Amanda Knox on the Harms of Public Shaming
I know what cancellation feels like. It’s rarely an appropriate response.
The long-simmering debates about cancel culture are flaring up once again as posters of kidnapped Israeli children are ripped down on street corners, and as students march with Palestinian flags, chanting “From the river to the sea!” while their Jewish peers cower behind locked doors. Do such actions merit cancellation? When does free speech cross over into hate speech? Should a person be stained for life by signing a statement that minimizes the atrocities of Oct 7th? I know a thing or two about such questions; I was canceled before it was cool.
Back in 2007, while studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, I was arrested and charged with a crime I didn’t commit: the murder of one of my roommates, Meredith Kercher. Overnight, I went from an unknown 20-year-old college student to one of the most hated women on the planet, vilified internationally in the press and on social media. Despite being acquitted by an Italian court in 2015, I received a life-sentence in the court of public opinion. To some, I was a killer and a slut; to others, I was “the girl accused of murder.” Villain or victim, they are both oppressive labels.
By now, we all know what cancellation looks like. It’s public exile. It’s the reduction of your complexity as a human being to a deplorable act, whether based in reality or not. Have I survived? Yes. Thrived even. Not for a lack of trying on the part of those who would see me universally condemned. I still receive death threats. The birth of my daughter a couple of years ago brought out such comments as, “I hope she’s murdered so you know what it’s like.” Such voices have made it very clear that I should hide under a rock and never participate in polite society again. Surviving is not proof against cancellation.
A key problem with cancel culture is that there are no safeguards for the accused. The mob does not guarantee a right to face your accuser, nor the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. If you haven’t heard in depth from a person who’s experienced cancellation, I highly recommend that you do so. On my podcast, I recently talked with John Roderick, aka “Bean Dad.” You may recall the brief saga that unfolded in January 2021, when John became the main character of Twitter after he posted a satirical thread about his daughter struggling to open a can of beans, and it went viral. In the midst of the uproar about his perceived parenting abuses, someone dropped a bomb of screenshots of John’s old tweets that ran the gamut of offensive language, from antisemitic to misogynist. They were crude jokes mostly, playing into John’s crusty old Gen-Xer persona, meant to be edgy and funny to a certain audience. Of course, they were spread far and wide to an audience who decidedly did not find them funny.
I’m not defending any of his tweets here, and neither did John back then. He released a sincere apology. But the cancellation was already underway. He told me that Child Protective Services showed up on his doorstep to interview his daughter. They saw how ludicrous the accusations were after spending a short while at his house, but even the momentary threat of losing stewardship of his child was traumatic, and it didn’t end there. Overnight, his career as a musician, podcaster, and comedian collapsed. It remains in a deep recession several years later.
But even worse for John was the personal cost, the lost friendships, the people who abandoned him when the mob came knocking at their doors—How could you be friends with this asshole?! (Another problem with cancel culture: guilt by association). John’s apology didn’t seem to matter at all. And that’s a shame. Because without a path to forgiveness, there’s no incentive for anyone to ever consider, much less admit, that they may have been wrong.
Which brings me to the current moment. The things John was accused of pale in comparison to the current wave of actions on college campuses. Students are ripping down posters of kidnapped Israeli children. Others have signed pro-Hamas statements. These students are facing recriminations: some are being filmed, while others have had their names collected and publicly displayed in the hopes that they might never be employed again.
Voices on the progressive left have decried this reaction as an example of unacceptable cancellation. There’s hypocrisy here, because the very voices who downplayed the seriousness of cancellation are concerned only now that members of their ideological tribe are facing the consequences. There’s also a troubling semantic creep happening with words like “dox,” which used to refer to the outing of private information, like addresses or correspondence, but is now being used to refer to the filming of public actions, like ripping down a poster in a public place, or the so-called “doxxing truck” that has been driving around Ivy League universities displaying the names and photographs of students who signed public statements that conflate Palestinian liberation with support for Hamas. While there’s a case to be made that this is harassment, it is certainly not doxxing.
The more important questions, however, are these: What is the appropriate consequence for a deplorable act? Do we actually turn down the heat on this ideological conflict through such aggressive publicity, or do we merely contribute to the strife? Surely something must be done about these students chanting, “from the river to the sea,” but is the “doxxing truck” really the solution?
My answer to these questions is simple. I see a lot of people around me losing friends over the ideological conflict surrounding Israel and Palestine. How could I see this person in the same way again knowing they support (fill in the blank)? It’s a legitimate question, and if your only tools are judgment and condemnation, it seems like there’s only one answer. But we have other options beyond judgment.
What the students who are caught up in the conflict are doing may or may not haunt them in the future. It’s our job to decide whether we give them room and time to mature, or condemn them for their actions in perpetuity. If you’re someone who detests the poster ripping, it’s easy to slip into statements like, “If you are tearing down posters showing kidnapped children, you are one of the bad guys.” But the precision of our language matters, and there is an important difference between condemning an act and condemning the person who commits it. When we think in terms of “bad guys” and “good guys,” we only reinforce our tribal divisions.
As much as I personally find the ripping down of posters of kidnapped children morally revolting, I know that people grow and change, and I’m hesitant to write off a person who does such a thing as a “bad guy,” just as I am hesitant to write off people who commit crimes, even violent crimes like assault, as criminals incapable of moral growth. As Bryan Stevenson so eloquently put it in reference to his work defending men on death row: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
I don’t think the solution is to let offensive acts go unnoticed or unrecorded. If you’re willing to take a public action, like putting up a poster or ripping one down, you should put your name behind it. Documenting such acts is an important way to take the pulse of the current moment.
But neither do I think that the solution is the “doxxing truck.” We need to be more reserved in our judgments of what we see, more aware that all humans are complex and not reducible to the five-second clip that pops up in our daily doomscrolling. We should also be on guard against schadenfreude. We should resist the impulse to delight in righteous comeuppance. Sometimes the pile-on targets a person who is completely innocent. Other times, the magnitude of the public shaming and cancellation far outweighs the offense. In this way, wanting to cancel the poster rippers or statement signers, to make them forever unemployable, is the same mistake as the poster ripping itself: the discouragement and silencing of dialogue instead of the embrace of it.
Should the free speech rights of citizens to criticize Israeli policy and support Palestinian self-determination be protected? Yes. Should steps be taken to curb acts of antisemitism and ensure that Jewish citizens feel safe on campuses and on our streets? Absolutely. In this respect, “Gas the Jews!”, as they were chanting outside the Sydney Opera House just days after the October 7th massacre, surely crosses the line into hate speech.
But in other cases, the answer to speech you disagree with is more speech. And the path toward civility is paved with curiosity and compassion and forgiveness—especially for those doing and saying things that offend you to your core.
Amanda Knox co-hosts the podcast Labyrinths and is the author of the book Waiting to Be Heard.
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