Jessica Mulroney PHOTO BY JESSICA MULRONEY /Instagram

“Cancel culture” is pandemic today, but the virus was already in patchy play 30 years ago.

In 1991, Toronto journalist and social activist June Callwood was charged with racist behaviour by a Black staff member of Nellie’s women’s shelter, one of 50 social organizations Callwood helped establish in her lifetime. The staffer accused Callwood of being “a woman of privilege who was unwilling to share power.” Callwood challenged her, then was shocked when her fellow board members refused to support her.

Worse, Callwood couldn’t believe that none of the media pilers-on ever bothered to ask for specifics of the allegation. “That didn’t seem to be the point,” she said in an interview. The point, Callwood wryly concluded, was that “the hounds were after the fox.”

The contours of Callwood’s case map a classic mobbing, which usually involves a popular high achiever who is targeted by peers. (Mediocre performers tend not to arouse the eliminative impulse.) They form around the accuser as a unanimous hostile pack. The charges tend to be holistic in character — “racist,” “transphobe” — or fuzzy (“woman of privilege”). The rhetoric becomes melodramatic. Most important, the accused is not accorded due process.

These metrics also apply to a mobbing that took place last June in Toronto, at the height of the moral panic following the wholly awful Minnesota police killing of George Floyd.

On May 31, the mobbing of PR/marketer and stylist Jessica Mulroney was seeded when Black Toronto influencer Sasha Exeter put a call-to-action video on her Instagram (IG) feed, directing followers to post anti-racism messages in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM). Although Jessica follows Sasha, they were not friends. Their professional paths occasionally crossed, because both had partnerships with similar fashion and lifestyle brands.

Jessica says she missed the video. The finale of her CTV reality show, “I Do, Redo” — in which disastrous weddings get a makeover by Jessica — was airing that night and, as she was contractually obliged to, she was busy promoting it. By coincidence, without prompting from Sasha, Jessica had posted a quote from Martin Luther King to signal quiet support for anti-racism. Sasha found this anodyne gesture completely inadequate to the occasion.

And here Jessica’s troubles began.