“Cancel culture” is a somewhat tiresome subject, but one that feels unavoidable. One day an old tweet surfaces, and all of a sudden a comedian or actor, or even some hapless, powerless citizen, is at the center of an online tribunal.
A series of recent events have enlivened the debate. Comedian Shane Gillis lost a job offer at Saturday Night Live after podcasts were unearthed in which he used slurs against Chinese people, gay people, and other minorities. Famous comedians like Norm Macdonald, Jim Jeffries, and Bill Burr came to his defense, and Gillis himself said he was “pushing boundaries.” But the boundaries he pushed were those that happen to be patrolled by the gatekeepers of our culture. Twitter was furious, and his hiring could not stand.
Gillis’ cancellation came at a turbulent time for the comedy world. In Sticks and Stones, Dave Chappelle proudly dons the mantle of “victim blamer” and attacks cancel culture head-on. He squeezes all the sensitive pressure points of the time: There is an extended bit on the LGBT community, or “the alphabet people,” as he calls them, that culminates with Chappelle imagining a scenario in which a Chinese man were born in his body, asking transgender people to take some responsibility for his barbs:
“I didn’t come up with this idea on my own, this idea that a person can be born in the wrong body — they have to admit, that’s a f*****g hilarious predicament.”
The comedian attacks the #MeToo movement and bluntly states that he does not believe Michael Jackson’s rape accusers, suggesting that Jackson’s victims are actually lucky:
I mean, it’s Michael Jackson. I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives, but it wasn’t no g*****n Michael Jackson, was it? This kid got his d**k sucked by the King of Pop. All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives.
There are jokes about poor heroin-addicted whites in Ohio, mass shootings, and even a subtle anti-abortion joke. But Chappelle’s message is a deadly serious one. “They even got poor Kevin Hart,” he says of his friend, canceled over anti-gay tweets. “This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. Everyone’s doomed.”
Chappelle received predictable praise from the right and condemnation from the left. Much of the criticism has focused on his lack of sensitivity, but some have found more original points of attack.
The New Republic recently published a substantial entry into the cancel culture conversation that is already being hailed by some on the left as the definitive piece on the topic. What if, author Osita Nwanevu asks us to imagine, the backlash against cancel culture were all a pose? What if it’s just a big con?
What if these self-styled mavericks were really punching down, rather than up? Suppose, even, that being canceled endows the target with a kind of strange prestige? Nwanevu points to how powerful figures have been able to stage comebacks or even work transgression against “cancel culture” to their advantage:
Despite being loudly panned by professional and social media critics alike, Chappelle remains in the good graces of both major figures in the comedy community — including defenders like Sarah Silverman, Bill Burr, and Matt Stone — as well as his fans.
Sticks and Stones has a 99 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Netflix, unfazed by all the commotion, actively promoted some of the show’s controversial bits. It’s hardly surprising. Disbelief of sexual abuse and disgust for transgender people are mainstream enough that Chappelle could take on a second career as a Republican speechwriter.
Gillis, he points out, is still doing stand-up. Some of the highest-paid comedians are self-styled critics of political correctness. Meanwhile, comedians today do not have to contend with the oppressive obscenity laws that entrapped the likes of Lenny Bruce. It’s all a con.
From this glittering observation, Nwanevu leaps to a rather obtuse conclusion: that “cancel culture seems to describe the phenomenon of being criticized by multiple people—often but not exclusively on the internet.”
It’s not hard to see why this piece resonated on the left. It eloquently expresses the way cancel culture’s apologists feel about this scourge: that it is not really a threat to civilized society, but rather, a kind of moral fine-tuning. It’s true that rage mobs consist of individuals with opinions, but it is absurd to describe cancel culture as mundane or mere criticism.
Nwanevu rather humorously notes that some, indeed brutal forms of “canceling” have been going on since the Pharaoh Akhenaten, infamously scrubbed from the public record by his successors for his heretical sun-worship, and before. True! But that doesn’t mean that, just because cancel culture does not entail graphic, medieval punishments, it isn’t real.
Whether cancel culture is a dangerous reality or a delusion depends on your politics. Doctrinaire progressives need not fear, for the most part. But what about everybody else? And what about people who lack the power to mitigate the consequences of being “canceled?”
To return to our friend Akhenetan, it is true that “canceling” has been going on forever. That’s because “canceling” is a moral phenomenon. Hester Prynne was canceled. And so on and so on. The purpose of cancel culture is to establish a particular progressive morality.
“Every culture,” Harvard professor and noted critic of liberalism Adrian Vermeule writes, “is a cancel culture. If you don’t like progressive cancel culture, what you don’t like is just the content of what is canceled.”
What if people today don’t like which way progressive cancel culture is directing us?
The question answers itself. At base, cancel culture apologists merely beg the question. They are quite open about the fact that they are moral and political revolutionaries but insist that, somehow, this “evolution,” and the consequences for dissenters, are no big deal. From Nwanevu’s article:
As far as comedy is concerned, “cancel culture” seems to be the name mediocrities and legends on their way to mediocrity have given their own waning relevance. They’ve set about scolding us about scolds, whining about whiners, and complaining about complaints because they would rather cling to material that was never going to stay fresh and funny forever than adapt to changing audiences, a new set of critical concerns, and a culture that might soon leave them behind. In desperation, they’ve become the tiresome cowards they accuse their critics of being—and that comics like Bruce, who built the contemporary comedy world, never were.
David Chappelle, on his way to “mediocrity?” Take note of the veiled threats: “Waning relevance;” material that is no longer “fresh.” Yes, but according to whom? And who is being left behind, by whom, exactly?
The apologists rely on a myth of neutrality and innocuousness. At one and the same time, cancel culture is imagined to be the harmless, spontaneous effect of virtuous citizens criticizing those who cross a line, and also a sweeping revolution that threatens to swallow up those destined for “irrelevance.”
There is nothing the least bit mundane about this. Cancel culture demands — not asks, demands — that people completely reform the way they feel, think, speak, and act — to make way for the “new voices,” the new “ways” being prescribed by the woke scolds who work for SNL and the New Yorker.
It is cancel culture’s apologists, not its critics, who are the posers. They are the ones punching down. Cancel culture is not the expression of random public discontent but of institutional power. Its punishments are reserved for those who run afoul of a particular moral system that is shared and advanced by the hegemons of our culture.
As the left sees it, those who feel threatened by cancel culture are irrational to feel that way. But this is dishonest. They understand perfectly well why many people feel threatened; the assumption is that it is irrational for them not to “evolve,” that it is a very decent and easy and logical thing for them to do. They are supposed to “get it” and shut up.
Cancel culture is not just the disapproval of random people, but rather deliberate, targeted political harassment — often by powerful people with large platforms — and often of powerless, random citizens. Anyone with a social media account — or for that matter, anyone with the misfortune to get involved in a public altercation captured in thirty seconds of viral, ambiguous video — is a potential victim.
Not long after the New Republic piece was published, the cancelers went after “Iowa Legend” Carson King, who became a social media sensation after his sign asking for beer money appeared on ESPN’s “GameDay.” King did a remarkable, wonderful thing and used his sudden fame to raise over $1 million for an Iowa children’s hospital.
It should have been an uplifting and happy story. But when the Des Moines Register wrote a profile on King, the journalist on the job, Aaron Calvin, took it upon himself to perform a “routine background check” and discovered that he had made offensive tweets — which were actually jokes from the Comedy Central show Tosh.0 — when he was 16. For no clear reason at all, the journalist included that information in the article. Anheuser-Busch cut ties with King.
The Register has since faced richly deserved backlash. The newspaper, in trying to defend itself, issued an agonized explanation dripping with self-righteousness:
The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated to King’s cause or were planning to do so? The counter arguments: the tweets were posted seven years ago, when King was 16. And he was remorseful. Should we chalk up the posts to a youthful mistake and omit the information?
Eventually, Register editors decided we would include the information, but at the bottom of the story […] Reasonable people can look at the same set of facts and disagree on what merits publication. But rest assured such decisions are not made lightly and are rooted in what we perceive as the public good.
What was that about public good? Who’s the good guy here — the man who raised money for children with cancer, or the pathetic tattle-tales who tried to ruin his life?
It is shocking that a newspaper would consider digging up offensive tweets to be part of a “routine background check,” but that is increasingly how today’s journalists understand their jobs. The consequences of journalism’s descent down the gutter of progressive tattling were on graphic display back in January, when a group of Catholic high school boys were mobbed by the entire national news media over a fabricated hate crime.
The Covington Catholic High School boys were smeared, threatened, and viciously attacked. An online rage mob of adults gave vent to violent fantasies about their deserved punishment.
How are they doing now? They have not found redress in the courts. The articles are still out there, and the damage has been done. Meanwhile, the journalists who published vicious libels against them have suffered no consequences.
These are just a few examples of journalists, drunk with power, harassing random citizens for political reasons. Remember the “Drunk Pelosi” video? Some low-life reporter for the Daily Beast doxxed its creator. Then there was the time CNN threatened to identify a man for sharing a meme of Donald Trump tackling CNN personified as Vince McMahon to the ground. Such incidents have become disturbingly common. They certainly are not the product of spontaneous “criticism” on social media.
The arbitrary enforcement of cancel culture on social media and in the public square underscores its threatening, political nature. Some sins — those which cross progressive taboos — are cancellable, while others are not. But who commits the sin is important, too.
As the left sees it, the Covington kids deserved it. They were protesting abortion. They wore MAGA hats. They were standing athwart the march of history. What they suffered is regrettable, but hopefully, we’ve all learned the lesson that the future has no place for people like them.
Airing genocidal fantasies toward white people, though, is just fine; in fact, it can even come with rich rewards, as Sarah Jeong has learned. If Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau were conservative, his strange blackface obsession would have ended his political career overnight. Instead, he will skate.
Why? Because Justin Trudeau is a powerful liberal who has already proven his commitment to diversity — which is, after all, the underlying morality of cancel culture.
This column is the first in a two-part series. Read “’Cancel culture’ apologists have it all backward, Part II” here.