Although cancel culture has been making headlines for years, some people still struggle to define it, and others insist that it doesn’t exist. For them, Evan Nierman is here to help.

The founder and CEO of a company that helps individuals and businesses weather crises, Nierman became interested in cancel culture several years ago after helping several clients withstand cancellation, which he compared to a modern-day witch hunt. The subject became a passion project for him, and now, with Mark Sachs, Nierman has written what he hopes will be the definitive book, “The Cancel Culture Curse: From Rage to Redemption in a World Gone Mad.”

Cancel culture is real, Nierman says, and targets people on both of sides of America’s ideological divide. There’s a misconception that it’s mainly conservatives decrying cancel culture, and he’s experienced that when talking about the book. People have wrongly assumed that he’s approaching the subject from the right, when in fact, he’s politically independent and not motivated by partisanship but by his concern about what cancel culture is doing to our country — particularly to ordinary Americans who don’t have the ability to fight back like politicians and celebrities do.

And trying to end cancel culture is definitely not part of his business, given that his company, Red Banyan, gets new clients when an internet mob sets out to destroy a business or an individual’s life.

Nierman, a father of two who lives in Florida, spoke with the Deseret News recently about the “least cancellable person on the planet” and what has to happen for cancel culture to end. He also talked about what he sees as the most interesting attempt at cancellation happening right now and how it differs from other cases in the past.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: Although people have been writing about cancel culture for years, it seems there’s not one definition accepted by everyone. What went into coming up with your definition, which is “The use of intimidation by a morally absolute coalition to isolate and disproportionately punish an alleged transgressor”?

Evan Nierman: Before you can defeat it, you first have to define it. I’ve been reading about cancel culture for years without ever seeing a clear articulation of what it was. So much of what  was happening felt like political witch hunts ... people turning on each other with little evidence, or no evidence, and enacting mob justice. So we identified six core elements of cancel culture, which enabled us to come up with a definition we thought captured it.

The elements are in the acronym CANDEM: ‘Crime’ committed against a collective; arises and accelerates quickly; nature of the offense is trivial or fabricated; disproportionate response; everyone afraid to get involved; and moral absolutism by those doing the canceling.

DN: You talk in the book about how people behave differently online than they do in real life. The ability to be anonymous has something to do with this, but are there other factors involved?

EN: You can do things online that you would never endeavor to do in real life since you can hide behind a pseudonym. But also so much of our online activity has to do with attracting attention. We see the research showing that people are seeking approval and validation based on how many likes or views their content gets. If they post something and it only gets  a handful of likes, their (sense of) self-worth plummets. That dynamic leads people to say outrageous things as a way of getting attention, or to weigh in on a hot topic of the day. Many times they jump into that trending story and there’s a villain in that story whether they deserve to be a villain or not. Then you end up with an internet pile-on by these cancel vultures. Not only do they not really care about the person who is attacked, but in the next couple of days, they fly off to their next outrage.

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DN: Some people say that cancel culture is simply accountability. How does it differ from justice?

EN: Social media is the great equalizer. For the first time in our lives, a Hollywood A-list celebrity, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and an unemployed guy who lives in his mom’s basement all can use the same communications tools and reach a global audience. And so you have people who have may have never been empowered in their lives, and all of a sudden, they’re able to weigh in on all sorts of topics, to have opinions and feel powerful. And for a lot of people who participate in cancel culture, they tell themselves what they’re doing is OK because it’s in the “greater good of society.” Some truly do feel that they are campaigning for justice, but what they don’t understand is that they’re not allowing due process to play out, and they don’t have the information they need in order to make a rational decision.

DN: Can you talk about how Gen Z entering college in 2013 played into the development of cancel culture? How much blame does this generation bear?

EN: It’s not about assigning blame, but in the book, we’ve identified the perfect storm of elements that came together to create cancel culture. Gen Z going to college marks a pivotal moment related the upbringing that they had. College campuses have become echo chambers and are not driving debate but indoctrinating students, reducing their exposure to multiple viewpoints. Combine that with the 24-7 news cycle, instant access to the internet, ability to access a global community, people seeking attention, that generation wanting to feel empowered and wanting to take an active role in pursuing social justice — you take all these elements and throw them into one big cauldron and it cooks up cancel culture.

DN: You say in the book that former President Donald Trump is the least cancellable person on the planet. But you also say politicians as a group have a way to fend off these attacks in a way that ordinary people don’t. Is there anything ordinary Americans can learn from Donald Trump, or this protected class in general? Is there a playbook we can get from them?

EN: Donald Trump has his own entirely different set of rules that he’s allowed to play by. That’s not a partisan statement — it’s not an endorsement or a condemnation — it’s an observation of fact. Other people who have been subjected to all of the scrutiny that he has, and have been embroiled in even a fraction of the controversy, their professional careers would have been over decades before. But for whatever reason, there’s something so unique about Donald Trump and his irreverence and utter lack of shame that makes him his own creature entirely. It would be a mistake for other people to try to model themselves on Donald Trump. Some have tried and failed.

For the average person (threatened with cancellation), their family and friends are scared to defend them, because they’ll attract the cancel vultures to themselves. With politicians, though, they’ve got a built-in tribe, a network of people who will defend them to the hilt. They have a built-in defense system; it’s very hard to cancel politicians, but I do tell the story of (former Minnesota Sen.) Al Franken, which was a fascinating case study. Al Franken was canceled. But the reason Al Franken had to resign was because his own tribe turned on him. If the Democrats hadn’t canceled Al Franken, he’d probably still be in the Senate today.

DN: Included in the advice you give in the book is “Refuse to be canceled.” How can a person refuse to be canceled? Did Al Franken refuse to be canceled?

EN: In the case of Franken, no. He has been quoted as saying he should have fought it harder. And some of his colleagues have rued the fact that they were so quick to cancel him. Franken went into seclusion when he was canceled. With other people, who refused to be canceled, they find other avenues to be in public view and pursue other opportunities.

Look at Peter Boghossian. He was a professor who got canceled, and now there’s a whole critical mass of people who hold him up as a hero and celebrate him; he has more influence today, more people who pay attention to his philosophy and what he thinks, than if he’d never become a public figure, and he became a public figure when he was canceled. Look at Bari Weiss. At The New York Times, she was a very impressive journalist, but she was one of a whole stable of journalists. Now she has much more control over her career, and she’s involved in so many initiatives and she’s not hamstrung by the constraints that exist in working for The New York Times. She’s gone on to flourish and have an exponentially larger impact on society.

DN: In the book, you say that today’s parents have the power to end cancel culture by what they are teaching their children. Can you elaborate on that?

EN: Not all cyberbullying is cancel culture. But all cancel culture is a form of bullying. If parents speak with their children about cancel culture, they can perhaps help them not be canceled in the future. But I also want them to talk to their children so they can stop them from participating as future cancel vultures. If parents help their kids understand the human impact behind their actions, they can help, and it really does come back to the golden rule, treating others how you would want to be treated.

As parents, we have to teach our kids the difference between accountability and cancellation. Our society has always had mechanisms for dealing with bad behavior. Some of that is in the legal arena; there are also mechanisms built into our workplaces. That’s why we have human resources professionals and most organizations have codes of conduct and processes in place to address things.

Also, and I think our children understand this, every child makes mistakes. Every person makes mistakes. So when we’re teaching our kids, we need to remind them of this. The problem with cancel culture is, no one is ever allowed to make a mistake and your punishment is permanent.

DN: What’s the most interesting thing going on in cancel culture today?

EN: The Bud Light controversy is fascinating. It didn’t start as cancel culture; it started as a boycott. Boycotts have existed forever. Sanctions are boycotts. But what happens with a boycott? You’re trying to effect a policy change using economic means. And when that policy change happens, the boycott ends. But cancel culture isn’t necessarily about a policy change; it’s about vengeance.  Even if you apologize, it doesn’t matter, you’re still canceled, you’re permanently deplatformed.

And in the case of Bud Light, it morphed into cancel culture. It became less about whether Bud Light believed one thing, and it became, ‘let’s rally together and drive a stake into their heart and use it as a way to put other companies on notice that if you cross us, we’re coming for you next.’ It was meant to have a chilling effect. There’s a rallying cry on the right now: Go woke, go broke. But there are people on the left who say cancel culture doesn’t exist; it’s a figment of our imagination. But all you have to do is read the first chapter of the book, about Lisa Alexander (a San Francisco woman who confronted a man stenciling ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the front of his house), to know that it is very real and very dangerous.

DN: I’d like to give you a few names and you tell me if their cases were cancel culture, as alleged. Let’s start with J.K. Rowling. Has she been canceled?

EN: They tried, but they failed.

DN: Scott Adams, the “Dilbert” creator?

EN: He was canceled, yes.

DN: Joe Rogan?

EN: Absolutely not, they’ve tried to cancel Joe Rogan, and they can’t. He’s too big to cancel, and he refuses to be canceled. And he’s done a really good job, when he was forced to apologize, he gave an apology from a position of strength, but he’s still at the top of his game. Not canceled.

DN: Will Smith?

EN: He suffered consequences of his actions (slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars), but he committed assault on live, international TV. That is not cancel culture. He committed a crime against a person, and I don’t think it was a disproportionate response.

DN: Ye, or Kanye West?

EN: He canceled himself. It was a self-immolation, Kanye West.

DN: Any parting words?

EN: I was not afraid to write this book; I didn’t think that I would be canceled for it. But I have been surprised about misperceptions that have been circulating about me. There have been numerous media outlets that have declined to talk about my book or have me on because they falsely presume I’m a hard-right political figure. I’m an independent. I’ve supported Democrats; I’ve voted for Republicans. I’m the perfect example of a swing voter. I’m not a devotee to any political party.

But just the title of the book — describing cancel culture as a curse — has led people to prejudge me and make false assumptions about me. I find that surprising, and disappointing. This underscores how important it is to get this book and its messages out in the world.