The Myth of “Cancel Culture”: How the Phrase Has Been Weaponized to Destroy Debate

You know that disoriented feeling you get when you pass by a favorite store or restaurant that’s been there for years—and it’s gone! Fond memories of the place may rush into your head so quickly you might experience a slight panic at the sudden loss. And from then on, every time you pass the empty storefront with the For Lease sign, you may shake your head at how the world—your world, anyway—is changing so rapidly. And not for the better.

That is what “cancel culture” means to many people and why the phrase has been so effectively weaponized by some right-wing pundits and commentators to immediately poison the well of any discussion. The idea is to frighten the audience into thinking there’s a cultural SWAT team crouching outside their homes ready to burst in and confiscate their family photos and television remote. This fear tactic is especially effective on older people who already have to constantly readjust as the tides of time keep washing away the precious landmarks of their memories. It’s the same technique pundits always use when tossing out the words “communism” and “socialism” to describe something they don’t like, which their target audience hears as “pornographer” and “pedophile.”

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I understand the temptation to strike out and blame someone for taking away things we care about. It always feels like a direct and personal assault on our world and the wonderful memories we have that are the foundation of that world. In the past few months national icons have faced scrutiny: Jeopardy, Dr. Seuss, Chris Harrison (host of The Bachelor), Gina Carano (from The Mandalorian), Mumford & Sons’ Winston Marshall, country star Morgan Wallen, Pepe Le Pew, Mr. Potato Head, Captain Underpants, and more. To some, like Sharon Stone (“I think cancel culture is the stupidest thing that’s ever happened.”), it may seem like the pop culture Adjustment Bureau is rounding up free-thinkers to silence their truth. To others, it’s a cultural righting of a ship that has drifted off course, a liberation of those who have been confined and marginalized by stopping the mainstream bullying—whether intended or not.

The stakes are high: will TV shows, movies, novelists, song writers, comedians, and other artists begin self-censoring their works in order not to offend, leaving us with a bland pabulum of pop culture? Or are we merely establishing long overdue guidelines concerning how art helps perpetuate hate crimes and systemic racism?

The answer lies in facing the reality that there is no such thing as “cancel culture.” Cancel culture, as Shakespeare said about life, is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury—signifying nothing. It’s merely a hocus-pocus incantation to fog the mind, like “These are not the droids you are looking for.” Though it is meant to have the effect of “These are not the ideas you are looking for.” This is the conservative dream to Build That Wall—except this wall is meant to keep competing thoughts out.

History is a series of cancelations in which those who have learned from their mistakes cancel them. Only fools can’t learn from their mistakes. Americans cancelled British rule, slavery, child labor, WWII fascists, and internment camps. We saw wrong and we did right. The trick is in recognizing those wrongs in the first place. Which is why we still have wrongs to face going forward: misogyny, institutional racism, bias against LGBTQ+, affordable health care, and more. What we’re quibbling about now are how to get rid of the tchotchkes of our past sins that have been embedded in our culture. America has a hoarder mentality, wanting to hold on to everything that has a memory attached. Sure, this old TV show debases women and humiliates Blacks, but remember when we all sat around the TV watching as a family? An attack on the show feels like a diminishing of our family memories. It is not.

Ironically, the right’s strategy is to equate every calling out of something for bad behavior as a frontal assault on Freedom (cue Mel Gibson in blue face). And yet their response to those who disagree with them is to cancel them. They have led the charge against free speech by wanting to censor sex, violence, word choices, clothes choices, partner choices in music, TV, movies, and other arts. They have banned books in schools. They have rewritten school textbooks to misinform children about history. When wealthy donors heard that University of Texas football players were no longer staying on the field for the playing of “The Eyes of Texas” due to its origins in black-face minstrel shows, they demanded that the school stand up to “cancel culture” or they would cancel their donations. Others threatened to cancel their season tickets.

Worse, they are passing laws to cancel voting rights of those who disagree with them as well as women’s rights to choose.

I’m not always comfortable with the reactions that people have when they think someone needs to be punished for saying or doing something offensive. Not every stumble or misstep requires a DEF-CON 1 response. This is true on both sides of the political spectrum. Within the past few months authors have been criticized on social media for creating characters who say offensive things. Even when it’s clearly an unlikeable character saying those things. Unfortunately, two writers decided to change their novels to placate these readers. One reviewer of Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People, complained about a character’s anti-Asian rant, “I don’t know why we’re bothering with Venice – it’s just full of Asians taking pictures of everything.” The problem is these words come from a character who we are meant to find spoiled and entitled. Later, another character later chastises him: “God forbid you might have to encounter an Asian person … it’s kind of racist, what you just said about Asian people.” This kind of unfair sniping at our works of art could have a detrimental effect on future works.

We are all responsible for creating and influencing our culture to reflect the values we want to celebrate while exorcizing those that demean. But we also have to make sure we acknowledge that people deserve to make mistakes, deserve a chance to change, to be forgiven. Punishment should not be our default setting unless there is sustained maliciousness and unrepentant aggression.

But those who persist, history will cancel. With our resolute help.