The tiresome subject of “cancel culture” is now, unfortunately, one that cannot responsibly be avoided. An old tweet surfaces, and all of a sudden a comedian, an actor, or even some hapless, powerless citizen, is at the center of an online tribunal.
A series of recent events have enlivened the debate. Comedian Shane Gillis lost a job offer at “Saturday Night Live” after podcasts were unearthed in which he used slurs against Chinese people, gays, and other minorities. Famous comedians like Norm MacDonald, Jim Jeffries, and Bill Burr came to his defense, and Gillis himself said he was “pushing boundaries.” But the boundaries he pushed were those that happen to be patrolled by the gatekeepers of our social justice culture. Twitter was furious, and his hiring could not stand.
Gillis’s cancellation came at a turbulent time for the comedy world. In “Sticks and Stones,” David Chappelle proudly dons the mantle of “victim blamer” and attacks cancel culture head-on. He squeezes all the sensitive pressure points of our time. For example, there is an extended bit on LGBTs, or “the alphabet people,” as he calls them, that culminates with Chappelle imagining a scenario in which a Chinese man were born in his body, asking transgenders to take some responsibility for his barbs. “I didn’t come up with this idea on my own, this idea that a person can be born in the wrong body—they have to admit, that’s a f—g hilarious predicament.”
The comedian attacks the #MeToo movement and bluntly states that he does not believe Michael Jackson’s rape accusers, suggesting that Jackson’s victims are actually lucky: “I mean, it’s Michael Jackson. I know more than half the people in this room have been molested in their lives, but it wasn’t no goddamn Michael Jackson, was it? This kid got his d–k sucked by the King of Pop. All we get is awkward Thanksgivings for the rest of our lives.” There are jokes about poor heroin-addicted whites in Ohio, mass shootings, and even a subtle anti-abortion joke. But Chappelle’s message is a deadly serious one. “They even got poor Kevin Hart,” he says of his friend, cancelled over anti-gay tweets. “This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. Everyone’s doomed.”
Chappelle received predictable praise on the Right and condemnation on the Left. Much of the criticism has focused on a lack of sensitivity, but some have found more original points of attack. The New Republic recently published a substantial entry into the cancel culture conversation that is already being hailed by some on the Left as the definitive piece on the topic. What if, author Osita Nwanevu asks us to imagine, the backlash against cancel culture were all a pose? What if it’s just a big con?
What if these self-styled mavericks were really punching down, rather than up? Suppose, even, that being cancelled endows the target with a kind of strange prestige? Nawnevu points to how powerful figures have been able to stage comebacks or even work transgression against “cancel culture” to their advantage:
Despite being loudly panned by professional and social media critics alike, Chappelle remains in the good graces of both major figures in the comedy community—including defenders like Sarah Silverman, Bill Burr, and Matt Stone—as well as his fans. Sticks and Stones has a 99 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Netflix, unfazed by all the commotion, actively promoted some of the show’s controversial bits. It’s hardly surprising. Disbelief of sexual abuse and disgust for transgender people are mainstream enough that Chappelle could take on a second career as a Republican speechwriter.
Gillis, he points out, is still doing stand-up. Some of the highest-paid comedians are self-styled critics of political correctness. Meanwhile, comedians today do not have to contend with the oppressive obscenity laws that entrapped the likes of Lenny Bruce. It’s all a con.
From this glittering observation, Nwanevu leaps to a rather obtuse conclusion: that “cancel culture seems to describe the phenomenon of being criticized by multiple people—often but not exclusively on the internet.”
Is ‘Cancel Culture’ Just a Con?
It’s not hard to see why this piece resonated on the Left. It eloquently expresses the way cancel culture’s apologists feel about this scourge: that it is not really a threat to civilized society, but rather, a kind of moral fine-tuning. It’s true that rage mobs consist of individuals with opinions, but it is absurd to describe cancel culture as mundane or mere criticism.
Nwanevu rather humorously notes that some, indeed brutal, forms of “cancelling” have been going on since the pharaoh Akhenaten, who infamously was scrubbed from the public record by his successors for his heretical sun-worship, and even before. True! But that doesn’t mean cancel culture, just because it does not entail graphic, medieval punishments, isn’t real or damaging to actual culture.
Whether cancel culture is a dangerous reality or a delusion appears to depend on your politics. Doctrinaire progressives need not fear, for the most part. But what about everybody else? And what about people who lack the power to mitigate the consequences of being “cancelled?”
To return to our friend Akhenetan, it is true that “cancelling” has been going on forever. That’s because “cancelling” is a moral phenomenon. Hester Prynne was cancelled. And so on and so on. The purpose of cancel culture today is to establish a particular progressive morality. “Every culture,” Harvard professor and noted critic of liberalism, Adrian Vermeule, writes, “is a cancel culture. If you don’t like progressive cancel culture, what you don’t like is just the content of what is cancelled.”
Evolution or Revolution?
So what happens if people today don’t like which way progressive cancel culture is directing us?
The question answers itself. Cancel culture apologists, however, merely beg the question. They are quite open about the fact that they are moral and political revolutionaries, but insist that, somehow, this “evolution,” and the consequences for dissenters, are no big deal. From Nwanevu’s article:
As far as comedy is concerned, “cancel culture” seems to be the name mediocrities and legends on their way to mediocrity have given their own waning relevance. They’ve set about scolding us about scolds, whining about whiners, and complaining about complaints because they would rather cling to material that was never going to stay fresh and funny forever than adapt to changing audiences, a new set of critical concerns, and a culture that might soon leave them behind. In desperation, they’ve become the tiresome cowards they accuse their critics of being—and that comics like Bruce, who built the contemporary comedy world, never were.
David Chappelle, on his way to “mediocrity?” Take note of the veiled threats: “waning relevance”; material that is no longer “fresh.” Yes, but according to whom? And who is being left behind, by whom, exactly?
The apologists rely on a myth of neutrality and innocuousness. At one and the same time, cancel culture is imagined to be the harmless, spontaneous effect of virtuous citizens criticizing those who cross a line, and also a sweeping revolution that threatens to swallow up those destined for “irrelevance.”
There is nothing the least bit mundane about this. Cancel culture demands—not asks, demands—that people completely reform the way they feel, think, speak, and act to make way for the “new voices,” the new “ways” being prescribed by the woke scolds who work for SNL and the New Yorker.
It is cancel culture’s apologists, not its critics, who are posers. They are the ones punching down. Cancel culture is not the expression of random public discontent but of institutional power. Its punishments are reserved for those who run afoul of a particular moral system that is shared and advanced by the hegemons of our culture.
As the Left sees it, those who feel threatened by cancel culture are irrational to feel that way. But this is dishonest. They understand perfectly well why many people feel threatened and the Left is glad they feel that way. The assumption is that it is irrational for dissenters not to “evolve,” that it is a very decent and easy and logical thing for them to do. They are supposed to “get it” and shut up. In other words, they think they are doing you a favor.
Cancel culture is not just random people airing their disapproval, but rather organized, deliberate, and targeted political harassment—often by powerful people with large platforms directed often at powerless, random citizens. Anyone with a social media account, or for that matter, anyone with the misfortune to get involved in a public altercation captured in thirty seconds of viral, ambiguous video, is a potential victim.
Not long after the New Republic piece was published, the cancellers went after “Iowa Legend” Carson King, who became a social media sensation after his sign asking for beer money appeared on ESPN’s “GameDay.” King did a remarkable, wonderful thing and used his sudden fame to raise over $1 million for an Iowa children’s hospital.
It should have been an uplifting and happy story. But when the Des Moines Register wrote a profile on King, the journalist on the job, Aaron Calvin, took it upon himself to perform a “routine background check” and discovered that he had made offensive tweets—which were actually just jokes from the Comedy Central show ”Tosh.0”—when he was 16. For no clear reason at all, the journalist included that information in the article. Anheuser-Busch cut ties with King.
The Register since has faced a richly deserved backlash. The newspaper, in trying to defend itself, issued an agonized explanation dripping with self-righteousness:
The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated to King’s cause or were planning to do so? The counter arguments: the tweets were posted seven years ago, when King was 16. And he was remorseful. Should we chalk up the posts to a youthful mistake and omit the information? Eventually, Register editors decided we would include the information, but at the bottom of the story […] Reasonable people can look at the same set of facts and disagree on what merits publication. But rest assured such decisions are not made lightly and are rooted in what we perceive as the public good.
What was that about public good? Who’s the good guy here—the man who raised money for children with cancer, or the pathetic tattle-tales who tried to ruin his life?
It is shocking that a newspaper would consider digging up offensive tweets to be part of a “routine background check,” but increasingly that is how today’s journalists understand their jobs. The consequences of journalism’s descent down the gutter of progressive tattle-taling were on graphic display last January, when a group of Catholic high school boys were mobbed by the entire national news media over a fabricated hate crime. The Covington Catholic high school boys were smeared, threatened, and viciously attacked. An online rage mob of adults gave vent to violent fantasies about their deserved punishment.
How are they doing now? They have not found redress in the courts. The articles are still out there, and the damage has been done. Meanwhile, the journalists who published vicious libels against them have suffered no consequences.
These are just a few examples of journalists, drunk off power, harassing random citizens for political reasons. Remember the “Drunk Pelosi” video? Some low-life reporter for the Daily Beast doxxed its creator. Then there was the time CNN threatened to identify a man for sharing a meme of Donald Trump tackling CNN personified as Vince McMahon to the ground. Such incidents have become disturbingly common. They certainly are not the product of spontaneous “criticism” on social media.
Arbitrary (That is, Only Progressive) Enforcement
The arbitrary enforcement of cancel culture on social media and in the public square underscores its threatening, political nature. Some sins—those which cross progressive taboos—are cancellable, while others are not. But who commits the sin is important, too.
As the Left sees it, the Covington kids deserved it. They were protesting abortion. They wore MAGA hats. They were standing athwart the march of History. What they suffered is regrettable, but hopefully we’ve all learned the lesson that the future has no place for people like them.
Airing genocidal fantasies towards white people, though, is just fine. In fact, it can even come with rich rewards, as Sarah Jeong has learned. If Justin Trudeau were conservative, his strange blackface obsession would have ended his political career overnight. Instead, he will skate. Why? Because Justin Trudeau is a powerful liberal who has already proven his commitment to diversity—which is, after all, the underlying morality of cancel culture.
In brief, cancel culture is not neutral or innocuous or inevitable; it is political, rightfully seen as dangerous by many people and potentially reversible, but its apologists are desperate that this not come to pass. The justification for it is the same forwarded by the defenders of every revolution: that you need to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, the end justifies the means, and so on.
But what of those few unfortunate eggs? Writes Nwanevu:
Social media activism and commentary occasionally tips into overzealotry. But stray instances of identity political criticisms going overboard are not evidence that the culture as a whole has or that those who dissent from progressive consensus will soon find themselves sent to the gulag. By any reasonable standard, this is the greatest period for free expression in the history of mankind. Ours is a golden age—by comparison to an era, within living memory, that saw intense legal and political battles over censorship—of the American public not being offended by things.
Is that so? That era was working to remove legal and political barriers to liberal expression. Its products are everywhere in our thoroughly desacralized, vulgarized culture. It is true that Americans today are not as uptight as they might once have been, but it’s not about what they think, is it?
That America no longer lives with oppressive obscenity laws does not suggest that we are living in some “golden age” of free speech. The equivalent today of the people whose morals entrapped Lenny Bruce are the kinds of people who staff our Big Tech corporations, our universities, the casts of painfully unfunny comedy shows, and the nation’s most prestigious newspapers. Though these elites lack the power—at least now—to throw dissenters in prison, much of their morality is already enshrined in positive law. Think of no-fault divorce, abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, etc.—that is enforced, constantly, as the new norm that all must follow in polite society. Disobeying that social script can come with ruinous consequences.
Who Cares What the Majority Thinks?
That millions of people don’t like this state of affairs doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.The true effects of cancel culture cannot be fully known, because cancel culture works by getting people to cancel their own thoughts. How many people would lose jobs, friends, connections, if they said things that they really believed, but which are now considered taboo by the brahmins of liberalism? Of course, we can only work with what we know. But we do know that millions of people in this country find liberalism to be suffocating.
There is a reason why cancel culture is so contentious, and it’s eminently simple: it is not the product of a consensus. Cancel culture rests on a mystique that all decent people now agree that X is offensive. This mystique gives cancel culture a moral authority and sense of inevitability: the cancelled are just late-comers to moral lessons that everyone (supposedly) should have learned by now. It is a testament to the power of the elites that their targets, when identified, know exactly what script to follow. Like the victims of Soviet show trials, the targets usually offers some ritual contrition in the sense that they didn’t realize that X was a sin, but they do now, and they’re deeply sorry.
Chasing Ghosts of Oppression Past
To contend that Dave Chappelle is not—as Lenny Bruce once was—rustling the complacencies of our time is absolutely ludicrous. If it is familiar, it is not safe to make jokes about transgenders, or gays, or Chinese people. Neither is Chappelle’s joke about being born in a Chinese man’s body banal; it’s the kind of thing that’s always funny because it is a delightfully absurd situation.
All great comedians have the talent, the need of exposing absurdity. One must ask how Chappelle could be asked not to attack the fatuous pretenses of our liberal elites, who demand that people embrace plain absurdities that multiply from day to day. Their self-seriousness practically demands mockery.
But as the apologists see it, this state of affairs is precisely backwards; America is still in the grip of a dangerously reactionary culture. The repressive Christian society that persecuted Lenny Bruce still has power, “homophobia” is a rampant problem, and other “marginalized” groups do not receive enough representation.
But is this really the case? We live in a time when mass media, Fortune 500 companies, universities, and public education have whole-heartedly embraced feminism, racial justice, LGBT rights, and the whole spectrum of diversity politics. Is it really true that we do not hear enough about these causes? And what happens to those who do not celebrate them?
LGBTs now have an entire month dedicated to ecstatic, compulsory observance of their movement. The breathless advance of acceptance towards gay marriage and LGBT rights over the last deade is somehow dismissed, and bigotry against LGBTs is imagined still to be an epidemic problem in America. This is a common thread in all of progressive politics: the Left’s grievances are belied by their absolute cultural hegemony.
The elites who craft the norms and moral sensibilities that all people must follow invariably privilege the erstwhile “oppressed,” to the disfavor of the erstwhile hegemons. Still, they insist on chasing phantoms of bourgeois oppression, as Christopher Lasch put it in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism:
Many radicals still direct their indignation against the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order that have been weakened or destroyed by advanced capitalism itself.
What’s left of the old order? For the Left, it’s a problem of too much that has not yet been destroyed. They are anxious about that which is not presently under their control. Therefore, that there is large public resistance to political correctness somehow evinces a lack of power on the part of cancel culture. Never mind that a large swathe of the public is enjoined, against its will, to shut up. That the Right is feebly attempting to reverse this state of affairs somehow proves that cancel culture is no threat, Nwanevu seems to think:
The critics of cancel culture are plainly threatened not by a new and uniquely powerful kind of public criticism but by a new set of critics: young progressives, including many minorities and women who, largely through social media, have obtained a seat at the table where matters of justice and etiquette are debated and are banging it loudly to make up for lost time. The fact that jabs against cancel culture are typically jabs leftward, even as conservatives work diligently to cancel academics, activists, and companies they disfavor in both tweets and legislation, underscores this.
By the same token, opposition to identity politics is popular and has the sanction of “a broad constellation of publications and outlets, and political figures—including the sitting president of the United States—who happen to hold most of the political power in this country.”
Political power, yes. What about cultural power? Morality in our time is mere fashion, and these fashions come from the secular clergy who control late-night entertainment, academia, and the mass media. Their ideas may be unpopular, but people still risk becoming pariahs when they run afoul of their rules.
The Schoolmarms of Woke Comedy
The efforts of the Right to fight Big Tech and “PC” censorship so far, have been largely fruitless because the Right has virtually no cultural authority. If America was once dominated by Christian morals, it has since veered so far in the other direction that liberalism has become equally uptight, and just as boring. We now live in a thoroughly pornified world. Everything that used to be edgy is safe and lame: somehow, joking about Jesus, sex, bodily fluids, and patriotism is still common fare, but such topics have lost their bite.
Liberalism has lost much of its creativity, and has grown ossified, dull, authoritarian, and finally, boring. In the creative world, liberalism largely manifests in finding new rules to punish people and new ways to express historical resentments. The liberalism that railed against the old Christian morality has become a new moralism, with its own priggish, illiberal conscience.
What is this “fresh material” we are being deprived of, anyway? Certainly not the kind being provided by today’s progressive comedians? If comics like Dave Chappelle are not the heirs of Lenny Bruce, then who could those heirs possibly be—the woke moralists wagging their fingers at the audience? Liberal comedy has become a kind of progressive Sunday School where anger, not levity, is the prevailing emotion.
NBC has a new late night show, “A Little Late with Lily Singh,” that is already being hailed by critics as groundbreaking. Not, mind you, because it is funny, but because the host happens to be the first bi-sexual woman of color to host a late-night show. Notice how the audience applauds, rather than laughs, at the mean-spirited, tiresome jabs at the usual villains of progressivism.
The awful tedium of woke comedy is a feature not a bug of the design. Comedy, as the cancellers see it, is primarily about moral indoctrination. Whether it’s actually funny is secondary. There is pretty much one joke: X thing or person is racist or, for some other reason, bad. The audience is then invited to laugh and make fun of X, and everyone gets their jollies, mindful of their moral superiority to poor, ignorant X. More importantly, everyone is reminded to never, ever, under any circumstances, end up like X.
The comparisons to the Soviets are warranted. Let’s not kid ourselves: there’s nothing remotely rebellious about journalists harassing random people over racist tweets or comedians bashing white people from inside of a studio. It’s tiresome, safe, and completely supported by the status quo.
But what makes cancel culture apologists so certain that they won’t be cancelled? What’s stopping them from one day waking up and finding the mob coming for them? It must be the reassurance that their progressive values mark them as safe. Their demonstrations of loyalty to the Party will protect them. But is this not a tacit recognition that leftism is dominant, and that defending cancel culture is siding with power, rather than an act of rebellion?
So is cancel culture real, or fake? The best evidence for its existence might be that even cancel culture’s defenders are being cancelled—at least, in those rare occasions when justice (the real thing, not the witch mob bloodlust of cancel culture)—takes over. As it turns out, the Des Moines Register fired Aaron Calvin.
Calvin, it turns out, had a history of racist tweets himself. And—irony of ironies!—he retweeted Nwanevu’s article about how cancel culture isn’t real beforehand. Does he believe it now?