The Ugly Face of Cancel Culture

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What would lead a pro-immigration, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights liberal woman, who participates in anti-racism marches and demonstrations, to wear blackface at a 2018 Halloween party in Washington, D.C.? What would lead a Puerto Rican attendee of that party to declare that she felt personally “harassed” because after she had approached and reprimanded the woman for her inappropriate, insulting costume, the woman had laughed uncomfortably? What would lead the Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist who hosted the party to lie about knowing the offending attendee when later asked? And what would lead a black female party attendee to refuse to accept an apology from the offending party? Why, the extremes and absurdities of racialist dogmatism, of course!

The whole story, according to a June 17 article in The Washington Post, unfolded two years ago when Tom Toles, the aforementioned cartoonist, hosted his annual Halloween party, attended by “journalists and political types from Washington’s power elite, but also artists and musicians.” One person, a “middle-aged white woman named Sue Schafer,” her face covered in black makeup, arrived dressed as former Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly, who that same week on NBC had defended the historical use of blackface by white people. Schafer intended to mock Kelly, a joke she hoped would appeal to the overwhelmingly liberal partygoers.

Two young women in attendance, Lexie Gruber, a management consultant of Puerto Rican descent, and Lyric Prince, a black “science writer, art critic and artist,” did not appreciate Schafer’s misguided attempt at humor. They approached Schafer, told her she looked horrible, and said that her makeup was “very ugly.” Schafer claimed she began to laugh nervously. Gruber and Prince perceived her laughter as mockery. “People have been murdered,” Prince pressed. “They lynched people back in the day. There’s a painful history, and you should have some respect for that.” Several witnesses described Prince as “yelling.” The two offended women “left the party immediately after the confrontation.” Gruber claimed she burst into tears.

There it lay for two years, until a few weeks ago, when Gruber emailed Toles to express her resentment and frustration about that night. Toles apologized, but at first denied knowing the woman, even though Schafer had previously attended his parties and was a family friend. In an interview with the Post, Toles claimed he had confronted Schafer both at the party and later, calling it an “ill-considered attempt at satire.” Then, later in the interview, Toles backpedaled, admitting that perhaps he didn’t confront her that Hallow’s Eve.

 

The day after the party, Schafer called the Toles family and apologized for her choice of costume. When interviewed by the Post, she stated her desire to personally express her remorse to Gruber. In a June 2020 email exchange, Toles first refused to give Gruber Schafer’s name, a decision which Gruber labeled a “deliberate act of white privilege and cowardice, not friendship.” Toles responded by offering to connect the two women and give Schafer “a chance to explain and apologize to you herself.” Gruber refused, expressing skepticism that Schafer had “genuine” remorse, and said that Schafer had “publicly harassed” her and Prince, presumably referring to her awkward laughter when confronted at the party.

Both Schafer and Prince had admitted that they had sought therapy following that evening’s events, the former to discuss the shame from her behavior, the latter to discuss the humiliation of the experience, as well as feelings of being “threatened and physically and emotionally exposed.” Schafer, knowing The Washington Post would soon be publishing the article on the Halloween incident, informed her employer, a government contractor, about what happened. She was summarily fired—presumably her former employer wanted to avoid any bad press.

This, to put it bluntly, is quite the bizarre story. All of the persons involved are of the same political persuasion. They all adhere to the same sub-cultural tenets of progressivism and wokeness. They swim in the same circles. And yet some are outraged. The recipients of that outrage trip over themselves with falsehoods and declarations of their own victim status (Schafer, who is of Jewish descent, told the Post that her grandmother was a “child slave”). And the employers, both the cartoonist’s (WaPo) and Schafer’s (an unnamed government contractor), are eager to distance themselves from the actions of those under their authority.

Ours is increasingly a culture of excessive performative acts of self-righteousness and antagonistic condemnation : in short, virtue-signalling. All three parties—Schafer, Gruber, and Prince—are guilty of it. Schafer, in an ill-conceived desire to express her mockery of Megyn Kelly, donned blackface precisely in order to signal her own woke ideological commitments, as if to say: “Look at me. I’m Megyn Kelly. She’s so terrible, don’t you agree?” Gruber and Prince, or anyone else at that party, could have approached Schafer, spoken to her privately, and explained the foolishness and offensiveness of her costume. Nobody did. Instead, Gruber and Prince chose the explosive fireworks of public censure. Then they told The Washington Post. Surely, they knew what that would mean for Schafer, both socially and professionally.

Consider the options available to the Post’s editorial staff. If they had tried to ignore the story, Gruber and Prince would have gone to other media outlets, and the optics on that would have been pretty terrible. Or they could have tried to tackle the story themselves, throw their popular political cartoonist under the bus, and burnish their woke credentials. They chose the latter, publishing an almost 3,000-word exposé in an attempt to absolve themselves of charges of employing and sanctioning someone who welcomed a racist costume-wearer into his home.

Popular American culture has embraced a skewed sense of morality and justice, where even well-meaning liberal fellow-travelers can be canceled if they fail to follow the shifting sands of woke sensibilities. In this paradigm, there is little room for repentance and forgiveness. Schafer may regret what she did. She may even be willing to apologize. It’s simply not good enough. Cancel her, shame her, and make her lose her source of income. That will teach her a lesson, one that all Americans will take note of—sit down and shut up, lest you be accused of bigotry.

What these incidents actually cause, contra claims of furthering truth and justice, is to further fray the already weakened chords of trust among our citizens, by pitting Americans against one another as they try to outperform  each other in their woke sensibilities. We become terrified of causing offense and being the next subjects of the cancel culture. Every social interaction becomes a potential ideological skirmish and the public square becomes a vicious battleground where one’s very livelihood is potentially on the line. This is the absurdity of our contemporary racialist political dogmatism—in its radical demands for justice, the result is injustice.

Casey Chalk

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Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at Crisis. He holds a Masters in Theology from Christendom College.

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