Yes, Cancel Culture is Real and Yes, It's Bad for Liberty
A specter is haunting the US—the specter of cancel culture. All the players of the American political spectrum have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this specter; Trump and Obama, Shapiro and Chomsky, right-wing libertarians and old-school Marxists (who may or may not appreciate this riff on his material).
Well, perhaps not quite all players of the American political spectrum. Chances are you’ve been told by All the Very Serious People with All the Correct Opinions about Everything that cancel culture doesn’t exist. Chances are also that you’ve not only been told this, but that you’ve also been told that, actually, cancel culture is good or that it’s always existed. Which is it? These people can’t make up their minds but seem to think that if they keep repeating these incongruent arguments as well as any other variations of them that the rest of us will just say “Gosh, these people making claims that contradict each other are right, I guess this empirically-observable phenomenon isn’t real after all.”
True, these arguments may hold sway among the 51% of American adults who view cancel culture as merely holding people who say offensive things “accountable” (which, mind you, means they acknowledge it exists), but the number of people who buy this bunkum has declined in recent years, with the Pew Research survey providing this figure also finding that the percentage of Americans who view cancel culture unfavorably grew by 7 points since 2022 alone to 46%. The same survey’s findings also indicate that negativity towards cancel culture has increased as more Americans have become familiar with it, a trend that’s likely to continue as debates over the issue persist into the future.
Part of what makes cancel culture so distasteful is the blatantly arbitrary way in which it's enforced. Dave Chappelle, for instance, has been the target of a particularly vocal cancellation campaign over controversial jokes he’s made about trans people, with Netflix writers boycotting the streaming service over its hosting his content, distributors pulling out from a deal to carry his new documentary, and comedy venues literally cancelling live shows of his after facing backlash. The driving force behind these actions is the claim that Chappelle’s views "endanger” others. Yet regardless of how one feels about Chappelle or his comments about trans people (I, personally, believe they lack nuance and are indeed insensitive to trans people), the vitriol with which he’s regarded by liberals and leftists is bizarre compared to the way that, say, Dick Cheney is treated these days.
Despite repeatedly lying to the American people about Iraq having WMDs and ties to Al Qaeda in order to push an illegal invasion that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and whose consequences we’re still dealing with today, Cheney has not been punished for his lies but, in fact, been rewarded with rehabilitation by those who once viewed him as the epicenter of evil in the Bush White House. A couple months after the campaign against Chappelle swung into gear, the former vice president was invited by Congressional Democrats to the Capitol to condemn the January 6th rioters, with Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro even praising him as someone who “cares deeply about this country”. Not only that, but MSNBC gave rosy coverage to an anti-Trump ad Cheney appeared in, calling it “extraordinary” and Cheney himself “powerful”. No boycotts were threatened, no #CancelCheney Twitter campaigns were launched, and no angry letters were sent by MSNBC’s left-leaning audience for “giving a platform” (that most egregious of crimes in this enlightened era) to a man who the very same network once said “fear[ed] being tried as a war criminal”.
Cancel culture, to be sure, is far from the greatest threat to liberty today: our government is facilitating a bloody proxy war in Ukraine that could easily escalate into a third world war, many people (a disproportionate amount of whom are Black) are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses that are no longer even considered crimes in many states, and agencies like the NSA continue to target ordinary Americans for mass surveillance, among numerous other issues. However, the chilling effect that cancel culture has on our wider culture has ripple effects that make it easier for the powers that be to censor anti-war and anti-establishment voices as “misinformation”, “conspiracy theories”, or even “hate speech” (a chilling example of this is Venezuela, where leftist leader Nicolas Maduro has used the country’s “Law Against Hate” to arrest political opponents and dissidents.)
We’ve seen this in the debate over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with a socialist student group that organized a screening of the documentary Ukraine on Fire being instructed by college administrators to cancel the event on the grounds that the film is allegedly “pro-Putin”. More absurd but no less disturbingly, the Brits got in on the cancelling action when the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra dropped the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky from a concert for no reason other than that he shared the same nationality as the people invading Ukraine. What’s next, banning Aladdin because he’s Arab like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, or locking up Japanese-Americans in camps because they happen to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor?
One of the great ironies of discourse over cancel culture is that some who vocally denied its existence and dismissed concerns about it as overblown have ended up being cancelled themselves. Nathan Robinson, then working as a columnist for The Guardian, once mockingly declared that “There is no cancel culture” and claimed that every person that has been cancelled has “ended up on their feet”. So it was not a little karmic when Robinson landed in hot water over a joke he made on Twitter about the considerable influence the Israel lobby wields in Washington (something that has been the subject of study by credible academics and which card-carrying members of said lobby have themselves bragged about). Despite obviously being a joke and specifically about special interest groups like AIPAC, Robinson's editor said that the Tweet could be read as feeding into anti-Semitic tropes and demanded he delete it. Accepting the reprimand, he removed the offending post and assumed the matter was resolved until one day, he received a call letting him know that he was fired for making the joke at all. All without the threat of “explicit government action” that Robinson notes has occasionally been used against critics of Israel.
Indeed, government censorship is unnecessary if the state is able to outsource the work of banning views it doesn’t like to non-state actors like corporations and colleges. This is why, as former ACLU president Nadine Strossen argues, freedom of speech doesn’t merely mean First Amendment protections against government overreach but a larger culture that respects a plurality of perspectives and opinions. One can - and indeed, should - express vehement disagreement with some of the statements and words that would be said in such a culture, but citizens having heated debates amongst themselves is surely preferable to a group of busybodies, whether in the public or private sector, dictating what can or can’t be said.
A good demonstration of this is Lex Fridman’s interview with Kanye West, where Fridman, a Russian Jew with relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, directly challenged the latter about his recent (and, unlike Mr. Robinson's, genuinely) anti-Semitic remarks even as he gave him the time to explain his perspective. The cancel crowd might balk that Fridman isn’t Bill O’Reilly and didn’t spend the interview telling his guest to shut up, and some likely even talk issue with him giving a platform to Kanye at all. For the rest of us though, it was an instructive lesson in how to combat hate and ignorance head on instead of the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach that merely allows such sentiments to hide underground.
This point was touched upon by George Carlin, that venerable old lefty, when he addressed cancel culture’s older cousin, political correctness:
“Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.”
In short, trying to silence speech instead of addressing the issues raised by it is like treating the symptom rather than the disease. The answer to hate - as the ACLU still maintains and as Fridman showed in his conversation with Kanye - is more speech, not less, and the answer to lies is truth, not censorship.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.
Reggie Peralta is a native of Santa Ana and UCLA graduate with a BA in Political Science. In addition to helping out as Blog Editor for the Libertarian Party of Orange County, he has volunteered and written content for local arts and cultural organizations like The Frida Cinema, Makara Center for the Arts, and LibroMobile.