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1 Nov, 2019 14:02

Fight against cancel culture: How journalist fought against the Escapist website and won

Fight against cancel culture: How journalist fought against the Escapist website and won

Canadian writer Robert B. Marks tells the story of how he fought against the Escapist pop culture website and escaped the online lynch mob defaming him and his colleagues.

I knew my victory was too late when I learned that Alec Holowka, one of the developers behind the video game Night in the Woods, had died only a couple of days earlier following a massive public shaming which involved his co-developers making a public statement announcing they were cutting ties with him.

I spent a year in litigation hell after pop culture website the Escapist, which I had been a regular contributor to, was bought by Enthusiast Gaming Inc., and their new editor began his tenure by declaring that prior to the purchase it had been an extremist magazine and a recruiting tool for the alt-right.

None of that was true, but it didn’t matter after the allegations were made, most of my writing career vanished overnight. But, I had been lucky. Both the parent company and I were in Canada, a country whose libel laws were not permissive enough to let such a thing stand, and I had received a year of mentoring from a lawyer.

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So, even though I couldn’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars it would take to hire a lawyer and launch a libel suit, I was able to bring it into the courtroom anyway.

Fighting them took a full year, in which Enthusiast Gaming Inc. was unable to produce a single article from the Escapist archives that featured racism, antisemitism, sexism, misogyny, or that articulated a single extremist position of any sort. The stress from it all destroyed my health and impoverished my family. But, at the pre-trial conference, Enthusiast settled, and I was vindicated.

Rebuilding my career could begin, and I had hoped my victory would have a chilling effect on the discourse, preventing anybody else from going through the hell my family and I had experienced.

As bad as it was, it could have been worse.  The man who made the comments was part of the left-wing Twittersphere, known for its online lynch mobs and rising use of the call-out/cancel culture. If I hadn’t fought those who had defamed me (and my fellow Escapist contributors) in a court of law, it is very likely I would have had an online lynch mob at my door, doing everything they could to destroy what little remained of my career and life. Or, put another way, I had been protected by exercising my right to due process.

This is how it is supposed to work. Freedom of speech and due process are rights that have, in the past, acted in lockstep to protect and reinforce one another. If one were denied their due process, freedom of speech allowed them to bring attention to the fact that they had been wronged. If a person faced a false accusation, no matter how public, they could rely on due process to clear their name and seek recompense. Together, freedom of speech and due process are the first, and possibly best, lines of defense against tyrants, no matter who they may be.

Today, a new tyrant seeks to destroy due process, a tyrant that comes out of the right of free speech that has served as a defense of it, the call-out/cancel culture.

It has made the news so often that one has to scramble to keep up with new examples of lives being destroyed and online lynch mobs being roused. There was the suicide of adult film actor August Aimes in December 2017, the suicide of Night in the Woods developer Alec Holowka at the beginning of September 2019, and the recent online lynch mob that formed against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for photos taken almost twenty years ago.

It is a tyrant that does not care about the severity of the offense, how long ago it was, how many people would be hurt, or even whether its target is still alive – the online lynch mob gathered in March 2019 to crucify actor John Wayne for insensitive interview remarks, decades after his death. All are treated with the same march to the gallows.

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What makes call-out culture so difficult to deal with lies in the fact that using freedom of speech to call out someone who has wronged you is a necessary tool to prevent injustice.

In theory, every single person has the right to due process, access to law enforcement when a crime has been committed against them, and to seek redress in a court of law if they have been wronged. In practice, this access can be spotty at best.

Victims of sexual assaults have often found that it is difficult to bring what happened to them to the police, and all too often have seen their assault either handled as a low priority investigation or not taken seriously at all. Victims of systemic discrimination (such as people of colour in the United States) often find basic access to justice to be an uphill struggle. In non-criminal matters, many people do not have the money or resources to take a dispute into a court of law.

When one has been wronged by a large corporation, this becomes even more difficult.  Even if one has the resources to bring a legal action against it, the corporation’s war chest is large enough to wage a devastating war of attrition. Sometimes the only way to make a corporation mend its ways is through public pressure, making it clear that if they don’t implement change, there will be a large impact to their bottom line.

Call-out/cancel culture uses these anti-corporate tactics against individuals to devastating effect, creating a digital reign of terror by a swarm of petty tyrants. Say the wrong thing and your life is destroyed by the online lynch mob. There may be a legitimate complaint behind the call-out. In the case of Alec Holowka, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that he may be guilty of the accusation, but there is no justice in the result.  No due process, or appeal. Just a lynch mob stringing somebody up.

However, an understanding of why both must function together also offers a solution. If the free speech being exercised is being used for unjust persecution, the corrective can be found in due process. And, indeed, there are two measures that would defang the online lynch mobs:

1. Reform the libel laws in the US. At this point in time, it is very difficult to press a libel claim in American law, and this empowers the online lynch mob. Once somebody can bring the members of call-out culture who are attempting to destroy their lives before a judge, it will be far less seductive to pick up a digital pitchfork and join in.

2. Reform the courts to make it easier for people to self-represent in cases where an online mob has destroyed their lives and their victims cannot afford lawyers. The biggest problem is access to due process, once it is there, those who need it will use it.

Robert B. Marks is a Canadian writer, editor, and pop culture commentator.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.