Fact Checking “Cancel Culture”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

If we can take seriously the high-quality source, the actor who plays Mr. Bean, it appears we should be fearful of a future where there is no freedom of speech because “what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” claims Rowan Atkinson.

Of course, this is but one of many alarm bells about the scourge of “cancel culture.”

It would be easy to smile at Atkinson’s goofy face and brush this off—except there are dire consequences to this manufactured crisis. Take for just one example the language being used to propose legislation in my home state of South Carolina.

“Pushing back against what they called America’s ‘woke mob,’ a group of GOP lawmakers want to protect South Carolina historic monuments and markers and penalize any community or elected official that removes them,” writes Adam Benson for the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC).

Later in the article, Benson quotes Republicans advancing this legislation:

“In South Carolina, our heritage roots run real deep, and they’ve got to be protected from the small number of people that could cancel out our monuments and pull them down,” Taylor said, who is sponsoring the bills with state Reps. Steven Long, R-Inman, and Lin Bennett, R-Charleston.

“In today’s day and age where the woke mob is coming after our monuments from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to South Carolina’s heritage, this is all inclusive,” Long said of the proposed state certification of plaques.

Proposals would punish removing monuments: ‘Time to stand up and defend the history of SC’

Conservatives in the U.S. have taken over the “cancel culture” label and used it to create a false narrative about liberals (“woke mob”) having the disproportionate power to unfairly punish conservatives, to end free speech, and as these Republicans argue, to erase history.

Recent “cancel culture” controversies that represent that false narrative include Dr. Seuss’s estate ending the publication of six of his books, changes to Mr. Potato Head, and the firing of Gina Carano from The Mandalorian.

While all of these have been framed as “cancel culture,” they aren’t all the same. Dr. Seuss wasn’t canceled (most of his books remain in print, and this was an estate decision), but like the renaming of Mr. Potato Head, these are market decisions, not some government mandate driven by “woke culture.”

Carano’s firing isn’t even that unusual in Hollywood; consider Kevin Spacey. Was he canceled? Or are there simply consequences for people’s words and actions—even, some times, when you are rich and famous?

To dissect the false narrative around “cancel culture” by conservatives, let’s return to the Dr. Seuss fake news cycle. Consider these Tweets from Michael Hobbes:

The pattern: Falsely claim “cancel culture,” point fingers only at the liberal mob, and ignore what is really happening (market forces versus actual canceling legislation proposed from conservatives).

Also conservatives shouting “cancel culture” tend to have a weak grasp on the past along with being highly selective in their outrage.

John Warner offers an excellent comparison between his own experiences as an author and the the Dr. Seuss controversy:

Was Warner’s liberal parody of conservative W. Bush canceled? The nefarious workings of the liberal mob? Or was this the free market doing its work?

But consider a much more substantial situation—the end of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career.

I do not recall any conservatives crying “cancel culture” when Kaepernick was essentially banned from the NFL by mostly conservative billionaire owners because of Kaepernick’s liberal politics. And I don’t recall those players standing during the national anthem having any consequences for their ostensibly conservative political actions (standing during the anthem).

I do recall conservatives wringing their hands over Tim Tebow’s short-lived NFL career since Tebow is a darling of conservatives and also conveniently used his NFL platform to express his conservative religious politics.

“Cancel culture” as a terminology of any social value has been erased, ironically, by conservatives who have co-opted the language to perpetuate lies about the left as a distraction from their own penchant for canceling.

The partisan political nature of the shift to “cancel culture” being the mantra of conservatives has some very serious consequences in the U.S. since it misrepresents free speech and also blurs the line between valid accountability and the so-called mob mentality in pop culture.

Conservatives have repeatedly misrepresented the free market as a free speech issue, which is essentially about the role of government in what people are allowed to express.

The decisions made by Dr. Seuss’s estate, Republicans losing Twitter followers, and Carano being fired (see also, Spacey)—these are all the workings of the free market, not mandates of government. If Republicans want to start a conversation about the silencing impact of capitalism, then I think many of us on the left would be thrilled, but they seem oblivious to how their own ideology works.

Ultimately, the most problematic aspect of conservatives capitalizing on “cancel culture” is that it has distorted a needed conversation on fairness since free speech isn’t license; even when what we say and do is not mandated by either the government or the market, “free” in free speech doesn’t mean we are free of the consequences.

So which is unfair here—that Woody Allen has never suffered any real consequences for his behavior or that Louis CK had his comedy career briefly stalled due to his serial sexual harassment?

Maybe there are petty dynamics on Instagram in which mob mentalities evolve and people are unfairly “canceled,” but what is currently passing as “cancel culture” is a bald-faced lie with political/ideological intentions.

The history of people being closeted in the U.S. as well as the current reality of closeted people is a narrative about the precariousness of being outside the norms of this country—norms that are decidedly conservative and thus to be outside those is necessarily liberal.

Unfair consequences in the U.S. remain mostly for people on the left; conservative Americans are themselves fretting about losing their status of privilege, and their cries of “cancel culture” are ugly projections since it is they who wish to erase the realities that have always existed but have too often been forced behind lock and key.

When millionaire white men wag their fingers about “cancel culture” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, we must be more than skeptical that they are being sincere about freedom of speech since they are embodying that they, in fact, haven’t been canceled at all.