There is much spoken of these days about “Cancel Culture”. We are supposedly living in a hypersensitive society where any offensive statement or action is grounds for judgement, ridicule, and harassment on social media and at work.
It may seem tempting to believe that cancel culture really does exist, what with all the countless stories of cancellation propagated by the mainstream media. But don’t fall for the trap: “Cancel Culture” is not a thing, and here’s 10 reasons why.
1. People have been cancelled for millennia.
The idea of cancel culture is not a modern phenomenon. The public has been punishing and calling for the removal from power (or worse!) of public figures since eternity. The last King of Rome was overthrown with support from the people after his son raped a noblewoman, leading to the foundation of the Roman Republic. More than two millennia later, King Louis XVI was executed during the French Revolution following public outrage at his attempted escape from the country.
These are just two of many examples that “Cancel Culture” is not a modern phenomenon, but rather an unalterable component of the human experience.
2. It’s not happening that often.
If we add up every possible alleged cancellation, we end up with at most a thousand names, which includes not just people, but ideas and objects as well. Most people’s daily lives are unaffected by cancel culture in the slightest.
If you actively look for cancel culture, you will see it everywhere; but a non-biased approach will find that cancel culture is not an important or relevant topic for most people. Do you know who Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Milo Yiannopoulos, Greg Patton, or Gordon Klein are? All of these are people who were supposedly “cancelled”; yet, I would wager no one reading this would be able to recognize all 5 names, who they are, and why they were “cancelled”.
3. Oftentimes, “Cancel Culture” is really “Accountability Culture”.
Many times, the people getting “cancelled” are really being held accountable for behavior that is not deemed acceptable. Remember Amy Cooper? She’s the white woman who was filmed, and later fired, for calling the police on a black man for asking her to leash his dog. Such racist outbursts have been occurring in America for centuries, but society no longer finds them tolerable. So individuals like Amy Cooper are not being “cancelled”; rather, they are being held accountable by the public for unacceptable behavior.
What is “unacceptable behavior”, then? We decide. Cancel culture is supremely democratic; any member of the public can attack, defend, or ignore such individuals. The community at large can shape the culture that defines unacceptable behavior.
4. Many “cancelled” individuals cancelled themselves…
Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was met with calls for resignation over his sexual harassment of multiple women. But ultimately, Cuomo wasn’t cancelled by the mob: he resigned himself. Another example is Kyrie Irving, a basketball player who was benched for refusing to get vaccinated. As with Cuomo, Irving, wasn’t “cancelled”, he cancelled himself. He made a decision, and is now facing the consequences. He can get vaccinated, or hold onto his beliefs, but he cannot have his cake and eat it too.
5. …and those who are “cancelled” often benefit.
Star Wars actress Gina Carano was fired by Disney for making a suggestive social media post regarding the Holocaust. So, what was the result of Gina Carano’s “cancellation”? An actor that few people had heard of was suddenly propelled to the top of the news cycle. She was given interviews and received funding to make her own movie from right-wing groups. By getting “cancelled”, Carano gained a lot of exposure and became a martyr for the right wing.
In other cases, those who are cancelled often don’t suffer as severely as it’s claimed. Professor Gordon Klein (from point #2) was harassed, intimidated, and fired for an email that was perceived as racially insensitive. I don’t minimize the suffering he experienced, but I will point out that he was ultimately reinstated as professor, and is now suing UCLA, with a petition demanding he be reinstated garnering almost 77,000 signatures.
6. “Cancel Culture” has no definition.
What is “Cancel Culture” anyway? Ask a hundred people, get a hundred answers. Cancel culture is an extremely amorphous term that conveniently fits the mold of a person’s political narrative. People, kid’s shows, objects, and ideas have all been alleged to be “cancelled”. Some have been “cancelled” by “the mob”, others by “woke” companies or the government. As it stands, the definition of “cancel culture” is so wide that damn near anything qualifies as cancel culture, and if everything is cancel-able, nothing is.
7. Only certain things are considered cancelled.
You’ve probably heard of comedian Dave Chappelle or anti-vax nurses being “cancelled”. But why don’t we hear about the cancellation of transgender youth when conservative states pass laws that ban access to lifesaving treatment? When the recent Texas law passed, where were the cries that abortion is being “cancelled”?
“Cancel culture” is cynically weaponized by the privileged to shield themselves from criticism. All the people claiming cancellation and getting the most attention for it are the wealthiest and most privileged in our society, who are furious that the advent of the internet has democratized criticism. Being a public figure necessarily demands public scrutiny, and the most powerful in our society are unable to accept this social contract.
Meanwhile, no one cares about the Taco Bell employee who was cancelled because he wore a Black Lives Matter mask to work…
8. “Cancel Culture” has been weaponized by the far-right.
Fox News and other far-right media will intertwine “cancel culture” with subtle cues that lead viewers to believe Christianity, conservatism, heterosexuality, or any other identity of the right is under attack. Affirmative action is a subtle cancelling of white people; support for gay marriage and pride parades is evidence that Christianity is now cancelled; and so on. “Cancel Culture” is also used by the far-right to shut down any criticism of its backwards policies.
It’s all rubbish, of course, but the false narrative makes Republicans feel like a persecuted minority, fighting for the last shreds of their dignity and freedom. The Red Scare, “Race Mixing is Communism“, and now “cancel culture”: this is just another recycled iteration meant to scare conservative, mostly white voters into electing Republicans. The only reason we even hear so much about cancel culture is because media like Fox News won’t shut up about it.
9. What’s the solution, anyway?
How do we plan on solving cancel culture? Social ostracism, cults of personality, and crowd mentality are all ingrained in human psychology. You can fervently insist that people act a certain way and not be so sensitive, but this is as effective as trying to move a mountain; people will act as they will, sometimes irrationally, sometimes harshly. Sometimes you’ll agree with the majority, other times you won’t.
On a more sinister note, taken to its logical conclusion, the only way we could truly solve cancel culture is, ironically, if we “cancel” free speech by banning the criticism of another individual’s words or actions.
10. And, most importantly: “Cancel Culture” is not a culture or sensitivity issue. It’s a LABOR issue.
Professors, actors, and others being fired: what’s the through line? All of these people are workers who are unilaterally fired by private firms because said firms made a subjective analysis that it is more profitable to cut a person off from their living than to run an investigation or defend their employees. If workers were unionized, or if their workplaces were democratic, then they could be protected from such arbitrary firings.
The reason we see so much “cancel culture” is because the vast majority of workers are at the complete mercy of their boss. The point is not that we have to agree with everything “cancelled” individuals may have done or said, but rather that in our society we do not have a chance to agree or disagree with the edicts from above.
In researching this piece, I’ve come across a lot of people who I think were wrongly fired by “the mob”. I think we should be more forgiving of each other, especially in these times, and be less quick to jump to conclusions about individuals that do not concern us in the slightest. I think all sides should read beyond the titles of articles and really get the facts of a situation before making a judgment. But at the same time, I think some cancellations are well-deserved, or are no more than people being held accountable for bad behavior.
But at the end of the day, we need to stop believing in the existence of “cancel culture” as something that is a profound, overwhelming force in society, when it really isn’t. And we’ve got to stop falling for these false narratives that are selectively deployed by the far-right to distract us from the real issues. What we should start doing instead is addressing the real issue: namely, that workers have no protection from “cancellation” by their bosses.
Image Courtesy of Mathieu Bitton.