Like a sitcom in its death throws jumping the proverbial shark, the cancel-culture movement is plunging into a humiliating depth of inanity. This weekend, video emerged from a person called Frederick Joseph, a regular practitioner of “man on the street put-up jobs,” showing a confrontation with a white woman named Emma Sarley.
Sarley supposedly told Joseph, who is black, to “go back to [his] hood.” Or at least that’s what he says. She doesn’t say this on the video.
The familiar fracas ensued: Social-media mobs assembled, and quickly Sarley was fired from her job. But what happened next was a little different.
Joseph and Sarley’s boss, tech company CEO Derek Andersen, didn’t get a warm reception for his hair-trigger firing. Instead, a whole different social-media movement emerged, rightly calling out the cruelty and absurdity of Sarley’s fate.
And it wasn’t just the usual free-speech crowd. Even New York Times 1619 project leader Nikole Hannah-Jones, who could find racism in a box of Pop Tarts, tweeted, “This doesn’t sit right with me.”
Frederick Joseph posted the video of his encounter with Emma Sarley on social media.
Part of what made this example of a viral video leading to firing so galling was how obviously staged and intentional it appeared.
It’s not just that Joseph has done this before and has a book he is hawking — the whole exchange looks like a Netflix version of an organic interaction. Plus, Joseph has said in the days following the incident that he was traumatized by it. There is nothing in the video that looks even vaguely traumatizing to any sane person without an agenda.
But there was more. Almost immediately, identity-politics conflicts of interest appeared. Andersen himself has a history of dicey tweets, including using a slur against people with Down syndrome. And do we really trust that he wasn’t lying about what Sarley said?
The lesson here is that we need to stop with the cancel-culture nonsense. Just because almost every moment of our lives is videotaped doesn’t mean that unelected hordes of social-media users should be judge and jury, not to mention human-resources officer, regarding ordinary people’s lives. It is madness.
Nikole Hannah-Jones posted a response to Joseph’s Twitter video and said the situation felt off to her.
Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival
Joesph says he isn’t sorry that Sarley was fired, that people must face consequences for racism. Presumably, he thinks all of us should go around, camera at the ready to catch bad behavior, like a crowdsourced social-credit system. But the American people are showing sure signs of fatigue with the endless cycle of fake outrage. If nothing else, it’s exhausting.
Part of what makes viral videos like these grab attention is the underlying premise that the exchanges represent a rare glimpse into the constant phenomenon of American racism. We are meant to believe that horrible racists lurk around every corner in the guise of everyday, normal Americans.
Sarley wasn’t videotaped doing anything that should even remotely get her fired, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to make her an avatar of a racist nation, where white women perpetuate white supremacy, and white men whip black bodies while on horseback at the border.
But, of course, these are fictions.
The hope today, and not a remote one, is that Americans are finally seeing through all of this. And what’s more, many no longer seem to be cowed into just staying quiet about it for fear of being called nasty names. Ultimately, this is how things like cancel culture are themselves canceled, or at least fade into the past. People simply stop believing in them.
Emma Sarley was let go from her job following the video that went viral.
The American people are almost there; those, like Andersen, who run companies need to catch up. He should hire Sarley back, if she even still wants to work for him.
But more important, businesses should know that there are consequences to meting out unjust consequences to their employees, too.
If that starts to happen, this unfortunate incident will have moved us a good way forward in ending cancel culture.
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