Hey y’all, back atcha with another Long post about Cancel Culture, because it seems like it’s an issue that effectively and efficiently sews divide in folks across the spectrum in a way that is surprising and frankly quite frightening. Please engage if you feel moved to, I promise to moderate conversations on this post to be civil and mutually respectful.
Simply put, “Cancel Culture” is a conservative propaganda tactic designed to appeal to “logic,” and specifically targets men and white folks to make it seem like the past was better than it was, and that your way of life is being attacked, and that one day the “Woke Mob” will come for you. It is a fallacy that pretends to reduce liberal arguments for inclusivity and equity ad absurdism to complete nonsense. It preys on very normal fears of being attacked, of being innocently misunderstood and sentenced to ostracism for doing something someone doesn’t even know they did.
Conservative mindsets may claim that Cancel Culture is “being PC gone too far,” and that “people are too afraid to have fun or make a joke anymore because they might get cancelled.” In this post, I will explain how that is simply not the case, and why the words “Cancel Culture” are carefully calculated to scare you.
To explain my view of “Cancel Culture,” I use the playground example. If you see two five-year-olds on the playground and one says to the other “I want to play with you,” and the other says back “No, you were mean to my friends yesterday, I think you’re mean, I don’t want to play with you” and the first one starts crying, it’s pretty natural to say “well that’s fair enough, they shouldn’t have been mean in the first place and now they got what’s coming.”
Or, think of it like this: cancel culture is literally just boycotting.
It seems uncontentious to say that sometimes boycotting stuff is good. Boycotts are one of the few ways that mass groups of people can have a say over societal issues (another is voting). Boycotts were huge tools during the civil rights movements, for example. Nowadays, it seems like the right would say “the Montgomery bus system has been CANCELLED.”
Cancelling someone, simply put, is to stop giving support to someone. But some folks even on the political left will say that “Cancel Culture has gone too far” and that “once you’re cancelled there’s no coming back.”
I’ll handle these points with the example of Aziz Ansari. Ansari was famously accused of what we would nowadays call sexual harassment bordering on assault, but what at the time I and many other women just thought of as a bad date with a pushy guy. Ansari was a beloved comedian, famously left-wing and feminist, when an expose was written by a woman who claimed he was insistent, unrelenting in his sexual advances towards her on a date. Despite his apology, overnight Ansari was cancelled. His TV show stopped running, his live shows were called off. He was out of the game.
At the time, I thought this was an example of “cancel culture gone too far.” Do I think his behavior was bad? Yeah, but I mean, it’s expected. C’mon, it’s a date, of course the guy’s gonna be pushy. But the more I discussed it, the more it dawned on me that actually, that is not ok. “Of course sometimes men make me feel unsafe” is in fact a terrible justification for why I should continue to support this man’s career.
But then something funny happened. A year later he released another live show, and in it, he apologized again. He apologized to the woman again, and he apologized genuinely. As a woman who has had many pushy guys make me feel unsafe (“because that’s just how it is”), I felt like he apologized to me. He expressed that he was scared, that he’s grateful for the redemption arc he has been given, and that he vows to change his behavior in the future, because before it was not ok. Because, again, just because something is normalized does not make it ok.
I cannot say this enough. Just because something is normalized does not make it ok.
I have many more examples of people who have been “cancelled,” and why their behavior has not been ok or why their situation is not an example of “cancel culture,” that I am happy to discuss, but would take too long here.
“Cancel culture” is an attempt to change social norms from being unnecessarily harmful to certain groups, to reflecting better versions of ourselves and our aspirations. It is a boycott on incivility and hatred and harassment and, yes, sometimes, just being a complete arse.
But the term “cancel culture” is being weaponized to scare you, but often those fears have incredibly shallow roots. Two topical examples from the US are great places to start – genderless Mr. Potato head and Dr. Seuss are both Fox News’ examples of “Cancel Culture.” In the former, a plastic potato that has always been sold with a male and female-presenting face is now being sold as a plastic potato. The conservative argument is “they’re taking away Mr. Potato head!” when that is just… not happening? I don’t know. I don’t know why they latched onto this one so hard. It’s a plastic toy potato that is continuing to be sold.
The Seuss Estate voluntarily decided to stop printing 6 books that have particularly egregious racist imagery. This is obviously not cancel culture, because there was no legal or social pressure for them to do so, and their reputation is fully intact. I will still be buying my nephew Oh The Places You’ll Go and The Lorax, because they’re great books with great messages.
Dr. Seuss is interesting because it opens a discussion on Book Banning. Some professed liberals say that Cancel Culture is basically leftist Book Banning. In fact, it is the opposite. Book Banning is functionally disallowing ideas to be spread from the top-down; some governing body decides a book contains imagery or ideology that they don’t want to propagate, so they outlaw the book. “Cancelling” (boycotting) is bottom-up, when a group of people with enough critical mass boycotts something, because the group decides that its own values conflict with the thing they’re boycotting.
So then if “cancel culture” is just boycotting, why does the phrase even exist? And why is it so scary, and so pervasive, and so in-your-face? It’s because the right wing owns the meaning of the word, and owning meaning is dangerous. Its etymology is probably based on “rape culture” which was coined by liberals as it was highlighted as the danger it is in how casual misogyny and sexual harassment jokes were in the 90s/00s and before (have you rewatched Friends or How I Met Your Mother lately? Big Yikes). It’s reminiscent of attacks on “classic” pieces of media that, in retrospect, actually are really problematic, but at the time seemed fine. It’s essentially absolutely twisting progressive values (equality/the idea that maybe people shouldn’t be threatened by violence constantly) and throwing liberals words back at them, but in a sick mirror.
“Cancel culture” cannot exist. If it were a thing, if it really existed, that would mean that people are entitled to your attention. But we know that is not the case. YOU can choose who to pay attention to. And, ultimately, you choose to be kind. You don’t HAVE to care about someone’s feelings. If somebody explains why words or actions hurt them, you don’t have to care about them, or change your behavior. But you do have to make peace with the fact that you are choosing to not care, and other people can see that.
The right-wing message is that one day, you will be cancelled. One day, the mob will turn on you for something you didn’t even know you did, and your life will be over, swiftly and without justice. The opposite is true. One day, you may slip up and make a joke that is off-color, that makes fun of a marginalized or disenfranchised group, that uses a word that has been deemed uncouth (as the meaning of words does change over time).
But I am here to tell you that you will NOT be alienated or ostracized. You may be called out and embarrassed, which is imo quite rude, but more likely you’ll be called IN. Someone will tell you “hey it’s actually not cool to say that anymore for x y z reason,” or “dude that joke was actually making fun of this person,” and all you have to say, literally the only thing you have to do is say: “Oh, I didn’t know that. Thanks for telling me.”
The Woke Mob is a myth. Cancel Culture is a myth. It is a myth that is borne from fear of change and exacerbated by those who stand to profit from the status quo. Fear of change is a natural reaction that I myself have felt many, many times. I have felt attacked and like my sense of humor or my personality has been under threat, that people I love or thought I liked were mad at me for just being myself. But I have been humbled and I have grown from the many people with the patience to talk things through with me, and I am grateful because my friends WANT me to grow into a person I like more — who is more inclusive and makes fewer accidental gaffes, and whose actions reflect my values of empathy, inclusivity, and compassion.