push for more equitable pay for female CEOs. But, in general, corporation stick to professing values that are accepted by most consumers in the United States. As such, the idea that Disney fired Carano because of the power of the left or that Disney is leftist is absurd. The same applies to other corporations. As such, an alternative explanation is needed that reconciles such firings with the clearly non-leftist values of corporations.
The most plausible explanation lies in the fact that corporations depend heavily on the appeal of their brand to sell consumers goods and services. Damage to the brand hurts sales, so a clear focus of corporations is to protect the brand. While any employee could damage the brand, a celebrity employee has the potential to do considerable damage because of their fame. This is especially true of actors: their personal appeal (or repulsiveness) is a major factor in what draws fans to pay for their products. If an actor expresses views that repulses a significant number of consumers, then they become a liability: they will cost their employer revenue by damaging the brand.
While the right will claim otherwise, most Americans espouse values that are to the left of the far right. For example, most Americans express disapproval of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism. As such, when a celebrity expresses views that seem bigoted, this can make them less appealing or even repulsive to many consumers. Some corporations also focus on branding themselves as wholesome and family focused. Disney, obviously enough, tries to do this. As such, their leadership wants to steer clear of public controversies—these are a liability to this brand. As such, when a celebrity gets fired because they express views many consumers find unappealing or offensive, their employers will act to protect their brand. In the case of Carano, it was not that the far left is now the master of Disney. Rather, it is that Carano persisted in damaging her appeal and thus put Disney’s brand at risk. In response, they fired her. Which leads to a significant matter buried under the cancel culture hyperbole.
Disney could fire Carano because employers have vast power over their employees. This power stems from the doctrine of employment at will: an employer can fire an employee for almost any reason or no reason at all. Employees can, of course, quit for almost any reason at all or no reason at all. But employers generally hold the clear advantage: it is almost always much easier for an employer to replace an employee than for an employee to find an equal or better job.
This doctrine allows employers to exert broad control over the lives of their employees within and beyond the workplace. For example, an employer can fire an employee for holding political views they dislike, for social drinking outside of work, or for smoking outside of work. Employers also have a very broad right to surveil their employees at work or when using work equipment. While the government would need a warrant to read your work email or listen in on your calls made at work, your employer can do that at will. In some cases, they can legally put cameras in bathrooms to monitor employees.
Employees do, of course, have some rights and enjoy some very limited protection against being fired. But these rights and protections are dwarfed by the power conferred by the doctrine of employment at will. In the case of a celebrity like Carano, they can often use their advantages to offset the harm they suffered from being fired. Carano was fortunate enough to get a movie deal with the Daily Wire, an employer for whom she is totally on brand. While but a single example, this does reveal the absurdity of the right crying that someone has been cancelled when that person retains a nationwide platform from which to express their views. But, back to the focus: the harm that people can suffer from being fired.
While celebrities get the most attention when they are fired for expressing views, non-celebrities can suffer the same fate. As noted above, an employee can be fired for at will. This could be for expressing innocuous views that would not get so much as second glance if expressed on social media. What gets into the news are, of course, cases in which people get fired for expressing extreme views—such as being openly racist.
One recent example involves a woman in Virginia who was fired from her job at a food bank after a video of her telling a Black neighbor that she is ‘not the right color.’ This did not take place at work and was, until the video was released, a private matter. When explaining why the woman was fired, the representative for the food bank said that such behavior goes against the values and beliefs of the organization. While I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of this claim, there is also a very pragmatic reason to fire the woman: after the video went public, her link to the food bank was clear and she was thus damaging their brand.
While I am sometimes seen as a crazy leftist, I do recognize that an employer has a moral right to protect their reputation (or brand if you prefer). There are, of course, moral limits to this right. I also accept that when a person accepts employment and they are not coerced or deceived, then they generally have a moral obligation to act in a professional manner and not harm their employer. There are, of course, moral limits here. I do also accept, obviously enough, that employers also have moral obligations to their employees (and there are also moral limits to these obligations). So, just as an employee could often be rightfully fired for intentionally damaging equipment at work, there can also be cases where an employee can be fired for willfully damaging the brand of their employer. After all, it would be absurd to expect an employer to retain an employee who is actively harming them. But there is the rather important matter of proportionality.
While celebrities typically recover from being “cancelled” or are already so wealthy that they will be fine economically, normal people who are fired will typically face serious challenges. In addition to the obvious problem with the loss of income, health insurance is generally linked to employment and a fired person will typically lose that and other important benefits. There is also the fact that the person can be “marked” and thus find it hard to get another job. As such, a person who is fired can suffer a punishment far out of proportion to their misdeed—even if they were fired for expressing something morally wrong that could harm their employer in some manner. If the United States had national health care and a strong social safety net, then such firing would not be as harmful: being fired would not be such a brutal and serious form of punishment and a person could recover without undue harm. As such, there are ways that lawmakers who profess to care about cancel culture could address these harms.
One obvious approach is to address at will employment: workers should receive more protection against being fired without cause. In the case of expression, if we think that free expression is so important that the state should not be able to silence us, then we should also provide comparable protection to workers to protect this right from the tyranny of economic power. This is not to say that employers should be able to do anything without consequences; just that there needs to be more robust protection of workers. Those lawmakers and influencers on the right who profess to love free expression and loath cancelling can make this happen. Democrats and the left will be happy to support giving workers greater protection. Unless, of course, the protection is narrowly focused on protecting racist or sexist expression.
Another obvious approach is to make the consequences of being fired less severe. People should not need to depend on having the right sort of job to be able to get health care and there should be an adequate safety net. This also can be brought about by the anti-cancellation right. The left would certainly be happy to help protect free expression by reducing the coercive power of economic tyranny.