The Real Problem with Cancel Culture

SPOILER: IT’S CAPITALISM

I’ve been hearing a lot of commentators on both sides of the so-called “Culture Wars” debate lamenting the rise of Cancel Culture. The debate is presented by all sides as defending free speech. This is important to me as free speech was the first political movement I ever got involved in back in the days of Tipper Gore’s Filthy 15. So this idea of a new model of censorship appeals to the Social Justice Warrior in me.

The more I look into this seemingly new facet of American culture, however, the less convinced I am that Cancel Culture is in and of itself a problem.

First, what is Cancel Culture? Cancel Culture is a consumer response to public personalities who say or do something that offends the values of a given group by boycotting or threatening to boycott the celebrity’s work and the platforms that market that work. It’s really pretty common and used by both sides of the political spectrum1. The left tries to “cancel” the right; the right tries to cancel the left; liberals, leftists and conservatives try to cancel liberals, leftists and conservatives who aren’t liberal, leftist or conservative enough. You have left targets like J.K. Rowling and right targets like Colin Kaepernick. Everyone likes to cancel when the target is one of “those people.” We decry cancel culture only when it’s aimed at one of our own.

So cancel culture seems to have more to do with group identity than it does actual concern for censorship.

In fact, there’s really nothing new nor exceptional to this strategy. It’s good, ol’ fashioned shunning…with a social media twist. In the old days, when members of the community broke the established norms in significant ways, they were rejected by their peers. They would be ignored or even kicked out of the community. This sometimes had devastating consequences as when Anne Hutchinson was “canceled” from the Massachusetts Bay Colony ultimately resulting in the deaths of herself and her thirteen children. And you thought Louis C. K. had it bad!

Now, however, this shunning can be done at the speed of light. And, to be sure, it’s not just celebrities who fall victim to cancelation. I understand the consequences of this. As a public school teacher I’ve spent my entire career being constantly reminded that if I do or say anything that violates the “standards of the community” I can be fired…ahem…cancelled.2

So is Cancel Culture the end of free speech as we know it? Is it a tool of resistance for groups that have nothing but the power to withhold their credit cards? Or is it just the latest iteration of run-of-the-mill external social controls?

I’m thinking mostly the latter…with a bit of a twist.

To evaluate cancel culture, one must ask, “where exactly does the problem occur?”

Let me explain.

Ima Bigbigot makes a “racially insensitive” remark on his syndicated talk show Bigbigot Bash on WKKK. I’m offended by this and announce that I will no longer watch Ima’s program nor will I watch anything on WKKK so long as he remains employed #banbigbigot. A whole bunch of people sign on and contact the station as well as other stations that carry the Bigbigot Bash. WKKK sees its revenues falling and decided to err on the side of its stockholders. Ima Bigbigot is fired…success3.

So where exactly is the problem?

Does Ima Bigbigot have the right to say something racially insensitive.? I’d say he does.

Do I then have the right to point out that he said something racially insensitive, even call him a…well…bigot? Of course I do.

Do I have the right to try to convince all my friends and as many people as I can that I’m right about Ima? I think so.

Do those people have a right to act according to their own wishes? Certainly.

Does WKKK have a right to protect its business model? Do the WKKK stockholders have a right to demand that their dividends be prioritized over the first amendment? This may be odious, but I think they do.

So where’s the problem? Can someone please point to the area on this chain of events in which one could intervene without violating someone’s rights? If you believe that Ima Bigbigot has a right to speak, then you must admit that I have a right to speak. If you believe that I have a right to decide how I spend my money, then you must admit that the stockholders have a right to protect their investment. There’s no good point of intervention.

The problem isn’t Cancel Culture, per se. The problem is the overlap between capital and the public discourse. When advertising dollars rest on what a person says, capital will often become the priority when the norms of discourse are violated.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a good thing. I used to teach Huckleberry Finn despite great resistance that the book be banned for its liberal use of the “N-Word” despite the fact that it is clearly and anti-racist book. I had great lessons about the power of language in othering people. My students and I had powerful conversations about how Huck couldn’t see Jim as an equal–arguably a better–despite all of the evidence in front of him, even in the face of how much he loved Jim, because Jim was still a…

I worry about what could happen to great, critical artists like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bob Dylan, to name just the first three to pop to mind. What could be lost if these geniuses were cancelled because of the content of their discourse without regard to the context of their messages?

On the other hand, there are some odious people who really deserve to be cancelled.

Look, Cancel Culture is nothing new. When individuals violate the cultural norms, some variation of cancellation is a pretty standard response. The same is true for withholding one’s business from those who are offensive or who do not share one’s values. In every case, we have to decide, as a legal/rational society, how we wish to deal with it. Should everyone who offends us be subject to cancellation? I mean, that’s a lot of cancellation! Should someone be cancelled for something they did many years ago? Might we come up with rituals of atonement by which someone who does get cancelled can get…um…reschedule?

Cancel Culture is not going away. So long as I have a dollar to give, I have a choice as to whom I want to give it. So long as someone wants my dollar, they have a choice as to how they want to get it. That’s what gives Cancel Culture its power. And that dynamic isn’t going away any time soon. As it stands, the only reasonable way to stand up to Cancel Culture is to make your case on an individual basis that X does not deserve to be cancelled just because he said “blither, blather, blah,” and hope the consumers in our anemic Marketplace of Ideas buy your product.


Notes

  1. Though if you listen to the conservative media you would think it was a purely left wing “woke” conspiracy.
  2. I live in a community in which the Confederate Flag is ubiquitous, so I’m not sure what it means to uphold the “standards of the community”, but whatever.
  3. What’s interesting is just how rarely Cancel Culture actually succeeds. Indeed, it often has the opposite effect (Chik Fil A anyone?). Ima Bigbigot will now write a book about how he’s being censored by the radical left. His YouTube Channel will gain a million followers. He’ll go on a public lecture circuit and end up with a multi-million dollar contract with Sinclair.

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