Natasha Tynes, Kathleen Hale, and the Internet's Cancel Culture
A few days ago I was clicking around on Goodreads when I came upon a list of anticipated literary fiction for 2019. Whereas virtually every book had a rating between 3 and 4.5 stars, Natasha Tynes' novel They Called Me Wyatt jumped out at me for it's particularly abysmal score of 1.6 stars (with well over two thousand ratings). An internet search and a few clicks led me to the source of the low scores, which was that Tynes' novel was being blasted by people on the internet (who, of course, hadn't read the novel) on account of a tweet Tynes had sent out back in May of this year.
You can read the detailed article about the ordeal here, but the quick version is that Tynes tweeted out a picture of a DC Metro worker (who was a black woman) eating on the metro, despite there being an apparent ban on such behavior for the general public. Based on Tynes' tweet, it seemed as if the author was hoping the metro employee would be disciplined for her supposed transgression.
As it turned out, the internet did not respond in the way Tynes probably imagined.
Instead, Tynes faced substantial backlash, accusations of being racist, anti-black, and a terrible person, as well as death threats. Rare Bird books, Tynes' distributor, canceled the author's book deal and distributed her forthcoming book as minimally as possible.
Tynes responded with a $13 million lawsuit after reportedly being admitted to the hospital for panic attacks and having to flee the country due to threats on her family.
I don't know if Tynes's tweet was racially motivated. Tynes claims it wasn't, the internet claimed otherwise. But if we give her the benefit of the doubt (something she certainly didn't give the DC Metro worker), Tynes's tweet still wasn't okay. It showed an incredible lack of empathy; make no mistake, her intent was to have the metro worker disciplined (and maybe even fired) for having a quick bite to eat. Tynes was being a jerk.
Yet I also still can't help but feel sorry for her. She made a mistake. She was an asshole. But was the response proportionate for her temporary asshole-ness? Did the punishment fit the crime? Was the act, as Rare Bird Books stated "something truly horrible?" I'd argue no.
Much of the backlash reminds me of some of the issues discussed in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind, which talks about how in recent years many on the left (which, by the way, is where the authors themselves sit politically) have begun to conflate offensive speech with physical violence. Just look at the word choice in Rare Bird's statement. They mention the "policing of bodies" and "jeopardizing a person's safety," when, in fact, it's quite a stretch to say that Tynes was doing either.
Being an asshole isn't good. But it also isn't the same as violence--and should be forgivable if an isolated incident.
It probably won't surprise you that Tynes' ordeal is not the first time authors' books have been (metaphorically or otherwise) "cancelled" for the author's bad behavior. Earlier in the year, I stumbled across the case of Kathleen Hale, who'd admitted in a piece penned for the Guardian back in 2014 to going to the house of a reviewer after receiving a scathing review on Goodreads from said reviewer for her novel, No One Else Can Have You.
Following Hale's admission, she received plenty of one star reviews on Goodreads for both No One Else Can Have You, as well as its followup Nothing Bad is Going to Happen. When earlier this year it was announced that the Guardian piece was to be collected with five other essays into the collection, Kathleen Hale is a Crazy Stalker, the internet fury against her picked up steam again. People labelled her a "criminal," used words like "trauma" to describe the impact she had on the reviewer, and claimed to worry about their physical safety in light of Hale's behavior.
As with the case of Tynes, I certainly am not condoning Hale's behavior. Regardless of how much work you put into your book and how much a bad review can sting (even if said bad reviewer is written by an internet troll who uses a fake identity), it is an incredibly immature thing to do to seek out one's critics in the real world. Still, were Hale's actions such that they should necessarily ruin her career? Were her acts so egregious and unbelievable that they should define her life forever thereafter? Again, I think any reasonable--or reasonably empathetic--person would have to say no.
Fiction is unique in that it allows us to inhabit the consciousness of others in a way unlike any other narrative medium. When we watch film we see the actions and expressions of characters, but when we read books we can get inside other people's minds. For this reason, it's believed that reading fiction can increase our empathy by giving us practice at mentally walking a mile in someone else's shoes. What I think both the cases of Tynes and Hale illustrate is that the internet (and the cancel culture it's spawned) sort of does the opposite. By distancing us from the fellow humanity of others through reducing people to a picture, a name, or a social media profile, we see--not a hardworking mother who is trying to find time for breakfast or a mostly good person who was temporarily insensitive or someone hurt by criticism of her hard work--but instead a hypocritical rule breaker and an irredeemable racist and a stalker.
I have little hope that internet culture is likely to reform anytime soon, but I do hold out some hope that all the parties involved in these two particularly ugly situations will learn from them and see better days ahead.