THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
A cornerstone of Eric Dezenhall’s philosophy is his wish that modern society would cancel cancel culture.
Professionally, however, that would be bad for business as Mr. Dezenhall is a cancel culture consultant. And for now — even as the left dispels the cancel culture phenomenon as a myth — business is booming.
“I look at this clinically, not ideologically. I look at it as a surgeon would,” he said. “We deal with cancellations based on #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, environmental issues, so it’s been quite a minefield the past few years.”
Ruin and ostracism have been part of human society for centuries, as have the jail time and stigma that go with convictions for actual crimes. But the current atmosphere, in which people live in fear a stray remark or long-ago post on Facebook could crash their world, is relatively new and growing.
“There’s always been, historically, that fine line between holding people to account and cancel culture, but it’s never been anything like this, where it is Alice In Wonderland’s ‘sentence first, verdict after,”’ Mr. Dezenhall said. “Cancel culture in the mid-20th century was a right-wing thing with communism. Now it’s a very left-of-center thing. Earlier in my career — nearly 40 years — there was some degree of deliberations. Today, allegation equals cancellation, immediately.”
A starting point for the frenzy is hard to pinpoint.
Mr. Dezenhall said recent events such as Michael Brown’s shooting by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s fall from fame to felon have been “accelerants,” as has the explosion of social media.
In many of the high-profile cases, however, there was some genuine guilt involved. Mr. Weinstein is behind bars after his conviction on rape charges.
“The problem with tackling this issue is you do have an anchor with legitimate grievances: There is racism, there is sexual abuse,” Mr. Dezenhall said. “One of the things to keep in mind is you can be a horrible person and have your character assassinated. Harvey Weinstein, in my opinion, deserved it.
“But now the very suggestion that there is a difference between Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken is met with outrage. And now it’s as if you’re going to cancel Weinstein then you have to cancel Franken and Louis CK and the others. Escalation leads to more escalation.”
Understandably, the most high-profile examples of cancel culture involve famous people or, in the case of falsely accused lacrosse players at Duke University, people with the means to defend themselves.
Put another way, people who can afford Mr. Dezenhall.
“The Duke lacrosse case, you don’t get a guy like me without means,” he acknowledged. “I have done things pro bono, but for the most part you would have no way of knowing I exist if your father wasn’t a client of a blue-chip law firm.”
Hiring Mr. Dezenhall is no guarantee the show won’t go on.
“What people in my business would love you to believe is, ‘oh, you hire me, you just watch me work my magic.’ The reality is the best we can often do is turn a mountain of horse manure into a mere pile of horse manure,” he said. “You can’t erase the internet.”
Nor does relative obscurity offer immunity.
Anyone who fancies themselves immune from cancel culture hysteria need only ask Nick Sandmann, a Kentucky high school student who attended a Washington rally and was confronted by a American Indian activist banging a drum in his face. Mr. Sandmann was smeared as a privileged racist by a social media mob and many high-profile media figures.
More recently, a high school girl lost a cherished scholarship at the University of Tennessee when a vindictive acquaintance posted a year-old, seconds-long video of her trying to be cool and using the n-word like rap or hip-hop artists. And those were horrific developments for private, everyday Americans who made the news. Mr. Dezenhall says people are also enduring some form of private cancel culture.
“I’m seeing cases where somebody doesn’t want somebody else’s kid to get into a prep school and sends a private letter saying, you know, Johnny Smith is a Proud Boy and attends race rallies,” he said. “You would never know about that. But it’s working.”
So what can be done to end this part of his work at Dezenhall Associates, which he opened in 1987 after a brief stint as an aide in the Reagan administration?
One hopeful sign, he says, is widespread foreboding among baby boomers.
Mr. Dezenhall, 58, is also an author and he participates in Zoom conferences with other writers where he’s often “the baby in the group.”
“These are people who came of age in the ‘60s, and they’re wondering, is somebody going to come back from their past, 50 years later, with a sexual or drug allegation?” he said. “What I’m starting to see is people on the left saying, ‘This is a problem.’ So it’s a mistake to say the left as a whole is happy about this. I think initially there was that, but I’m hearing from very, very liberal authors and reporters, ‘When is this going to end?’”
There is some unintended irony in that, as Mr. Dezenhall said accusations of right-wing conspiracies have been one of the most widely circulated coins in cancel culture.
“The strategy is to declare any conservative far-right,” he said. “Because even people who are center-right don’t want to be seen as a Proud Boy. But if you say, yes, that’s what that is, you can get somebody canceled. And you never say, ‘left-wing’ because that’s mean.”
Cancel culture can be dodged by quitting, Mr. Dezenhall said, citing several friends who quit teaching out of fear.
“On the weak side of the spectrum is defensive medicine, avoiding certain situations,” he said. “I know people who have stopped teaching because a kid didn’t get a grade they like and the next thing they know there’s a sexual harassment or racial allegation.”
Defamation law is also making something of a comeback, Mr. Dezenhall said, moving from “crazy talk” among lawyers and clients to something that has to be deployed to fight back.
But for now, Mr. Dezenhall’s phone keeps ringing. Cancel culture will be extinguished at a huge cost only when its own Robespierre arrives and the pyramid of victims grows too large, he said.
“It really gets back to the Reign of Terror: Once people begin to see that everybody is being killed by this, then it becomes an issue of personal risk,” he said. “Until there is a mass sense of personal risk, nothing will change.”