Why the dark origins of cancel culture are more relevant now than ever


September 28, 2020

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In one of his comedy sketches, comedian, author, and producer Jim Gaffigan shares his secret desire to be a film director, but in daily life. With this special power, he explains, you could simply yell “AAAAND cut!” to silence someone if you didn’t feel like engaging in conversation. 

Incidentally, this vision is starting to become a reality. It’s clear that cancel culture is on the rise, and unlike Gaffigan’s witty sketches, it’s not funny.

The cultural movement to silence, or “cancel,” people, brands, events, or viewpoints that are deemed distasteful, cancel culture has gained a cult following. However, though dominating popular media, the practice is controversial. In fact, there has recently been a cultural uprising to “cancel” cancel culture, denouncing it as overly censorious and intolerant of opposing views.

It is undeniable that certain types of expression should be criticized and challenged, namely, racial, xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted, or otherwise hateful forms of slander. However, the fundamental issue with cancel culture is that it pushes society away from real, dynamic, nuanced conversation and perspectives, ultimately subordinating rational dialogue to monolithic mob rule.

Cancel culture’s dark origin

Despite its frequent use in repudiating sexist, racist, bigoted remarks and acts, cancel culture has decidedly misogynistic origins. In fact, its current use as a tool to bludgeon viewpoints that are inconsistent with culturally-sanctioned, mainstream opinions conceals its darker underbelly: its tendency to view people as expendable commodities, not beings with inherent dignity. 

One of the first known references to “canceling” someone reaches back to a 1991 thriller starring Ice-T and Wesley Snipes. Upon breaking up with a romantic partner, Snipes’ character quips, “Cancel that b****. I’ll buy another one.” Fast forward to 2010, when rapper Lil Wayne references canceling a woman in one of his many misogyny-laced songs. 

From there, the phenomenon of “canceling” people spawned micro-movements, from social media wars with estranged friends to publicly shaming celebrities and politicians for past remarks or behavior. Now, we see it everywhere, from pithy Instagram memes that lambast entire political movements, to hyper-personal decisions to “cancel,” or cut-out, relationships that we deem burdensome.

Cancel culture subordinates rational dialogue to the collective values of the mob

At its core, cancel culture is antithetical to rational dialogue – the key to helping society thrive and come to truth. There are real issues that should unite us in outrage; indeed, acts of police brutality and racial violence should be collectively condemned. However, there are also numerous other issues over which reasonable minds can, and do, differ. By failing to acknowledge the nuance present in most issues, cancel culture forecloses any opportunity to express independent thought. And rational dialogue that sees and appreciates nuance is essential to rooting out truth—or, at the very least, compassionate, mutual understanding.

In fact, independent, rational thought has the capacity to hone and refine our character. If we leave our beliefs, opinions, and values untested, we cannot grow. We would simply live in an echo chamber, constantly reinforcing our own values without considering whether they are making us better. However, if we challenge our own beliefs, we can refine them. Whether this leads us to crystallize our values, reject them, or edit them, the exercise sharpens us and helps us grow in compassion and understanding. 

On the other hand, conformity to the mob mentality can tear us apart. Throughout history, mob rule has invariably led to destruction and violence. Think, for example, of the rise of some of history’s most charismatic leaders and the turmoil that ensued: even in a democratic society, leaving formative decision making to the collective wants of a flawed, imperfect people can have disastrous results. Nazi Germany, the Soviet regime, and twentieth-century Chinese revolutionaries come to mind. 

Independent, rational thought has the capacity to hone and refine our character. If we leave our beliefs, opinions, and values untested, we cannot grow.

The issue underlying cancel culture, then, is that a censorious society fails to make space for all viewpoints. This not only undercuts our system in which all people are deemed “created equal” and endowed with the right to free expression, but more importantly, fails to see, acknowledge, and appreciate the human person behind that viewpoint.

Worse yet, it makes the views indistinguishable from the person. So when you try to “cancel” someone’s viewpoint, you are also cutting that person out—out of your life, out of the public forum, out of meaningful dialogue.

Cancel culture fails to offer the grace to change

Cancel culture effectively holds a microscope to people – from private citizens to political figures – waiting for them to make a single misstep. In fact, it is a part of a broader, more sinister trend: an inability to forgive, let go of grudges, or to extend others the grace to redeem themselves. This tendency spans party affiliations, religious identities, and particular sociopolitical viewpoints. It is a human problem, not a political one, but it is just as polarizing. 

Many opponents of cancel culture decry its toxic undertones and its tendency to never let old wounds close. The antidote is meaningful dialogue, that is, encouraging humility and vulnerability in openly expressing our views, entertaining discussion about them, and letting people change and heal.

A society that sanctions and praises us for “swiping left” on anyone whose views we reject will never help us heal wounds or bridge chasms, nor will it bring us closer to truth or the ever-elusive “happiness” our modern world constantly promises.

As a friend and mentor once told me, “burning bridges doesn’t actually cut someone out of your life. It just creates an impassable heap of smoldering rubble between you and that person.” The folly of cancel culture is just the same: we can never truly cut someone out. The person, viewpoint, or ideology we are trying to avoid will not cease to exist just because we wish it would. And the anti-intellectual approach of pulling the wool over our eyes when something challenges us will not make us better people, help us grow or cultivate life-giving community.

This issue comes into sharp relief when viewed through the lens of family life. What type of precedent does cancel culture set for the next generation? 

As women trying to form minds that know how to think, reflect, and process for themselves, a censorious society that collectively imposes a moratorium on anything deemed “distasteful” isn’t an ally. And it’s not hard to see the dangerous logical result of cancel culture’s tendency to shut down entire lines of discourse: it can teach our children that when they don’t want to face something hard, whether it be a person, viewpoint, or task, they can simply declare it “canceled” and move on. 

A society that sanctions and praises us for “swiping left” on anyone whose views we reject will never help us heal wounds or bridge chasms, nor will it bring us closer to truth or the ever-elusive “happiness” our modern world constantly promises.

Considering that much personal growth stems from doing things we don’t want to do, this sets the stage for a generation of wholly unchallenged people who are unable to stand up for what is right by way of civil discourse or confront uncomfortable situations.

It’s about time we realize that we can’t “cancel” people. And if we want to grow as people, families, and societies, we need to stop trying.

Comments +

  1. Anonymous says:

    Wow! Very thoughtful and timely! We must begin an era in which we celebrate our differences.


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