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The Truth About “Cancel Culture”

Last week, the debate over cancel culture and diversity had an unexpected contender join the fray: Pope Francis. “Cancel culture,” he said, is a form of “ideological colonization.” Though the Pope didn’t cite specific examples, many U.S. outlets connected his remarks to the removal of statues of Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra (Reuters). 

Columbus and Serra joined J.K. Rowling, Roseanne Barr, Kevin Spacey, and the food brand Goya in being “canceled”. And fears around being cancelled are abundant; a host of comedians say what Dave Chappelle called “celebrity hunting season” prevents them from performing (Vox, Guardian). Depending on who you ask, cancel culture either doesn’t exist (New Statesman) or is an existential threat to American freedom (N.Y. Times). Let’s take a look at the controversy.

Take Action

Encourage people you know who are worried about “cancel culture” to unpack what it actually means in concrete examples.

Consider: Why is individual accountability necessary? What should it look like in practice? Who are the easiest and hardest people to hold accountable? How does it relate to systemic change?

What is Cancel Culture? 

The critique of “cancel culture” usually goes something like this: 

Today, online mobs descend people for perceived political incorrectness, wrecking their careers, reputations, and lives (Forbes). The threat of cancellation forces us all into paranoid self-censorship and ideological conformity. 

Does Cancel Culture Exist? 

Concrete examples provide ample evidence to question the narrative about mob justice, cancel culture, and diversity of opinion. Using the language of cancelling someone is new, but using social or moral criteria to decide what performers to watch or which products to buy isn’t. And cancel culture is far from an all-powerful force. 

People will often “cancel” others by pledging not to buy a company’s product, or engage with an entertainer’s content, and encouraging others to do the same. This is, essentially, a form of consumer boycott (Vox). For example, many Latinx people stopped buying Goya products after their CEO endorsed Trump (NBC), while conservatives boycotted Nike for supporting Black Lives Matter (The Outline). Deciding not to purchase a certain commodity isn’t an un-American conspiracy — it’s cited as one of the chief blessings of free-market capitalism (Mises Institute). 

Other times, individuals will publicize an individual’s offensive actions to their employer, calling for them to be fired or reprimanded. This course of action is severe, but the actions in question are often egregious, too. Justine Sacco was fired over a single tweet. This seems extreme, except that it was a joke about only non-white people getting AIDS in Africa, where the UN predicts half of teenagers will die of the disease (National Institutes of Health). It also bears mentioning her job was in public relations (Uproxx). 

Confronting an employer with the actions of their employees is basically the purpose of Yelp. It’s the same strategy that white people used to get Colin Kaepernick fired for protesting police murders. Companies can terminate at-will employees for almost any reason, including off-the-clock activities like public drunkenness, brawling, or going viral for shouting racial slurs. 

Regardless of the rationale or validity of a “cancellation,” being cancelled rarely has a long-term effect. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Tina Fey were called out for using blackface yet; their careers continued uninterrupted (The Guardian). Goya still produces the only Latin American products in many grocery stores. Justine Sacco would spend some time in Ethiopia and then got another job — also in public relations (Uproxx). 

Despite the backlash against J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments in 2019, sales of Harry Potter books soared as the series became a “lockdown favorite” (Guardian). Being cancelled didn’t mean that Rowling was no longer a billionaire (Newsweek). It also didn’t stop her from mocking trans-inclusive language six months later (IN). 

Far from being all-powerful, cancel culture isn’t necessarily effective against individuals — much less institutions.

Should We Cancel People or Not?

So is “cancel culture” productive? People should be held accountable for bigotry. People who espouse hate should be held responsible, just as they might be held to account for other outrageous public behavior. Denouncing bigotry isn’t totalitarianism, it’s common human decency. And if individuals don’t take the initiative to call out injustices, who else will? There’s often little we can immediately do in response aside from public condemnation. This is even more true for those with less privilege and power. 

But we should be clear that shaming individual examples of bad behavior won’t end systemic violence. In isolation, individual call-outs might divert “public ire from structural injustice,” a maneuver sure to be “exploited by the dominant class” (N.Y. Times). Some people have lost their jobs after being cancelled. Police chiefs, prison wardens, or Fortune 500 CEOs have not been among their ranks. 

It’s possible that Pope Francis’ cancel culture critique was itself aimed at broader institutions, too. He was talking to diplomats, not culture warriors, about the “diminished effectiveness of many international organizations.” The Pope, himself targeted by right-wing American Catholics (Courthouse News Service), may have been referencing a 2020 incident where a U.N. food aid plan fell apart entirely due to disagreement about whether it should include abortion rights (America Magazine). Like so many stories related to cancel cultures and diversity initiatives supposedly run amok, the papal cancellation of cancel culture contains more than meets the eye.

The dignity of all our communities demands the condemnation not just of bigots but of bigotry, the denunciation not just of racists but of racism, and the cancellation not just of shocking offenders but the disgraceful systems and patterns of behavior they exemplify. 

Key Takeaways

Cancel culture is described as an omnipresent form of social control.

Cancellation generally amounts to a boycott or pressure campaign. The results are far from assured.

Individuals should be accountable for bigotry, but we also need to focus on powerful individuals and institutions. 

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