A Culture of Consequence

Conservatives want you to be scared of something called “Cancel Culture.” Is it even a thing?

There’s apparently something dark and insidious happening in our country today, a phenomenon that is determined to do away with free speech and diversity of thought, and turn us into a bunch of robotic zombies who can no longer think for themselves, but are only capable of blurting out whatever is deemed acceptable by the Disney Company and the rest of the nation’s liberal overlords. I speak, of course, of “Cancel Culture.”

An illustration featuring four people with colorful X’s over their blank faces.

And, naturally, I’m engaging in the tiniest bit of hyperbole, but only slightly. To those who believe in “Cancel Culture,” it’s truly something to be frightened of. According to its critics, “Cancel Culture” will punish anyone for any statements they’ve made, even decades ago, if they can be perceived today as racist, sexist, or even just garden variety mean to anyone else. This punishment will entail losing one’s livelihood and being “disappeared” the way the mob used to do — only this time, it’s the big, scary liberal mob you’ve heard so much about.

To those who take a more moderate view of things, “Cancel Culture” is not anything to lose sleep over.

First, they’ll be quick to point out, it’s nothing new. Remember what happened to The (Dixie) Chicks back in the 90’s when they said one critical sentence about then President George W. Bush on foreign soil? They were effectively banned from country radio, and stations held big celebrations where former fans could bring their CDs and watch them be crushed under the wheel of a giant steamroller. Those who decry “Cancel Culture” today didn’t seem to be too worried then about protecting their freedom of speech. Or to go even further back, let’s examine the “Red Scare” of the 1947, when Senator Joseph McCarthy, on a mission to root out Communists in Hollywood, succeeded in “canceling” Charlie Chaplin, Lena Horne, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Miller, Langston Hughes, and others, often by simply alleging that they harbored Communist sympathies.

Second, they’ll be quick to point out that what is happening today is not at all equivalent to what was happening then. There is no liberal Senator out to “cancel” Dr. Seuss (who, in fact, is no longer alive). What actually happened earlier this year was the Seuss estate willingly stopped publishing six rather obscure titles, because they “portray people in ways that are harmful and wrong.” The rest of Seuss’s catalog remains in bookstores and library shelves, including the bestsellers Green Eggs & Ham, Fox in Socks, and The Cat in the Hat (which many scholars have argued is equally problematic — but the estate chose to leave it be, and it remains available). Likewise, no Senator called for the firing of Gina Carano, an actress in Disney’s The Mandalorian, after several controversies on social media, including the time she compared being a Republican to being a Jew under Nazi occupation. No, Disney did that all by themselves, when her continued employment proved to be bad for business. And she wasn’t out of work long; the conservative website The Daily Wire is financing her next film.

A cynical view of the entire situation suggests that some politicians want us to ignore voter suppression laws like the one recently passed in Georgia, or the ones being drafted in Texas and Arizona. If that was the plan, it (thankfully) doesn’t seem to be working. A more generous view is that there might be something different about this moment in time that is truly worrisome. Is there such a thing as “Cancel Culture”?

Woody Allen might have some thoughts on this. Decades after he betrayed his partner with her 20-year old daughter and credible allegations of child rape were made by his own daughter, his long and storied career finally seems to be truly over, as much as he’d like to continue making films. Alexi McCammond lost her gig at Teen Vogue before it even began because of tweets she posted over ten years ago — tweets she had deleted and apologized for. On the other hand, popular YouTuber Randy Rainbow recently found himself in a similar situation, but a heartfelt apology seemed to do the trick, and he’s now as popular than ever.

It seems to me that in 2021, Americans’ freedom of speech is well and truly intact — but that it now works both ways. With social media a much stronger cultural force, a corporation’s customer base has much more power over decisions made there than ever before. If a famous person says something that the fan base doesn’t like, they will hear a loud backlash. And perhaps the fans won’t always get everything right — but it’s clear they won’t be setting that megaphone down anytime soon.

Eric Peterson is a writer and educator living in Washington DC. He hosts a podcast about old movies, and his first novel will be released in November.

(he/him) I’m a funny, serious, outgoing, introspective, #diversity & #inclusion practitioner. Finished my first novel.