When lecturing his students, Epictetus would place things in two categories: that which we can control and that which we cannot control. He put the things others think of us in the category of things we cannot control. Cancel culture is nothing new. In the ancient world, Emperors would frequently exile (or worse) those who they disagreed with. Seneca was exiled only to be recalled… and then executed. The people of Athens canceled Socrates after they thought his philosophy would corrupt the youth. Cato The Younger faced persecution as he opposed the rise of Julius Caesar.
If you’ve read Ryan Holiday’s Lives of the Stoics, you’ve likely noticed more of them faced some sort of persecution or censorship than those who didn’t. Of course, many would argue that the “cancellations” happening now are not the capricious dictates of a tyrant, but an attempt at democratic accountability. We can certainly say something for society wanting to relegate the sins of yesterday and move toward a better world. However, anything in excess can become dangerous. We shouldn’t carry ourselves away in the heat of the moment. We of course should strive for a more virtuous society where we can all live better together.
The lesson the Stoics, and many other great people throughout history have taught us is that we shouldn’t put our aim on pleasing the crowd. We should set our sights on doing what is right. We’ll surely occasionally fail in that aim, we are only human after all. However, that doesn’t mean that we should stop aiming at that. It also means that flawed as we are, ignorant and limited as we may be, we are obligated to try to move the world around us towards the good, as best as we can understand it. That means that we might have to risk getting canceled if the good falls out of favor with the majority. But that’s a risk that many of history’s greatest people have, and we should be, happy to live with.