“Cancel culture,” or the effort to obstruct people, brands and anything else deemed problematic or offensive from maintaining a public presence and prominent career, primarily came into our collective consciousness with the rise of the #MeToo Movement in 2017. It’s often conflated with “call-out culture,” the natural precondition for “cancellations,” in which pointing out a problem then leads to taking progressive action against it. Although the fundamental ideologies within these cultures have been present all throughout human history, as societies have long punished those behaving outside sanctioned community norms through court and correctional institutions, it can be tied to the Black empowerment movements and civil rights boycotts of the 1960s. Comprehensively, these cultures are rooted in the desire to create a larger platform from which society’s most marginalized groups, traditionally left outside of shared public discussion spaces, can voice their collective grievances. Still, the trend has gained incredible momentum on social media just in the last few years alone largely due to, as always, the driving influence of Black culture, now specifically “Black Twitter.”
The actual amount of public personalities who suffer tangible consequences for their offenses at the hands of these movements are absolutely dismal, especially in comparison to the sheer number of people called out in the first place. Still, the culture’s existence has caused many — mostly those who’ve lived within bubbles of impunity all their lives — to panic nonetheless. Politicized as an affront to American liberties, particularly being our First Amendment right to free speech, it’s painted as a brutally indiscriminate strategy of ostracizing the (mostly) innocent in the name of “political correctness.” Of course, no one is safe from the unforgiving “PC police.” Although calls to “cancel cancel culture” have undoubtedly become just as pervasive as the calls to cancel powerful individuals in the first place, the fears about the great threat it poses was most recently exemplified in the 2020 Republican National Convention. Even before the first night of speakers in closed meetings, delegates voted for a number of resolutions including one called “Resolution Upholding The First Amendment To The Constitution Of The United States Of America In The Response To The Coronavirus Pandemic And The Cancel Culture Movement.” Notwithstanding the apparent conflation of COVID-19 with the cancellation of problematic celebrities, the resolution described cancel culture as a means to erase history, encourage lawlessness and violate citizens’ “free exchange of ideas, thoughts and speech.” While the resolution was accepted and adopted by the Republican National Committee, the party’s official platform remains the same as it was in 2016.
At its core, modern mainstream internet activism is seen as an anger-fueled game of naming and shaming the elite and their interests, and an inability of the masses to forgive and move on. The belief that the culture is unable to impact real change is influenced by its practitioners favoring outright “canceling” individuals, rather than giving them the necessary time and space to respond to others’ grievances with compassion and improved behavior. By oversimplifying the issues of interest that garner widespread attention and caring more about taking part in a trend than fighting for justice on victims behalf, the term “canceled” itself has become replicated in such a variety of settings, by so many different actors. With such frequency, it’s almost rendered meaningless. What could theoretically consist of a straightforward discussion of a perpetrator’s specific crime and the possibilities for their societal retribution becomes something too nuanced to be adequately or accurately understood. While there may be some truth to these ideas, they crucially delegitimize the principles of social justice and equality which foundationally fuel the movements. Even more so, the position obscures the biased and contradictory nature innate to its accusations, as well as the place of significant privilege from which they’re born.
The great irony of the “canceling cancel culture” debate, specifically being the crux of its criticism, regards the fact that what’s now considered to be so very threatening to our freedom of speech is quite literally its practical enjoyment. Despite claims otherwise, to “call out” and “cancel” others are acts of free speech in and of themselves, well within our Constitutional rights. Accordingly, denunciations of these cultures, as well as efforts to eliminate them completely, are simply misguided attempts to both weaponize and constrict our fundamental rights. Whereas those who criticize society’s elite in the first place rarely have an influence equal to the people they’re challenging, it should be clear that the divide seemingly caused by cancel culture has actually been in place for decades. Those who have always possessed the social, political and economic means to compel another’s meaningful atonement have long been shielded by the population’s limited access to tools that allow them to direct their criticisms sufficiently and expeditiously. In a time when the range of social media’s capabilities are as excessive as they are utilized, cultural gatekeepers must succumb to their lack of control over their engagement with mass audiences.
Despite its widespread controversy, the production and expression of these longstanding ideologies of political correctness cannot be stopped, nor should they. Firstly, history has shown that even attempting to do so is both completely futile and misguidedly contradictory. Its foundational power to give voices to the voiceless and let no wrong deed go at least unnoticed, if not unpunished, is a crucial stepping stone to a truly, equally accountable society. Even though those who have always been the most immune to challengers now seek to silence an entire cultural movement aimed at them, it’s still far from the unconstitutional threat the leading critics denote it as being. “Cancel culture,” seen as the career-shattering, repressive mob mentality which shuns a simple “difference in opinion,” is a completely fictitious construction by celebrities whose feelings were hurt in the process of being rightfully called out for causing harm to others. Although in amounts and through means historically unforeseen, in this way, cancel culture not only doesn’t exist, but it never has.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a senior majoring in political science.