Driving Under the Influence of Cancel Culture

by Steven Gimbel and Gwydion Suilebhan

Whether you love, hate, or tolerate Tesla may say something about the era you grew up in.

Every generation, when it reaches a certain age, makes two proclamations: Saturday Night Live used to be funnier, and “kids these days” are lazy and stupid.

Neither claim is true, of course, but they feel true. We members of Generation X insist SNL isn’t as good as it was, but that’s because they aren’t making jokes for us any more. Their audience now consists largely of Millennials, who have a unique sense of humor shaped by the age in which they were raised. That younger audience isn’t either lazy or stupid, either. Millennials work hard, but in different ways, and they know different things than we do as well.

Still, there are meaningful differences between Gen Xers and Millennials, and one of those differences has become particularly stark of late: our tolerance for moral ambiguity.

As Gen Xers, we grew up in a world in which our favorite sports heroes were discovered taking steroids, and we had to figure out how to keep rooting for them anyway. A world in which bona fide heroes like Senators John Glenn and John McCain could get caught up in a major political scandal and still get re-elected. A world in which our own idealistic (and idealized) Baby Boomer parents entered their peak earning years and started voting for tax cuts instead of justice. We learned to distrust everything and everyone: even those we loved.

We also learned to hold multiple conflicting opinions at the same time. We need more people of color on the Supreme Court AND Clarence Thomas harassed Anita Hill AND the accusations against him played into racist tropes about Black men. Bill Clinton abused his power in having a tryst with Monica Lewinksy AND we shouldn’t portray Lewinsky as a powerless pawn unable to make her own choices AND Clinton’s politics were generally favorable to women AND he was prosecuted by other White men who were equally (or more greatly) compromised.

Life taught us to doubt the existence of pure “good” and “bad.” We came of age in a morally ambiguous world. Millennials, by contrast, came of age in a morally bankrupt world.

Their childhoods were underlined by regular school shootings in which innocents were slaughtered in the sacred space of the classroom. Their peers’ deaths were met by the meaningless hopes and ineffectual prayers of politicians who weakened gun laws. Climate change hung like a polluted cloud over their formative years, while corporations worked tirelessly to convince people it wasn’t real.

While Gen Xers grew up with the moral gray areas and disdain for authority of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Hill Street Blues, Millennials were raised on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, neither of which would exist without a sincere belief in the battle between good and evil—and, critically, a driving need for good to win.

In the struggle against Voldemort and the dystopian leaders of Panem, however, nuance became collateral damage. We now live in an era rife with displays of righteous outrage. Everyone has a “take” about everything, and if you don’t have the right take, whatever that might be, you fear ostracization.

Enter Elon Musk and Tesla.

Fossil fuels are destroying the planet. Poor people bear the greatest burden of climate change; White people feel the least pain. Hybrids are a Gen X-like response to that environmental degradation. Let’s get halfway there, we say, and congratulate ourselves on making a small difference. Today, though, in the current cultural climate, halfway isn’t good enough. To save the planet, we need to achieve zero carbon emissions. Good has to triumph. Driving a Tesla became a symbol of righteousness. An expensive symbol.

The money of those who were both well-off and concerned about the environment has enriched the rich guy who took over Tesla. His flair for public relations made Musk look like a genius. Having reached middle age, the world’s richest man celebrated, as we all know,  by impulsively buying Twitter. (Instead of—ahem—a new sports car.) As CEO, he claimed to be a “free speech absolutist,” portraying himself as someone who believed open dialogue in the marketplace of ideas was necessary for a healthy democracy.

To the surprise of absolutely no Gen Xers, Musk turned out to be a fraud. His version of “free speech” amplified the toxicity of the internet, including the voices of people working to undermine democracy, while silencing anyone who criticized him personally. His behavior made him a prime target for cancellation.

What, then, to do? Drive a Tesla to decrease your net carbon emissions, even if you’re giving Elon Musk and his authoritarian brand free publicity just by rolling down the street? How are we even supposed to think of a Tesla now? As a signal of morality or immorality? Which is it? It can’t be both.

For the aging lefties of Gen X, however, it can. The only question for us is whether Musk’s recent behavior is going to lead to a large enough sell-off of Teslas so that the glut drives down their price. If it does, we’ll be sure to add a few bumper stickers that would drive Musk crazy, then smirk at the irony.