A complete lack of forgiveness, a stifling of free discussion, an abolishment of due process, and unrelenting judgement is a far cry from an ideal to be strived for.
For years, ongoing debates continue to rage on each side of the political spectrum regarding the strategic viability, societal worth, and overall morality of cultural cancellations. Many left and right-wingers, democrats and republicans alike engage robustly in what has more commonly been referred to as cancel culture, a vague term usually referring to the targeted banishment of a specific individual, business, or idea forever from the good graces of society. Differing from boycotts, which typically place pressure on businesses to remedy unethical practices by withholding engagement until a situation is remedied, those engaging in cancel culture seek to completely excommunicate the offending party, usually with no opportunity for forgiveness, redemption, or invitation back into society at any point thereafter. No clear consensus exists regarding a stance on cancel culture within the two major US political parties, the narrative continuing to be riddled with hypocrisy and inconsistencies on each side. President Trump, for example, has both condemned cancel culture emphatically and simultaneously engaged in calls for firing NFL players for their refusal to stand during the national anthem or banning Goodyear tires for refusing to sell MAGA hats. Leftists who previously pointed fingers at pearl-clutching right-wing activists burning Dixie Chicks CDs after they insulted a republican president or calling for the removal of rap music from MTV now enthusiastically engage in the exact same cancellation tactics under the guise of social justice, crying for the banishment of seemingly anyone who dare challenges progressive orthodoxy or is guilty of having an imperfect past. Many articles written on cancel culture focus mostly on these very hypocrisies, pointing fingers at one party for what they are accusing the other of, and dodging stones thrown at their own glass houses, but what about the substantive value of cancel culture itself? Is there any true worth to the concept of cancellation, regardless of political party? Cancellations certainly make a great deal of noise, and ignite an unignorable fury, but in practice, the tactic proves to be nothing more than a misbegotten quest for politically correct or ideological purity, as strategically flawed as it is useless for society and morally bankrupt. Cancellations, even when successful in their full banishment of an offender, strategically fail by martyrizing and promoting that which never would have been elevated were it not for the cancellation itself. Many cancel culture advocates sever meaningful allegiances with would-be allies who deviate slightly from lockstep ideals in the pursuit of complete purity of thought, a mistake which has grave consequences to the advancement of meaningful societal change. Cancel culture is also inherently immoral, a disgusting practice which typically burns individuals in the court of public opinion, where one is guilty until proven even guiltier, and there is little to no room for absolution. Rather than analyze who is the greater offender of leading cancellation witch hunts, or who did or did not deserve the resulting scarlet letter, the conversation surrounding cancel culture would be better served by identifying the many ways in which this tactic acts as a poison to society, regardless of political affiliation or perceived good intent.
After all, who could possibly argue that muzzling hate speech isn’t strategically beneficial towards the pursuit of social justice? This was certainly the line of reasoning for Bavarian authorities who made the decision to ban Hitler’s speeches in 1925. In his book Defending My Enemy, former ACLU director Aryeh Neier recalls how, prior to the second World War, multitudes of nazis were thrown in jail for spreading propaganda and antisemitism. The government’s bans on speech almost immediately backfired, the nazis gaining sympathy and successfully exploiting the outrage surrounding the jailing and censors. This martyrization of the nazi party contributed in no small part to their eventual success and subsequent reign over Germany. To this day, Neier argues, Europe has a far higher rate of antisemitism than the United States, where hate speech remains unrestricted, indicating how cancelling a conversation may only serve to strengthen the opposing side. In our modern political and culture wars, evidence supporting this proves incredibly prevalent. The more left-wing college campuses attempt to ban political pundits like Anne Coulter from speaking to students, the more their fanbases grow, the more viral videos of SJW snowflakes are consumed online, and the more sympathy they receive. The more republicans call for boycotts of football star Colin Kaepernick, the more athletes take a knee, and the larger the Black Lives Matter movement grows. Regardless of whether you worship or detest intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson or Bret Weinstein, it is entirely likely that these public figures would never have been public were it not for the embarrassing, outrageous, and never-ending attempts on the part of woke warriors to cancel their jobs, reputations, and livelihoods. The initial fury and fire of a cancellation may appear to only favor the cancellers, not the party being cancelled. But historically, cancellation leads to martyrdom, and as was the case in nazi Germany, sympathy for the silenced can be a far more powerful force than any attempts at suppression.
Even if one recognizes cancel culture’s strategic flaws, is it the only tool the general public or minority voices have to inspire social change? In the Vice article titled In Defense of Cancel Culture, the author claims that the public is almost entirely powerless and how minority groups in particular rely on tactics such as cancellation to hold more powerful entities accountable. What the author fails to understand, however, is that despite any good intent, cancel culture proves time and time again to be one of the largest threats to progressive movements and to the success of continuing battles for social justice. For example, what began in the #MeToo movement as a much needed wake up call to rampant sexual abuses quickly turned into a social media feeding frenzy of witch hunts and cancellations, the trial by fire burning not only those who ended up deserving the flame (no one is losing sleep over Harvey Weinstein being ousted from society) but also those whose stories, even if true, did not fit the punishment of complete societal banishment. The incredibly loud attempts by a minority few to seek lockstep purity in their feminist ideology, with seemingly no room for deviation from the narrative for fear of being branded a bigot, misogynist, or rape sympathizer, resulted in many would-be allies distancing themselves from the movement, or even from proudly calling themselves feminists. The #MeToo movement succeeded despite cancel culture, not because of it, and the mass cancellations which overtook the movement almost destroyed a well intentioned and much needed narrative. Time and time again, advocates of cancellation stubbornly attack potential supporters with friendly fire, directly threatening the very causes they purport to champion in the process.
I would encourage advocates of cancellation to watch Barack Obama’s surprisingly blunt and humorous rebuke of cancel culture at his 2019 annual summit, in which he brilliantly emphasizes how people are both virtuous and flawed simultaneously, and how recklessly throwing stones is a far cry from true activism. Cancellation is neither a viable negotiating strategy nor of substantive worth to promoting necessary societal change, but more importantly, it is a morally bankrupt practice. Just as children learning to walk frequently stumble, active members of society successfully grow, learn, and better ourselves through past transgressions. A complete lack of forgiveness, a stifling of free discussion, an abolishment of due process, and unrelenting judgement is a far cry from an ideal to be strived for.
Ibrahim, S. (2019). In Defense of Cancel Culture. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https:// www.vice.com/en/article/vbw9pa/what-is-cancel-culture-twitter-extremely-online
Neier, A. (2012). Defending my enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie case, and the risks of freedom. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.amazon.com/Defending-My- Enemy-American-Freedom/dp/1617700452