The Cancel Culture Divide


The crowd that screamed “Snowflake!” at college students four years ago are now petrified their actions may have consequences. It’s quite the comedic (tragic?) turn. To believe at one moment that all young people are too weak to face the real world and in the blink of an eye believe they have the power and determination to destroy your career or social status. But so goes the way of hate and scapegoating. 

For those of you not as in tune to the fears of the conservative mind, I am speaking of “cancel culture.” Described by its detractors as a “social media mob,” cancel culture primarily refers to actions taken by politically left leaning social media users to bring consequences to bad actors. Cancel culture most notably targets celebrities who have put their foot in their mouth with a sexist or racist comment that may have been seen as acceptable in years past. Occasionally it pushes authorities to take action on well known villains like R. Kelly or Harvey Weinstein. At other times, the targets may receive harsher consequences than their actions deserved or weren’t even guilty of that which they were accused, but those cases seem to be few and far between.

The right wing has driven this fear of cancel culture, which is a bit at odds with their free market mentality they so righteously claim. Cancel culture is in essence a boycott. The market is speaking out via social media! It is up to the producers to adjust or die. But that irony is short lived. The right wing response is not one with a moral anchor. They have never shown any hesitation to call for boycotts of movies, athletes or brands before. Effectively cancelling Colin Kapernick never seemed to bother the base. The outcry’s purpose is to preserve their power and protect their own. The loudest recent example was outlined by Judd Legum in Popular Information, where Fox News had circled the wagons to protect the step-mother of the Atlanta police officer who killed Rayshard Brooks. 

Clear hypocrisy of the right aside, the cancel culture debate continues to gain steam. Most notably with the addition of a coalition that has surprised the indignant left on social media. Scholars, Journalists, and Artists have begun to join the fray to champion the concept of free speech and public debate. In early July, Harper’s featured “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” With 150 co-signers the letter warned, “We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.” It’s important to note that many of the co-signers, such as Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, and even J.K. Rowling, have had their works banned, boycotted, and burned.  

The backlash to the Harper’s piece was fierce online. A second group of journalists, with more than 150 co-signers, wrote a response to target the social and racial divides that the Harper’s letter seemed to miss entirely. Stating, “The signatories call for a refusal of ‘any false choice between justice and freedom.’ It seems at best obtuse and inappropriate, and at worst actively racist, to mention the ongoing protests calling for policing reform and abolition and then proceed to argue that it is the signatories who are “paying the price in greater risk aversion.” A just criticism that led to many signers of the original Harper’s letter to respond in support or remove their name from the original letter entirely. 

It would seem they did not realize their appeal for free speech would be viewed in a present day cultural lens. They assumed a moral obligation to expression could be conveyed in color blind language as all the great philosophers had done before. But the likes of Tucker Carlson and Bill Maher have made that impossible. The tendency of racists to yell about “inner-city crime” or “islamic violence” means the progressive thinker must embrace the multi-cultural society they seek to support directly.  It will be important to watch if the cancel culture community (whatever that means) will lump all of its detractors in the same boat, or if it will learn to take their arguments together.

Nick Cave recently addressed cancel culture when asked by a fan. His response at the surface sounds in step with Sean Hannity, “Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world.” Yet he speaks from a moral duty to protect artists, “Creativity is an act of love that can knock up against our most foundational beliefs, and in doing so brings forth fresh ways of seeing the world. This is both the function and glory of art and ideas. A force that finds its meaning in the cancellation of these difficult ideas hampers the creative spirit of a society and strikes at the complex and diverse nature of its culture.” Debate cannot happen in bad faith, Conservative media proves this daily. But the writer’s of the Harper’s letter wanted open debate, and they got it.

People did not crowd the street’s burning copies of the magazine. They vocalized their issues and began a conversation. We must be able to identify the people who approach tough topics in good faith, to respond to the artist trying to push boundaries, and continue to hold people in power accountable. Nick Cave understood why cancel culture is here, “But this is where we are. We are a culture in transition, and it may be that we are heading toward a more equal society — I don’t know — but what essential values will we forfeit in the process?” If we have to forfeit a Kevin Hart hosted Oscar’s ceremony and Louis C.K.’s overrated comedy to reach an equal society, I’m all for it.