Similar to its predecessor “PC culture,” which is used to bemoan the mythical tyranny of political correctness, “cancel culture” has become a popular catch-all to describe a social-justice warrior agenda that some believe goes too far when challenging the status quo, saying that it threatens free speech and discourse.
When a celebrity says something bigoted or offends a group of people or is accused of something more serious (violence against women, for instance), cancel culture’s opponents claim that a bloodthirsty, reactive internet mob swoops in to condemn them by loudly declaring a withdrawal of consumption and support.
However, much like how the use of the word “culture” in the phrase “cancel culture” is unsupported by our definitions of what actually constitutes a “culture”—even falling short of internet standards—so are the claims of the harm it causes. Cancel culture is paradoxical in that its opponents manage to claim it’s both harmfully punitive and performative virtue signaling. You’d be hard pressed to name a celebrity or public figure that has been summarily “canceled” by a large swath of the population—be it an online or offline community—and treated like a leper. Even the ones accused of the most egregious crimes manage to hold onto a core group of supporters. And with the passage of time—and the obligatory mea culpas penned on iPhone notes—many find themselves back in the public’s good graces within a matter of months or even weeks.
Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari are not languishing in obscurity. Logan Paul will still net earnings of about $10 to $12 million this year. Cardi B, Azealia Banks, and Doja Cat will still enjoy patronage from fans willing to extend room for “growth” just like all the other celebrities who have incurred backlash. Aside from the close proximity to celebrity fostered by social media, the consumer/creator dynamic hasn’t changed as much as we think.
A prime example of the histrionic failings against “cancel culture” can be found in Wesley Morris’ “The Morality Wars.” Which, although it was published a few weeks ago, captures a feeling that seems to be evergreen. Morris mourns the loss of the “civilized dinner party” (a pressing concern plaguing all of us) and squarely places the majority of the blame for what he views as a declining quality in cultural production and critique on a “culture war” waged by marginalized people who prioritize morality and representation over good art and that “cancel culture” robs us of dynamic imperfections.
In Morris’ world, the 2017 Grammys that shunned Ed Sheeran from major categories in favor of an exaltation of Kendrick Lamar were responding to the looming threat of black social media outrage, as opposed to a likely ratings and profit-driven decision to cash in on a year that was notably big for commercial black art that presented itself as political commentary. According to Morris, Adele offered a tearful apology to Beyoncé for winning album of the year to stave off the imminent life-threatening reaction of the Beyhive, not because she’s a notorious Bey stan.
Morris presents a reality where the arts and entertainment world is held captive by the tyranny of marginalized people (and Beyoncé) irresponsibly wielding social media influence to the detriment of all that is artistic. He and other people who dare critique the most popular Black Things or Queer Things are shunned into repressed silence by less refined identitarians, left only with the option to divulge their much-maligned opinions in obscure counterculture media rags like the New York Times. Minorities expressing dissent, disappointment or unfavorable opinions of a public figure online are to be pathologized as a culture onto itself, a new iteration of censorship by the hands of people who don’t actually possess any collective social capital to have any final say in cultural production beyond providing a culture soon to be commodified.
Much like when Zadie Smith compared the protests of black people objecting to a white artist’s painting of Emmett Till to the anti-miscegenation laws of the antebellum South and Nazi censorship, Morris’ essay and the feelings behind it embrace the same spirit of false equivalence. He asserts “the kinds of people who used to be subject to censorship are now the purveyors of not-dissimilar silencing” while juxtaposing these groups against powerful moral lobbyists who actually influenced oppressive legislation and other bigoted hate groups. This is the kind of intellectually dishonest talking point you’d find coming from the Neo-Conservative Persecution Performance Handbook, somewhere between the chapters on “Reverse Racism” and “White Straight Christian Men Are The Real Victims.”
To be fair, there are some salvageable points from Morris’ essay. But it fails to interrogate structural factors while hyper-focusing on the individual behaviors of those with less social capital. Is the subjective decline of “good art” the fault of social justice warrior tyranny or the homogeneity that results from a capitalist market that allowed telecommunication and media monopolies to dominate cultural production? It can be said that contemporary black critics are often reticent to do less than gush over the representation displayed in shows like Insecure, but since when have critics been so hyper-sensitive to contention? To quote critical theorist, writer and filmmaker Frank B. Wilderson III, “It’s my job and your job as critical theorists to join in with the black joy but also to be the skeptics.” Bullying and harassment on social media is definitely real, and these behaviors can spill into the margins of our offline lives. But a little tiff at the dinner table that knocks the polite mask of civility slightly askew is hardly indicative of a dramatic societal shift.
Conflict and dissent are very human behaviors, and with social media there are groups of people who have a relatively new platform to express these very human behaviors and be heard—imperfect as some of these expressions may be. However what people do when they invoke dog whistles like “cancel culture” and “culture wars” is illustrate their discomfort with the kinds of people who now have a voice and their audacity to direct it towards figures with more visibility and power.