Did "Cancel Culture" Just Jump the Shark?
A woman in Brooklyn gets fired after being Twitter-shamed as a racist. Now, there's backlash from some unusual sources.
A walk with a dog in a New York park results in a viral video clip, allegations of racist behavior by a white woman, and the woman getting publicly pilloried and sacked from her job.
This time, it happened at a dog park in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the tweet accompanying the 27-second video, author Frederick Joseph claims that he started filming after the woman threatened to call the police, having mistaken him for the owner of a loudly barking dog—and after the woman allegedly told Joseph and his fiancée to “stay in your hood.” Once Joseph starts filming, the woman—later identified as Emma Sarley—acts confused and tries to claim that Joseph is unceremoniously telling her to leave the park. The snippet ends with a random onlooker, who as of this writing has not been identified or asked for comment, confirming Joseph’s claim that Sarley did indeed say, “Stay in your hood.”
Obviously, there are shades here of last year’s “Cooper vs Cooper” saga, but with a twist: Joseph is a New York Times bestselling author with a Twitter following of 115.9k and an Instagram following of 168k; and, unlike Christian Cooper, he made an active effort to get the woman fired.
After Joseph posted as much identifying information as he had on Sarley on both platforms— specifically, the location of the altercation and the name of her dog—one of his Instagram followers found her Instagram and LinkedIn profiles and sent him screenshots. Joseph then posted the screenshots to Twitter, tagging her employer Bevy and the co-founder and CEO of Bevy, Derek Andersen. Then, Andersen announced that Sarley has been terminated.
How fast did it happen? Here’s the timeline:
9/25/21 8:17 p.m. - Joseph posts his first tweet containing the video
9/25/21 9:12 p.m. - Joseph posts a second tweet with identifying information for Sarley
9/26/21 9:52 a.m. - Joseph posts the screenshots one of his Instagram followers sent him identifying Sarley and her place of employment
9/26/21 10:20 a.m. - Joseph directly tags both the official Bevy Twitter account and Andersen’s personal Twitter account
9/26/21 1:42 p.m. - Andersen confirms that he has personally spoken to Joseph about the incident
9/26/21 6:26 p.m. - Andersen confirms Sarley has been terminated from Bevy
In under 24 hours, Sarley went from being anonymous to being infamous and unemployed—all because of an extremely short video clip that gives no context of what took place before or after. Strikingly, it does not seem like anyone, including Andersen, spoke to Sarley to get her side of the story.
Sarley finally posted a statement yesterday, acknowledging that she could have handled the situation better but denying any racial overtones to her comment.
Obviously, assessing Sarley’s motivation or truthfulness is difficult. But what we do know for sure is that Joseph used his massive platforms to ruin her life. He encouraged his followers to identify—or dox—Sarley, posted screenshots showing her personal and employment information, and exerted pressure on Andersen to fire her. Even if you fully accept his version of the events, that behavior is borderline sociopathic. Much like Amy Cooper, Emma Sarley is now unemployed and likely unemployable in the near future over an incident in which her guilt is questionable at best.
Joseph, the author of a 2020 anti-racist book called The Black Friend, has a strong focus on confronting racial insults and injustices in everyday life. There is no question that such “everyday racism” is a real problem, and some of the incidents he describes (e.g., a white woman approaching him while he is looking for his car key and asking what he is doing and whose car this is) sound like all-too-familiar racial indignities. But he also has a habit of ringing the “white supremacy” or “white privilege” alarm over petty incidents that may well have nothing to do with race.
A few months ago, Joseph even managed to find a racial subtext in a photo spread of a lingerie model hugging a (tame) bear, writing, “White people do stuff like this then claim to be afraid of Black people.”
On at least one occasion, a “white privilege” incident alleged by Joseph was called into doubt. In 2018, he claimed that his white female seatmate on a United Airlines flight put her feet up on her tray table, refused to take them down when he politely asked her to, and was finally offered a $1000 voucher by a flight attendant to put her feet down. United responded that no offer of compensation was ever made.
And on another occasion, Joseph was indisputably caught aggrandizing a story for attention (with no racial element). You might remember the tale of the Satanic Airbnb, where it was just so obvious to the writer that the owners of the property he had rented were performing Satanic rituals in the basement. Guess what: that was Joseph, in a Twitter thread that claimed the property was full of items and imagery for “what looked like devil worship.” Then, the owner gave Vice’s Anna Merlan a FaceTime tour of the house:
Downstairs, in the supposedly offending, “ritualistic” basement, he showed us a washer and dryer, a stack of boxes, a mess of clothes and other household objects, an animal skull with long horns, draped in an American flag, and, in the corner, what he suspects was the cause of Joseph’s alarm.
“There’s a speaker stand for a DJ setup,” Alex said, showing us an object with a triangular base that was, clearly, a speaker stand. “I think maybe he looked at it and thought it was an altar.”
Fortunately for the property owner, he managed to avoid being publicly named, despite several calls in the replies to Joseph’s tweets for his identity and the property location to be put on blast.
Obviously, none of this tells us that Joseph’s claims about what happened at the dog park in Williamsburg were false. But the bottom line is, he has not shown himself to be the most reliable narrator (and not just in situations that potentially involve race).
Unfortunately, Joseph’s behavior, repugnant as it was, is almost to be expected at this point. Drumming up outrage is the quickest way to gain attention on social media, and that attention is vitally important to some. The real question is why companies continue to fall for these pressure campaigns and fold so quickly in the face of the tiniest bit of discomfort on social media. Bevy could have chosen to tell Joseph and Sarley to work it out between themselves—which is the half-hearted message Andersen tried to float after announcing Sarley had been terminated.
Instead, the company chose to intervene in a situation that did not happen on company time and in which Sarley was not acting as a representative of the company.
The argument that always gets made in such situations is that private companies have the right to fire at-will employees and that any employee who brings negative publicity has to go. But that line of thought taken to its logical conclusion is pretty scary: essentially, it means that you are “on company time” round the clock, in all venues, on all platforms. To paraphrase a well-known meme, this is not the future liberals should want.
Again: addressing “casual” or “everyday” racism is important. But do we accomplish that by instigating massive social media pile-ons and getting people fired? What was solved as a result of the dog-park drama? Was actual progress made? Or is this just another instance of mining social media outrage for attention, getting a dopamine fix from punishing an alleged transgressor, and moving on once the carcass has been picked clean?
Interestingly, while much of the condemnation of Joseph’s actions has come from the centrist and liberal anti-cancel culture quarters you’d expect, some anti-racist voices that have been generally critical of the anti-cancel culture backlash have also joined in:
When Nikole Hannah-Jones says an anti-racist “lesson in accountability” amounted to an unethical use of someone’s Twitter platform and a disproportionate punishment, that should set off alarm bells.
Could this be the moment when cancel culture has finally jumped the shark? Obviously, it’s too early to write its obituary based on two people questioning one incident in a still-unfolding story. Nonetheless, for many of us who have criticized the “cancellation” trend, Jones’s and Bailey’s responses are pleasantly surprising and mirror some of our own questions: Is it ethical for someone with a large platform to bring a person down just because they can? Did the alleged offense deserve this kind of asymmetric response? And to take the question one step further: Who really holds the power here? If Jones is truly concerned with power structures and imbalances in our society, her critique of Joseph’s actions is ideologically consistent.
The incentives for social media mobbing and “cancellation” won’t disappear overnight. But the pushback against it, and from unexpected corners, does offer some hope that we can start moving toward a more considerate form of anti-racism.
There seems like a simple solution to this problem that social media platforms could implement. Intentionally doxing someone gets you banned. The platform doesn't have to determine who is right or wrong in different situations, just make a clear rule that doxing for any situation is cause for suspension.
The central problem here is employment at will. Bosses shouldn't be allowed to fire people without good cause. That's why the various forms of cancel culture are more problematic in the US than in countries where freedom of expression is protected generally, and not just against the state.