A good celebrity is hard to find

The black-and-white nature of cancel culture is not conducive to real accountability and change


Courtesy of IMDb

Andrew Callaghan’s latest special has come under fire because of sexual assault allegations surrounding the star.

Adam Coil, Life Editor

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, new information has come to light about the topics mentioned within it. Old Gold & Black policy dictates that we do not revise articles except for factual or mechanical error. In light of this, this article has been updated with a note from its author addressing new developments.

When I first wrote this article in early February, I had a much different understanding of the Callaghan situation than I do now. When I described his actions as “morally reprehensible” and a “widespread, serious issue,” I did not know about the two rape allegations recently reported by The Stranger, nor was I fully aware of the extent of his sex-pest behavior. While I have always believed his accusers, I did not go far enough in condemning his actions due to an ignorance of the events. Looking back on the article, I worry that it can be misconstrued as a defense of Callaghan, although this certainly was never the intention. I was not trying to argue that Callaghan should not be “canceled” because his actions weren’t deserving of cancellation, but because I am not sure that cancellation is as effective as people have made it out to be. I worry that canceling celebrities does little in the way of making them better themselves or working toward resolving the wrongs they have committed. I have little in the way of answers when it comes to these complex issues, I was merely attempting to encourage people to think about the effectiveness of cancel culture. 

To clarify my previous writing, what Callaghan did was vile and cruel, and I should have made that more explicit at first. I regret attempting to create a distinction between Callaghan and other notable rapists of the past, because even if there is a difference, it is likely trivial.

The article, as published on Feb. 16, 2023, is below:

I watched Andrew Callaghan’s HBO special “This Place Rules” more out of excitement to see Callaghan’s work on the big screen than any curiosity regarding the events of Jan. 6, 2021. If you are one of the millions of people who have watched his videos on his YouTube channel “All Gas, No Breaks” or his latest project, “Channel 5,” then you know that Callaghan is a revelation in American journalism. Callaghan’s low-budget, minimal-editing style compliments his ability to infiltrate spaces and conduct interviews without the weight or tension that a typical news broadcast carries. His meteoric rise to fame is symptomatic of the mainstream media’s total failure to give anything genuine to the American public, but lately, his own integrity has been called into question.

On the surface, Callaghan’s work is a hilariously entertaining exposé of some of the strangest niches in the United States today. He visits places like flat-earth conferences and the Talladega Superspeedway, and the people featured are often conservative or libertarian-leaning, extremely wild and flamboyantly outspoken. It’s funny stuff. But the real power underlying Callaghan’s recent content is the crucial reminder that the people that our echo chambers teach us to hate, pity or avoid altogether are often filled with the same good intentions that we are, however misinformed or misguided they might appear to be. 

It is a beautiful, radical attempt at empathy, and it seems to me like the only viable path toward an America that feels less divisive. Before we can begin to take one another’s ideas seriously again, we must first (re)learn to take each other seriously. If you dodge the sort of metaphysical/hyperreality questions that arise within all works of a documentary, Callaghan gives you a practically unfiltered glimpse into the lives of people you would never otherwise know, and the result is oftentimes surprisingly endearing.

I have to admit that when I heard about the sexual assault allegations against Callaghan, I felt pierced in a unique way. Normally, whenever I hear about someone getting canceled, the person is someone that I already don’t believe in. Either I’m not surprised, or I don’t care because they’re not my problem, anyway. 

Our generation has been thoroughly trained on how to deal with these cancellations. We talk about them all the time because celebrity culture has a knack for making us feel less alone and more important than we really are. When we find out that J.K. Rowling isn’t too keen on trans folks or Mark Wahlberg is sort of unfriendly toward Black people, we know exactly how to pause for a moment and regain our composure before laughing at their expense on the Internet. The only material change witnessed is that we may not log “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” on our Goodreads whenever we finish it.

But I think that the Callaghan situation could be different — at least in the left-leaning social circles that drive our national conversations surrounding consent, sexual abuse and coercion. Callaghan’s case lacks the simplicity that most “Me Too” scenarios have going for them. Callaghan is not a filthy rich executive or a bigot — he’s not even all that famous or powerful. He’s not only someone that people have been rooting for, but he’s also a figure that has personally resonated with fans. Furthermore, his actions don’t come across as vile and cruel in the same way that high-profile rape cases have. He is accused of being a “sex pest” — of coercing women and breaking them down until they finally “give” him “consent” — and multiple women have reported him as being creepy, with some accounts of him following and stalking women who were trying to evade him. While his actions are still morally reprehensible, it’s much easier to find the humanity in someone like Callaghan than in someone like Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein. 

Herein lies the true test of the “believe all women” mantra that we’ve grown accustomed to hearing, because these nuanced cases cause problems when they are processed with the same black-and-white perspective that we normally employ. 

What I’m asking is, what does it mean when we say that we believe Callaghan’s accusers? Right now, there seems to be only two responses to events such as these — either you uniformly condemn the perpetrator, or you stand by them, sometimes claiming that the allegations are false. What emerges is this weird phenomenon in which morally ambiguous to morally depraved characters are demonized on the surface but still accepted and even celebrated at a micro, personal level. What’s troubling about this dynamic is that these people — because they are still financially lucrative — never need to take accountability for their actions or change as people. 

So not only is cancel culture often non compos mentis, but it also doesn’t work. It didn’t stop Donald Trump from lying, and it didn’t stop Kanye West from spreading antisemitism. While the “Me Too” movement was crucial in galvanizing discourse nationwide, the strain of cancel culture that emerged from it doesn’t have the capacity to withstand the test of time — for a couple of reasons.

Not only is cancel culture often non compos mentis, but it also doesn’t work. It didn’t stop Donald Trump from lying, and it didn’t stop Kanye West from spreading antisemitism. While the “Me Too” movement was crucial in galvanizing discourse nationwide, the strain of cancel culture that emerged from it doesn’t have the capacity to withstand the test of time.

As celebrity cancellations continue, they lose their emotional effect in the same way mass shootings have become just another news segment in our American minds — one that’s not about the victims but the politics surrounding it. Also, as time goes on, more and more accusations turn out to be false. Rex Orange County is only the latest in an ever-growing list of high-profile individuals to be accused and then vindicated of sexual assault. We’re getting to a point where we are spending more time reflecting on the anxieties of males who fear being falsely accused of sexual assault than we are spending time educating young people on the right and wrong ways to go about sexual encounters.

Maybe with Callaghan we can start to look at these seemingly infinitely complex situations in a new light. My hope is that people can look at the large number of allegations levied against Callaghan and decide that we should believe those women and that we should recognize his behavior as a widespread, serious issue. I also hope that people can look at the situation and recognize that unilateral demonization might not be the best route. That relegating someone with a significant platform into a sphere in which they are encouraged to amplify the most troubling aspects of themself is reckless and harmful. That there’s something wrong with a culture that doesn’t subscribe to redemption or the idea that deep down all people have this beautiful, amazing capability to be good. I don’t see why we can’t hold all of these axioms in our minds at the same time and truly believe them.

We’re situated in a strange time when it comes to celebrity culture. Every day, it seems like we watch real people transform into symbolic placeholders before our very eyes. Political candidates feel airbrushed and humanoid, and movie stars seem so distant that you wonder whether they’ve ever stepped outside of Beverly Hills.

This makes celebrity scandals all the more entertaining and attractive when they do break. It’s gratifying to see those we have put on pedestals fall to our level and be reminded of their humanity. Spectators find themselves spewing inconsequential hate because they have been allowed to misrecognize a fellow human as a piece of narrative. 

Of course, this isn’t healthy. For anyone. So it might be worthwhile to recognize just how much power we hold when it comes to giving people a platform and a following. Sometimes the most valiant thing we can do is look away because people do, after all, tend to act differently in the limelight.

Correction Feb. 23, 2023: Due to an error with Google Docs, three paragraphs were incorrectly added into the final piece.