Cancel Culture: The Myth

Melanie Barry

“Cancel culture” is one of those concepts that carries just as much weight in its name as it does in its definition. When applied with the flippant tone that it is usually in, to say someone or something is “cancelled” dismisses the gravity of the situation at hand. The exaggeration of its presence in modern society by calling it a “culture” serves to mock. So, as you can imagine, the people who choose to use this phrase are usually not in favor of the idea behind it – or so they say.

Cancel culture describes the chain of events that occur when a person, usually a celebrity, is exposed for saying or doing something offensive. Typically, what follows is a virtual swarm of people on social media demanding that they explain their actions, apologize, and/or step down from their position of power. Their products may be boycotted, their personas on various social media apps may be forcibly de-activated, and their celebrity friends may be shunned. Depending on the severity of their actions, they may even face legal charges.

Here’s the thing: cancel culture is not real. There is nothing new about holding people accountable for their actions. “Cancel culture” is a term coined by its critics to protest celebrities facing consequences for their prejudiced behaviors.

These critics are almost always right-leaning. In fact, at the 2020 Republican National Convention, numerous speakers, including former President Donald Trump, addressed cancel culture. Republican representative Dan Crenshaw just released a children’s book that warns against cancel culture. Fox News, the No. 1 news outlet for Republicans, even has a section on their website dedicated to all their articles related to cancel culture. The left, on the other hand, hardly seems to use the phrase at all – except when responding to the right – and certainly not in criticism. This begs the question, why is the idea of the internet collectively boycotting a problematic celebrity a political issue? Why is it that conservatives seem so forgiving of celebrities’ “mistakes,” as opposed to liberals’ eagerness to persecute? What does that have to do with small government and free-market capitalism? Is it just in their nature? (Hint: It is not.)

When defending a racist tweet or a sexist joke a celebrity made five, ten years ago, conservatives will often say, “It was a different time.” This is not necessarily untrue. The 2010s saw immense progress in society’s attitudes towards marginalized communities. Specifically, the last five years is when that change became evident on social media, because this is when people actually started feeling empowered to speak up about the problematic and offensive things celebrities have said or done. For example, the #MeToo hashtag took off in October 2017. The Time’s Up movement was founded on Jan. 1, 2018, the same day that youtuber Logan Paul posted and quickly deleted his infamous video in the Japanese Suicide Forest. Throughout 2018, the term “blackfishing” rose in popularity as more and more celebrities were called out for it. Kevin Hart stepped down from hosting the Oscars in late 2018 after his homophobic tweets resurfaced and he refused to apologize.

Lo and behold, “cancel culture” is recorded as coming into popular use right around the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. It is an anti-movement, an attempt to stamp out the growing empathy for marginalized community in today’s society. Just this week, Dave Chapelle was called out for making transphobic jokes in his Netflix stand-up special, and Raiders coach Jon Gruden was fired for his homophobic, sexist, and racist remarks in leaked emails. Fox News and other conservative media outlets are making sure that everyone knows that they stand in solidarity with these “victims” of cancel culture.

Critics of cancel culture argue that it doesn’t give the celebrity in question a chance to learn from their mistakes and that it causes us to bandwagon without concrete evidence. These are valid points. Look at social media personality James Charles. Starting in 2018, he was cancelled and then he was not, and then he was and then he was not, and now he is again. Everyone who followed the controversy just jumped onto whatever new, unverifiable piece of information popped up next. However, this sort of thing is rare, and the blatant hypocrisy in the Republicans’ argument undermines their position.

Ironically, Republicans took no issue with cancelling right-wing media outlet Newsmax’s reporter Bob Sellers in early 2021. Newsmax was at risk of being sued if they kept spreading false allegations of election fraud, so when Mike Lindell went on the air and began to rant about this supposed fraud with no signs of stopping, Sellers lost his cool and walked off the set. The video has since been deleted from the Newsmax YouTube channel but is available on other media channels like The Daily Show. For the next week, practically the only comments on Newsmax’s various social media sites were written by far-right viewers demanding that Sellers be fired for not letting Lindell speak, despite the fact that Sellers apologized on the show the next day.

And of course, former vice president Mike Pence, who was widely supported by the right until he did his job and certified the 2020 presidential elections amidst the “Stop the Steal” debacle, is now commonly known as “Judas” among Trump supporters. Then, Fox News themselves were cancelled by their fans for verifying the election as well.

Here is a Fox News headline from Oct. 1: “‘My Little Pony Has Gone Woke: New Netflix Movie Introduces Progressive Creatures,” wherein the author of the article practically pole-vaults to conclusions by claiming that the movie is perpetuating anti-right propaganda. The top comments included “Time to cancel Netflix” and “Don’t take your kids to go see it and don’t buy them any product having to do with this franchise.” This comes after Fox News scoffed at Biden and the left for “canceling” children’s author Dr. Seuss and his “captivating rhymes” from libraries due to offensive character portrayals. For the record, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to stop the manufacturing of six specific books on their own accord, not in response to any form of “cancel culture,”  and Biden just didn’t mention Dr. Seuss as part of address during Read Across America Day.

The point is that cancel culture is alive and well in both political spheres. The only difference is in what each party thinks makes something worthy of cancelling. To the left, that means anything that is based in prejudice and harmful, old-fashioned thought. To the right, it would appear that means anything anti-Trump or anti-Republican.