Reputation follows you forever and other musings on “cancel culture”

Bill Cosby (Kate Haskell)

Last Saturday, I received a call. The woman said her name was Ella. And she was very close to tears.

Ella was begging me to remove her name from a blog post I’d written in October of last year. At the time, Ella had attempted to deceive me by stating that there was an urgent need to update my web site and include a link to information posted deceptively her employer Selectra UK. It was a manipulative email, and I called out Selectra (and Ella) on it.

Now Ella was starting a new job. And she knew her employer would Google her name and see what she used to do.

I took pity on poor Ella and have removed her (last) name from my site. She took the time and courage to be a human being and called me. I could treat her like a person and agree to her request. People can change.

But the experience made me think about what reputation means now, and whether I did the right thing by putting Ella’s name on my site in the first place.

Your bad deeds will follow you forever

If you are early in your career, you may have some decisions to make. Will you work for an employer who you believe is unethical? Will you do unethical things for that employer?

What is “unethical?” It is anything that you are ashamed of doing, or realize you will be ashamed of having done when you look back on it.

These decisions happen all the time. And they stick with the people who make them more than ever.

I will never forget the boss I had that attempted to plagiarize my work. And if someone asks me about him, that’s the first thing I’ll mention.

I will not forget the Forrester sales guy who told a client that if they didn’t renew their contract, they could never do a briefing with me again. This was completely false, we took briefings regardless of whether you were a client or not. I will not forget that he lied to close the deal, and neither will the client.

Every interaction you have speaks to your character. How far will you go to get the business, meet the deadline, look good? Whatever you do, people will see. They will remember. And you will not escape the stain on your reputation.

The same applies to your comments online. There are many people making a name for themselves on social media right now by saying outrageous, stupid, hateful things. Some are not attempting to gain a reputation, they are just being mean for the fun of it. They cannot hide who they are. But what they said will follow them forever. Ask Milo Yiannopoulos.

You reap what you sow. I realize you are just trying to get ahead, earn a buck, get by, feed your family, or get known. It’s so tempting to not worry about those niceties. But it will catch up to you. The Internet is forever, and so are the impressions you make on people.

By the way, if you are nice, help out a friend, do somebody a favor, work late and cover for someone, save somebody from a mistake — that lives forever, too. It’s not just mistakes you live with, it’s good deeds as well.

Cancel culture

A friend of mine did a poll online recently. He asked, “Are you in favor of cancel culture?” What a silly question. No one is “in favor of” cancel culture. The term is inherently biased.

However, all of us are in favor of actions having consequences. The only question is whether the consequences have gotten out of proportion to the actions.

Do you really believe that Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby should still be working in the entertainment business? Of course you don’t. What they did was horrible. They abused power and the result was the abuse and probable rape of many women.

Should the CEO of Goya Foods reap the consequences of appearing in favor of Trump? That’s a more difficult question. In my opinion, you’re welcome to decide this any way you want. If you think he made a mistake, you can stop buying his products. (A similar debate continues to rage on my blog post about Uline packaging products, where the management put political statements in their catalogues and are enthusiastic Trump backers.)

Should Kevin Spacey ever work again? Was Al Franken appropriately cashiered for a minor infraction? Do you believe Woody Allen or his stepdaughter, and if it’s the daughter, does that invalidate every movie he’s ever made? What’s the right penalty for what Louis C.K. did?

Is there a statute of limitations? Can you forgive “handsy” Joe Biden and still condemn Donald Trump for paying off an adult film actress? Do you still buy from Amazon even though many of their workers are treated poorly and they sell products from reprehensible people? Is Harry Potter no longer entertaining now that J.K. Rowling has revealed her transphobia?

What about me? Was I wrong to publish Ella’s name after the way she behaved? One of my commenter’s said “Yeah, not sure why you’re publicly calling out someone just doing their job. Call out the company if you have an issue with it.” He has a point. Another said “Let’s be clear here: There’s zero respect for the recipient. Instead, there’s condescension. When others are not considered worthy of respect, there’s a term for that: ‘contempt.’ “

I do think that the penalties people are assessing for infractions from long ago, or minor violations of a personal code they just imposed last week, are out of hand. But I also believe that as with Ella, my old boss, and the people posting hateful and racist things on Twitter, that if you behave like an ass, there will be consequences.

I’d like to tell you what those consequences should be, but I implore you to think for yourself here.

(That’s what the people writing the Harper’s letter were trying to say, but they did an awful job of it.)

It is ok to keep doing business and voting for someone who made a mistake. It is also ok to decide someone has stepped over the line and you should call out their behavior and have nothing further to do with them.

Put away the pitchforks and use your brain. I’m not ready to cancel “cancel culture” — because there are offenders that we ought to shame and shun. But perhaps a little calibration of the weapons we wield is in order.

How far is too far? I’d love to hear what you think.

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  1. Thinking for yourself – isn’t that what social media are designed to eradicate? Truth? According to whom? Ethical? Doesn’t that reduce your chances of being one of the richest, most admired people in the world? (so glad Tom Hanks is doing okay!) Wish we could focus on the Seven Indigenous guiding values (love, wisdom, respect, bravery, honesty, humility and truth) as the core values necessary to our well-being. Instead we seem to be morphing into a culture that admires all of the Seven Deadly Sins first enumerated by Pope Gregory – envy, greed/avarice, lust, pride, sloth, gluttony, and wrath.

  2. The definition of ‘unethical’ you use is both inadequate and incorrect insofar as it assumes shame can be felt by the actor.
    Shame is only possible in reference to a moral code; unethical behavior does not require acceptance of a moral code by the actor; it is defined in reference to the moral code of the recipient (acted upon).
    Rationalization is often used to ‘justify’ unethical behavior and may admit the possibility of shame.

    1. You make a fine point here. However, in a given moment, one can only act in such a way that one either feels is unethical, or isn’t. If you have no shame, perhaps you cannot see what is unethical, but you’ll certainly suffer the consequences later when others see your bad actions.

  3. Excuse my ramble: I recently received a promotional email from Louis C.K. and was thinking about the unfinished business around the #metoo movement. I’m not satisfied with “punishment by media/public opinion” — not only because it isn’t fair to the accused, but it is ineffective toward those accused who don’t feel shame. Reading the email made me ask myself “Am I ready to go back to Louis C.K.?” And for me, the answer was no. People who have committed illegal acts for which they’ve been convicted — that seems more settled. You had a recent blog post about Rep. Ted Yolo’s vulgar comments and non-apology apology to AOC, and suggested that some women found AOC’s response inspiring. What I liked about her response is that she generalized this transgression to the larger cultural reality of attitudes towards women. People who say outrageous, hateful things online are on one end of a spectrum. People who act on those views (either through violence, or inaction — such as by leaving rape kits untested, or by inciting others to act — such as our president) are on the other end, but they’re related by their worldview. People (and companies) who champion and admire those folks are engaging in a form of cognitive dissonance. We all do that to a certain extent. I like to think I give people room to evolve, but everybody has their own pace. If branding is what comes to mind when you think of a company, a celebrity, or a person, Uline effectively re-branded itself for me. So did Cosby…

  4. This is such an important piece. What you are saying is that people need to consider every action in light of how it will appear one, 10, or 20 years from now because everything “sticks” on the internet.

    That said, character still matters greatly and if people lie, cut corners or treat others disrespectfully, that reflects on their character, and others will notice, even judge and especially remember.

  5. That’s a seriously complicated subject. The thing is, we forgive many things to the people we love. But a boundary exists nevertheless. We all make mistakes and this world would be horrible if they were all public. I was raised a Catholic (I’m an atheist now) but I do believe in the part where Jesus says who is without a sin should throw the first stone. Which brings me back to boundaries. If you did something that the law recognizes as punishable and you hurt people, suffer the consequences. But if it’s something you did because you were weak in the moment, and no big harm came out of it, maybe it would make this world a better place if we could forgive and let those things go.

  6. Great discussion and an important issue.
    I was also raised Catholic and am now atheist. I think the basic precept of “just be good to each other” is a good guide-star. There is also something about the opportunity for redemption. The opportunity for redemption lies in the perpetrators contrition and the aggrieved’s forgiveness. Both of those things, where those ‘lines’ are, are viewed differently by each party. Still, it would be a more frightening and painful world if each mistake, if each act of thoughtlessness, became an immortal blemish. Genuine acts of contrition (not pseudo-apologies or deflections), and appreciation for them, might go a long ways in showing offenders that while there is shame in doing harm, there is redemption on the other side of genuine contrition.

  7. I submit that a person’s actions always stayed with them forever before the age of the ‘net, too. The actions were simply, typically less widely known, and mostly took more time to propagate. In my home city, the name of Lake Calhoun (a slaveholder) was changed to another name (the name of the lake as known by the most previous people living here). We look at Herbert Hoover as a bad President because of how badly he mismanaged the response to the early Great Depression. Jefferson Davis sat in prison for many years, and – to most people in this country, at least – is still vilified as the head traitor of the Civil War. Benedict Arnold and Vidkun Quisling are still known as traitors (200+ and 70+ years ago, respectively). They have, while still being known by at least a few people, been essentially canceled. I see nothing wrong with such reckonings. If someone today who is suffering from something for which they are later vindicated by history, the can be rehabilitated. For now, just as we no longer publicize the names of those who shoot up schools and similar, those who commit wrongs against others deserve to be ignored.

  8. Some decades ago, I sold real estate in a relatively small community. When I first began, I was astonished by the backstabbing and questionable behaviour I saw. I told myself, “Well, they might have got that sale but at least I can sleep at night.” Eventually, I came to realize that some of those people actually slept better at night when they knew they’d stabbed someone else in the back. I’m sure they felt no shame; indeed, they were proud of their success. I had to come to terms with that, even though I disagreed with their behaviour.

    The bottom line is that you decide on your own ethics and then live according to them. Not everyone will share them, and sometimes you can’t do a thing about it except guard your own reputation.

  9. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Josh. I believe cancel culture becomes especially problematic in the world of the arts. Throughout the ages, people who behave very, very badly have created art that enriches our lives. I would rather separate the art from the artist than cancel them and make my world a smaller one.