Bill O’Reilly is back on bestseller lists. Jeffrey Toobin is again on CNN. And Chrissy Teigen racked up nearly 900,000 likes on Instagram while bemoaning her membership in the “cancel club.”
The reemergence of these celebrities brings to mind a quote from the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously said that the very rich are different from you and me. The difference is not just about money. You and I can suffer for years, even decades, after being “canceled” while big-name celebrities rarely do.
Just ask Damian Goddard, who was a victim of cancel culture before cancel culture even had a name.
Goddard, a devout Roman Catholic who lives in Ontario, Canada, was a sportscaster who was let go in 2011 after tweeting in support of a sports agent who spoke out against gay marriage.
Two years after losing his job, Goddard refinanced his mortgage so he could try to start his own network. The father of two is still cobbling together work to support his family. In his Twitter bio, he says “cancel culture is real.”
Compare him to Toobin, whose career seemed mortally wounded last fall when he exposed himself during a video call with New Yorker staffers. While he was fired by the magazine, CNN brought him back on the network in June, and, after a brief interview addressing his behavior, Toobin resumed commenting on the Supreme Court.
Or consider O’Reilly, who was fired by Fox News in 2017 over allegations of sexual harassment, but now turns up frequently on the “Glenn Beck Program,” has a book on The New York Times bestseller list and has a podcast on which former President Donald Trump recently appeared.
While Toobin and O’Reilly suffered hits to their reputation (and probably bank accounts), cancellation looks very different for them than it does for Goddard and other people who aren’t international celebrities.
Fame makes celebrities vulnerable to cancellation, but paradoxically, it also helps them to recover. Individuals and small- to medium-sized businesses that become targets aren’t so fortunate. Here’s why that’s the case, and what one cancel culture target says you should do if it happens to you.
‘They broker in make-believe’
Efforts to deprive them of an audience, esteem or income may cause famous people (and their publicists) headaches for a while and might cost them work in the short term. But typically big stars weather the storm because of three things, said Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of Red Banyan, a crisis-management and communications agency and author of the forthcoming book “Crisis Averted, PR Strategies to Protect Your Reputation and the Bottom Line.”
First, celebrities have thick skins; they’re used to dealing with controversy. “They don’t internalize every mean thing that someone says about them, as opposed to average folks. They’re accustomed to people attacking them on social media, judging every aspect of what they do, especially people who are on TV,” Nierman said.
Second, celebrities have massive followings of people who are predisposed to like them. “Even if they lose some of their followers, they still have a huge audience,” he noted, adding that people are inclined to like celebrities because of their celebrity. “They get a pass for making mistakes because people want to continue to see them on TV.”
This effect is even stronger if the canceled celebrity is associated with a likable character on TV or in a movie, Nierman added.
Third, celebrities have other people, and sometimes whole companies, to work on their behalf. “There’s a financial incentive for businesses to see celebrities come back,” he said.
Holly Grout, a historian and associate professor at the University of Alabama who has studied celebrity culture, agreed that celebrities can withstand punches that would level most private citizens, in part because they know their cultural relevance and market value “depends on their ability to elicit a public response, positive or negative.”
“Perhaps I am a bit cynical here, but I think that most celebrities regard what they do — and to varying degrees, who they are — as a business. They broker in make-believe and they curate a persona that is at once part of them and separate from them,” Grout wrote in an email.
Being so famous that you’re recognized as a business or brand, rather than simply a person, also protects you from cancellation, she said.
“I think of the Kardashians here. People love them and hate them. Regardless, they remain in the public eye, endorse products and retain cultural relevance despite poor relationship choices and controversial comments. We may not like what Kylie or Kim represent or who they seem to be as people, but we cannot escape the Kardashian brand,” Grout said.
I feel like everyone just tries to cancel Chris Pratt for half a day once a year and then forgets about it. Personally I like the guy JMO.— Brody Cheddar Rounds (@RealBrodyCox) February 3, 2021
‘The world is offended’
While cancel culture may swing and miss at top-tier celebrities, it exacts a far greater toll on ordinary people like Natasha Tynes.
She is the Washington, D.C., area woman who, 2 years ago, got canceled for tweeting about a commuter-rail employee eating on the train, which isn’t allowed. Because the employee was Black, Tynes was branded a racist even though she herself grew up in the Middle East and has brown skin. After the incident, she had a panic attack that required hospitalization and also lost a book contract and a job.
“The first year was pretty bad. I saw a therapist, a psychiatrist. I went to Jordan twice, just because I couldn’t stay here. When I decided to start applying for jobs, people would ghost me. I guess they would Google me,” said Tynes, who is the author of the novel “They Called Me Wyatt.”
The internet is the home field for cancel culture, but it’s not a level playing field for celebrities and private citizens because of what’s known as search engine optimization, which governs how search results are returned.
When a private citizen makes the news for being canceled, the stories about the incident typically show up first when you search for the person’s name. Without a lot of other news to counter the canceling event, it’s likely to stay there for years, or even decades.
Although Tynes quickly apologized and deleted her tweet about the commuter-rail employee, the apology didn’t help. She is still getting slammed on book review sites such as Goodreads and Amazon, where people admit they didn’t read the book, but excoriate her and tell others not to buy her book. She has decided to publish her next novel under a pen name to prevent this from happening again.
(When the Deseret News contacted Goodreads and Amazon about negative reviews by people who did not read Tynes’ book, the companies said they would take one down and investigate the others.)
Finding a way forward
Although it’s been 10 years since Goddard, a father of two, sent his fateful tweet about same-sex marriage, the incident still looms large online, in part because he didn’t delete the tweet or apologize. In fact, he has retweeted his own controversial tweet on anniversaries of the incident.
“The world is just sort of offended,” he said. “I still find it exceedingly difficult to, not just network and find work, but it’s also been difficult to make connections with people who would otherwise side with me.”
Part of Goddard’s problem is that, like J.K. Rowling, who got in trouble for mocking gender identity, Goddard was canceled for a deeply held belief. He wouldn’t describe his tweet as an error in judgment (like Tynes said she made) or a “deeply moronic” mistake, which is how Toobin described his actions.
To rebound from cancellation, celebrities need to accept responsibility, talk about it publicly, pledge to do better, demonstrate that they’ve tried to address the issue and be willing to take the punishment, said Nierman, the author of “Crisis Averted.” He praised Toobin’s handling of his situation, which including giving an interview on CNN that has been called “cringeworthy.”
For Goddard, however, talking publicly about his opposition to same-sex marriage, a position informed by his Catholic faith, just makes the scorn worse.
“I’ve been painted as a hater, that I hate gay people, that I hate transgender people. I don’t hate gay people. I don’t a hate a soul. I can’t. I’m not allowed to,” he said. “If people want to try to understand what makes me tick and have that conversation, I’m more than willing, but we are in a world with cancel culture and nobody wants to take that time. Its main objective, its simple thrust, is to destroy people.”
That said, Goddard wouldn’t undo his tweet if he could go back in time. “My philosophy is, if people are afraid of doing the right thing, then where’s the sign-up paper for me, because that means you’re doing the right thing,” he said, noting that he’s not afraid to share his values.
“Has it led to more of a solitary life, not too many invites at Christmas parties; has it led to my phone not ringing as much with friends and family? Yeah, it has. But I have a loving wife and two young kids that are really good athletes, but more than that, God-fearing kids, and I’m teaching them the best I can. And even above that, I have my faith,” he said.
Meanwhile, two years after the tweet that upended her life, Tynes started a full-time job in June with a company that didn’t ask her about the incident. She jokes that she’s becoming a “cancellation therapist” because she gets contacted by strangers dealing with the aftermath of cancellation. Just this week, she had a Zoom call with a private citizen who was publicly shamed two years ago and is still struggling to recover.
Tynes encourages people dealing with public shaming and cancellation to immediately find a therapist to help support their mental health. “With the mental anguish that this can cause, you can easily hurt yourself,” she said.
She also got a dog during the pandemic, and walking the dog daily while listening to inspirational podcasts helped her recover. “What are the five stages of grief?” she asked. “I think there should be a sixth one: growth.”