Myra Wattendorfer was employed for almost 20 years by the International Humane Society. She rose through the ranks, first as an administrative secretary, and eventually became its official media liaison.
A lover of animals—owner of two dogs and one Siamese Cat—Myra was deeply committed to the cause of respecting and protecting the creatures of our earth. She was the person who would stop her car in the middle of a busy road, get out, and carefully usher a wandering dog to a safer place. Kindness and love were her nature.
In addition to her service with the Humane Society, she was a generous donor to several animal-protection charities. And she went beyond her organization's responsibilities, taking on local projects for the welfare of animals.
Then it happened. A video surfaced on the internet—posted by a catty old girlfriend—wherein Myra swatted her dog with a newspaper for tearing up the leather chair in her living room. This little morsel was spread by a number of her "enemies," and was repeatedly re-posted on social media. The outcry of "animal cruelty" made it to the director of the Humane Society, and Myra was immediately fired.
She was a single mom and was financially responsible for two school-aged children. But when she went out job hunting, the infamy of her alleged bad behavior followed her. As a high-level charity spokeswoman, her future was clearly impacted, and she ended up settling for a relatively low-paying job at a local discount store.
Faced with mounting expenses—braces and college educations—Myra was forced to sell the home and move the family into a small apartment. She finally had to file for bankruptcy.
I wrote the preceding story to illustrate a point: It is pure fiction, and yet it accurately reflects the reality of what is happening in our country. What started out as a useful, valid tool of constructive social criticism has gone beyond the ridiculous.
Sadly, such abominations are popping up regularly in today's America—not typically to Walmart greeters or checkers at the local supermarket, but to people who are unlucky enough to have responsible jobs and a high public profile. Like the metal knock-'em-over bottles in a state fair arcade, they're bound to eventually get dumped by a lucky baseball, all because of some trifle dredged up from the past by anxious detractors. Anyone is game, and the tragedy is that once accusations hit social media, there is no way to erase the damage.
We face the threat of COVID, we live with it every day. But the so-called "cancel culture" is also very much a pandemic of our time.
Sadly, the growing damage of the cancel culture is far-flung from its beginnings. It seems to me that it all started with the #MeToo movement, something that, in itself, was off on the right foot. Sexual predation, crimes against children, and the sick entitlement of celebrities to do whatever they damned-well pleased, were valid battlefronts, and there was real good that came from the calling-out and exposure of some of society's monsters. People like Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and Bill Cosby were forced to confront their evils, and that was totally fair.
But then the whole thing went awry, and stories like "Myra's" became more common. I don't know how many good people have lost their livelihoods because of some innocent or thoughtless act or attitude of yesteryear, but the zeal to expose, humiliate, and ruin these people has turned into a witch hunt. Americans—and now the world—are exacting the pound of flesh, and it is not a pretty sight.
The reality is that most of the prominent cancelations are based on the errors and insensitivities of adolescence or young adulthood. I don't know about you, but I would hate to have the worth of my life—or of my employment—determined by what I did when I was young. I have more than my share of things that would embarrass me, actions I would never consider repeating after a lifetime of self-review and change.
On the other hand, those who fail to grow from experience and lack the introspection necessary for the development of a conscience should have to own the error of their ways. Hypocrisy and duplicity should have a cost.
But the practice of guillotining people for youthful behavior is wrong. So is the apparent need for society to go over lives—and even corporate presences—searching, with a fine-toothed comb, for some act or word that would have better been left undone and unspoken.
Americans have gone out of their way to find fault and have not learned the simple lesson: that those who live in glass houses shouldn't be throwing stones. There's not a person alive who didn't make mistakes when they were younger. It's not our job to punish them now.
It may be a good time to review the wise words of Thumper's mother in the epic Disney film, Bambi. While there are legitimate times to call out the guilty for reprehensible behavior, the general rule should still stand: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say nothin' at all."
The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist, and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.