What, exactly is cancel culture?
Is it someone getting fired for harassment or problematic views? No, that’s a workplace doing its job.
Is it a popular figure losing fans or affiliations because of their past actions? No, that’s the power of public opinion.
Is it a company choosing not to publish a book, or a group of people boycotting a brand? No, that’s just the free market at work.
Cancel culture, as it’s understood today, isn’t real. Not only do people and things allegedly “canceled” by this imaginary movement often prevail in the end, the whole concept is a smoke screen to distract from actual systemic forces of suppression.
People are almost never actually ‘canceled’
Let’s take a look at some recent victims of so-called cancel culture.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the group that handles the iconic author’s legacy, announced a handful of his titles, out of dozens, will no longer be printed or sold because of racist depictions. These books are not illegal to own, and in fact, many libraries have said they are actively finding ways to keep these titles on their shelves with context around their troubling content.
Still, some people cried “cancel culture” and within days, mainstream Seuss titles like “The Cat in the Hat” were topping bestseller lists.
Bestselling country artist Morgan Wallen faced criticism after he was caught saying a racial slur on camera. Some radio stations decided to stop playing his songs, but they climbed up the Spotify charts nonetheless, and his album sales and social media followers skyrocketed. So far, his career has certainly not be canceled.
Neither were the careers of Lana Del Ray, Doja Cat, Camila Cabello, Justin Bieber or other singers accused of racist speech.
Gina Carano, who played a supporting role on Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” was fired after comparing the treatment of conservatives to the Holocaust.
She’s not banned from getting work, and in fact has already landed herself another gig – funded by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.
We’ve seen this all before
Cancel culture is nothing new.
Its philosophy – that anyone can be excoriated for speaking their mind, that people are too sensitive, that the slightest offense can be fatal – is just a repackaged extension of the decades-long culture wars and the “political correctness” dialogue popular in the 1990s.
It’s also a remix of common First Amendment and censorship arguments, which often vastly misinterpret the constitutional and legal bounds of both terms. For instance, conservatives have long alleged “censorship” of like-minded voices on Twitter and Facebook, when data analysis shows the volume and reach of conservative content is quite strong and often outperforms other content.
The term “cancel culture” actually began among vast, amorphous social media groups and online fandoms.
Fans of, say, a particular music group or Youtuber often celebrate the missteps of rival groups or stars, saying they’re “canceled” or “over.”
Taken as a piece of internet parlance, the bombast and performativity is quite clear, and even on these less visible levels of online discourse, one usually doesn’t stay “canceled” for long. (Singer Shawn Mendes and Youtuber James Charles are two examples of this type of cancel culture. Each has literally millions of followers and fans, and their careers don’t seem much worse for the wear).
So people targeted by “cancel culture” are almost never actually canceled.
However, proponents of this imaginary force want you to believe its victims prevail not because cancel culture doesn’t exist, but because it can be thwarted. That argument breaks down when those very proponents have to apply the same logic to people within their fold.
It’s no secret cancel culture has been adopted as a cause du jour among conservative celebrities.
Ohio Representative Jim Jordan recently called for a House Judiciary hearing on cancel culture, saying it was causing a wave of censorship across the country.
The theme of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was even “American Uncancelled.”
And yet, the conference ended up canceling a speaker who expressed anti-Semitic views online.
This dissonance reveals cancel culture for what it is: Accountability for one’s actions.
There are things cancel culture doesn’t fight for
Women afraid to speak up for fear of being blacklisted, LGBTQ people hiding their identities to protect their careers or lives, people shunned for their culture or their views:
These are the real problems that exist. It’s not cancel culture.
To know the difference, look at the people who actually suffer when these culture wars play out.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem at an NFL game. After that season, he hasn’t played football since.
In the ensuing years, Kaepernick and Eric Reid, another player who knelt, filed grievances against the NFL, saying the league was colluding to keep them from being picked up by other teams.
The early fallout from the #TakeAKnee protests were met with studied indifference by many NFL leaders, and former President Donald Trump and countless other political figures repeatedly cast wide and sometimes violent derision their way.
Where are the anti-cancel culture warriors in Kaepernick jerseys? Where are the anti-cancel culture warriors fighting for men and women who allege wrongdoing at great risk to their own career?
It’s very convenient that the same people who want to convince you that cancel culture is real also seem to be the ones determining who is worthy of being saved from such a fate, and who is not.
That’s because cancel culture isn’t real.
There is accountability. There are legal repercussions. There are tides of public opinion and the pull of the free market. There are also longstanding institutional structures that serve to suppress and threaten those who act against the interests of those with power.
None of this is cancel culture.
And by pretending otherwise, we’re distracting ourselves from seeing the patterns of who really benefits from this rhetoric, and who really loses.