August 18, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Over the past few years, there has been a peculiar phenomenon emerging in American culture as well as the Western world more generally. Cancel culture has many definitions and interpretations, which typically fall along the lines of politics or whatever side of the argument one falls on. Some would say cancel culture is simply holding people accountable, which in some cases is certainly needed. 

Others interpret it as a movement of overly sensitive and attention-hungry individuals. Again in some cases that may seem to be the case. Some would say that cancel culture doesn’t exist and it is simply the time of reckoning for those who perpetuate oppression. However, I find this to be a very fancy way of stating their interpretation of what cancel culture is. Again I would agree this may be the case in certain instances.

According to

“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

Essentially it is a form of extrajudicial punishment that is wielded by individuals and groups to exact vengeance. It is important to note that throughout human history people have been “canceled” for all sorts of things, as this dynamic is very much a part of normal society. Cancel culture, as its name suggests, means elevating this practice to a level that it makes it a key component of people’s lives. 

Cancelling and a Culture of Cancelling

The urge to cancel is present on all sides of the political spectrum. For example, one can say that conservatives canceled Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality. There is nothing wrong with taking displeasure with a political statement and voicing that displeasure. Furthermore, progressives have more than a right to be upset over the many things President Trump has said and done that goes against their deeply held convictions. Politics and power will always be a part of human existence and people should certainly feel empowered to hold perceived bad actors accountable as well as air their disagreements. How we decide to conduct ourselves in a polite society regarding these disagreements is another thing entirely. 

Obviously not all cancellations are created equal, which really gets to the root of the problem. Some things are certainly worth causing a bit of trouble over, such as abuse and overt aggression. However, Miss World America stripping Kathy Zhu of her Miss Michigan title for old tweets voicing her conservative views is illustrative of a concerning rise of a culture that is intolerant of dissent. A set of behavioral norms dominated by short-fused tempers and fragile minds totally disconnected from the diversity of thought inherent to a free society.

2019 is highlighted as a year where cancel culture really started to take off. Vox News writes that 

“In 2019 alone, the list of people who’ve faced being canceled included alleged sexual predators like R. Kelly; entertainers like Kanye West, Scarlett Johansson, and Gina Rodriguez, who all had offensive foot-in-mouth moments; and comedians like Kevin Hart and Shane Gillis, who each faced public backlash after social media users unearthed homophobic and racist jokes they’d made in the past.”

This list shows the complexity of cancel culture and ultimately its full extent. It is understandable if people wish to cancel someone who has been alleged to be an egregious sexual predator. It gets a bit more problematic when people start digging through old tweets or attacking comedians for making jokes or attack a popstar for supporting the wrong political party. This is what delineates what may be reasonable attacks on misbehaving individuals and a culture that encourages divisiveness and cruelty. 

The problem with canceling and cancel culture, much like any freedom is when it is abused. There’s nothing wrong with drinking but becoming an alcoholic is a different story. There is nothing wrong with a culture that values drinking but there is certainly something not right about a culture that encourages alcoholism. The same goes with cancel culture. Holding bad actors accountable and speaking truth to power is a great thing. Actively looking for careers to destroy, names to sully, quarrels to start, and overall gradually turning society into a battleground is a recipe for disaster. A society where free men cannot voice their minds is not much of a society at all. 

Cancel Culture and Political Correctness 

Cancel culture and political correctness have much in common as they both stem from hostility to certain viewpoints. Political correctness, although it has been applied in a variety of ways, at its core means to literally hold the correct political views. 

It is a term that has its origins in revolutionary Marxist thought as the Washington Examiner explains

“Professor Frank Ellis at the University of Sheffield noted the term “political correctness” was first used in the late 19th to the early 20th century when Vladimir Lenin began his rise to power. Ellis said that Marxist-Leninists and Maoists placed a heavy preeminence on being ideologically correct, both politically and theoretically. Essentially, a “forum for discussion,” as Ellis described it, would impede the revolutionary spirit needed to upend the social order.”

People of contrasting political views, even if they only slightly deviated were rooted out. In order to be viewed in good standing, people had to profess their allegiance to the cause. History must be rewritten, and to simply question the ongoing revolution would be met with backlash.

Michael Danahy explains 

“Mao’s “Little Red Book” laid out the strict party lines for communism. Quite simply, if you (in your actions and beliefs) were within these party lines, you were correct, politically…and if not, you were incorrect, politically. For example, there was only one very specific view of history that was considered correct by Chairman Mao. Any critique of the history laid out in party lines would be politically incorrect.” 

The suppression of certain thoughts and ideas is done not necessarily to prevent offense but to forward an ultimate goal. The new social and political order is advanced by deeming the ideas and actions of one’s opponents to be unacceptable. 

The Political Ends of Cancel Culture 

We can see the inherent political ends of cancel culture in events like the murder of George Floyd which understandably politicized the country. Rather than engaging in some sort of political discourse proponents of change took a different strategy:

“In the course of a week, three editors went down: James Bennett of the Times was canceled for publishing an opinion on the opinion page, Senator Tom Cotton’s defense of the Insurrection Act, which permits the use of federal troops to quell riots; Claudia Eller was pushed out at Variety (suspended, formally, but not expected to return to her position) after penning a white-privilege mea culpa that was found to be unconvincing; Adam Rapoport of Bon Appétit was canned for much the same reason, his offense aggravated by a turn-of-the-century photograph of him dressed as a stereotypical Puerto Rican at a Halloween party.”

Cancel culture has not been used as a tool to hold the powerful accountable; it has been used as a political tool of domination and suppressing dissent. The case of James Bennett resigning from the New York Times for publishing Senator Cotton’s article about sending in federal troops to quell rioting is especially egregious. NPR reports on his resignation amidst accusations that his actions made people of color unsafe

“Bennett said he personally objected to the idea of sending federal troops to control protests, but that it was important to represent other points of view in the pages of the newspaper.”

As Professor Ellis said, “A forum of discussion would impede the necessary spirit needed to upend the social order.” Here cancel culture has emerged in broad daylight as a lever of partisan political power. 

Furthermore, although public health experts criticized protest against the COVID-19 lockdowns, they flipped to encourage the Black Lives Matter protests. Many understood that this was contradictory and struggled to reconcile their beliefs. However, the New York Times reports

“The letter signed by more than 1,300 epidemiologists and health workers urged Americans to adopt a “consciously anti-racist” stance and framed the difference between the anti-lockdown demonstrators and the protesters in moral, ideological and racial terms.”

This is a full-blown politicization of public health. It isn’t by any means about antiracism or racial equality, because one can easily say that lockdowns affect minorities the most, that lockdowns only perpetuate existing grievances. Instead, proponents of cancel culture and political correctness have coerced public health into an extension of a political agenda that is anti-freedom and anticapitalist. 

It Starts on College Campuses 

College campuses cultivate the ideas of the next generation but recently the ideas being offered have been far from optimal. Rather than promoting rigorous debate and unapologetic displays of intellectual diversity, they have opted for safety at best, political indoctrination at worst. Phil Magness writes 

“Students with non-left political beliefs routinely report feeling pressures to censor their own beliefs on campus. And far-left faculty now routinely launch political crusades against disliked funding sources, aiming to block or control their non-leftist colleagues from even accessing money that is necessary to conduct research, support programs, attract students, or hire new faculty to their departments.”

Such behavior has little to do with fostering an inclusive space for learning and everything to do with suppressing ideas they disagree with.

Just last June 

“An Instagram post from the University of California, Irvine Law Admissions page sparked outrage because it spotlighted the Federalist Society, a campus organization that is “a group for people of all ideological backgrounds,” as stated in the post description. Comments under the post include students saying that the timing of the spotlight was “extremely tone-deaf” and “ill-timed” due to claims that the Federalist Society “stands with the establishment and the oppression of the marginalized.”

Commenters referred to the Federalist Society as “racist, sexist, white lawyering,” and “anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ, and fascist.”

The school took down the post and issued an apology. This is just one of many examples of America’s top colleges caving in to a small minority of politically motivated individuals with little grasp of mainstream thought. All this does is squeeze the Overton Window and necessitates radical political action from both sides.

Way back in the day when I went to college before COVID-19 roamed the Earth, I wrote a piece in the school newspaper talking about the importance of free speech. In the article, I cite examples of both the Left and Right, with one example being that at UC-Berkeley students set the campus on fire to protest Ben Shapiro, a mainstream conservative personality with libertarian tendencies.  

In response, another student wrote that Ben Shapiro, a Jew, is a “non-Nazi fascist” and that 

“We should not rally in the defense of fascism, but rather question those who claim to be oppressed when they oppress others. We must not sacrifice democracy on the altar of free speech.”

I think the quote speaks for itself and I’d like to wrap this up by reiterating that college campuses are facilitating cancel culture by their abject failure to create an environment that encourages the wholesale exploration of different ideas. Rather, they are cultivating a dystopian regime where intellectual conformity is mandated and only those previously ordained may speak.

Final Thoughts

Cancel culture is a recent phenomenon that has its roots in history and human nature. One of the triumphs of the Classical Liberal tradition that stems from the Enlightenment, the Dutch Golden Age, the American Founding, and so on is the advent of a culture of intellectual toleration. Free speech and debate are new as well as fragile developments. It wasn’t that long ago where people could be killed, tortured, or ostracized for beliefs they held. Even today, much with all of the founding principles of freedom, we are still working to fully realize those ideas such as free speech. Cancel culture and political correctness will not take us into a progressive age of inclusiveness; they will take us back to the age of domination and conflict. 

Canceling someone so to speak isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact it can be good in many cases and natural. A culture of accountability isn’t bad either and of course, people should speak truth to power especially when justice is long overdue. This is what makes a definitive judgment on what constitutes cancel culture as I have just described or people simply speaking out difficult. The problem comes when such behavior gets so pervasive that it makes any sort of desirable social fabric impossible. To those people who wish to engage in the heavy politicization, divisiveness, and domination inherent to cancel culture, I say: make sure we actually have a society left.

Ethan Yang

Ethan Yang

Ethan Yang is an Adjunct Research Fellow at AIER as well as the host of the AIER Authors Corner Podcast.

He holds a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations with minors in legal studies and formal organizations from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut. He is currently pursuing a JD from the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

Ethan also serves as the director of the Mark Twain Center for the Study of Human Freedom at Trinity College and is also involved with Students for Liberty. He has also held research positions at the Cato Institute, the Connecticut State Senate, Cause of Action Institute and other organizations.

Ethan is currently based in Washington D.C and is a recipient of the 13th Annual International Vernon Smith Prize from the European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation. His work has been featured and cited in a variety of outlets from online media to radio broadcast.

Get notified of new articles from Ethan Yang and AIER.