What do we mean when we use the term “cancel culture”?
As a concept, it’s relatively new. It’s often characterized as a kind of online shaming, a digital ostracization of those judged undesirable by the grand entity of modern wokeness. It’s written about in feverish think pieces as an assault on some nebulous global right to free expression, hardly grounded in even the broadest reading of American constitutional law.
Strictly speaking, cancel culture is about the withdrawal of support, financial or otherwise. It’s a loss of opportunity, and of cultural capital. It’s a familiar consequence given novel shape and form by mobilized, globalized masses with access to new platforms afforded to them by the internet. And, to that point, it’s the voicing of opinions once silent, expressed by those who have been historically voiceless.
What do we mean, then, when we use the term? And why was it coined?
We’ve cancelled other people for all of human history. We’ve certainly never been shy about ostracizing the dangerously different or the taboo. And we needn’t reach far back to find recent examples that predate cancel culture in semantics only.
Consider Janet Jackson, who was blacklisted by Viacom and its affiliates (including CBS and MTV) for years after her 2004 Super Bowl performance, during which Justin Timberlake notoriously exposed her nipple to an audience of millions.
Jackson lost a film role, had a Disney tribute dismantled, and received limited radio play for years following the incident, and was criticized ceaselessly in the media for having the audacity to… have breasts? Les Moonves, the former chairman of CBS who led the crusade to effectively cancel Ms. Jackson for her offense, was forced to resign in 2018 due to a mountain of sexual harassment and abuse allegations levelled against him.
We didn’t call it cancel culture then. Janet Jackson didn’t have the benefit of that pejorative term the way that Moonves might’ve 14 years later, when he was allegedly destroying evidence of a CBS investigation into his conduct to preserve his severance. So what changed in the ensuing years?
In July 2020, Harper’s Magazine published a letter that was deeply critical of cancel culture, and it was signed by 153 writers and academics, including J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, and Margaret Atwood. Its authors condemned the stifling threat of illiberalism, characterized as the narrowing of “boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.” The irony of having their position published in one of America’s oldest and most familiar monthly magazines seemed lost on them.
Rowling, it should be said, had recently received significant criticism for her very public opinions about trans identity, particularly in a 3,600-word June 2020 essay in which she repeated a number of debunked claims about trans people and employed dangerous anti-trans rhetoric. In her battle against what she would later condemn with her fellow signatories as pernicious cancel culture, Rowling rebuffed the feedback offered by a number of trans activists relaying their own lived experiences by blocking them on Twitter. Her September 2020 novel, Troubled Blood, featured a common anti-trans fictional trope (a man dressing as a woman to commit violent crimes), and spent its first two weeks as the UK’s top-selling book. Rowling, despite her expressed fears of cancel culture, remains arguably the most financially successful author in the world.
Things are named when the gatekeepers of popular culture deem them worthy of naming. Les Moonves didn’t have to contend with the term “cancel culture” when he decided to punish Janet Jackson for being a woman of colour with a body, but he held the levers to silence her in an impactful way. When 153 broadly-published academics and writers wring their hands over the threat of professional reprisal, however, they need an identifiable target that they can disassociate from their detractors.
In January 2021, following his very public role in the incitement of an armed and deadly insurrection, US Senator Josh Hawley decried the horrifying consequences of cancel culture when Simon & Schuster announced that they would no longer be publishing his upcoming book. Nevermind that another publisher eagerly picked up Hawley’s work less than two weeks later; the aggrieved senator announced passionately that he would “fight this cancel culture with everything” he had, even threatening legal recourse and calling the cancellation a “direct assault on the First Amendment.” Hawley – a Yale Law School graduate – must’ve misremembered the text of that First Amendment in his fury, since there are no provisions in law guaranteeing his right to a firm publication date.
The US senate as a body certainly wasn’t as concerned about the future impacts of cancel culture when it bafflingly decided to hold its infamous Senate Hearing on Record Labelling in 1985. At the time, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) – a concerned parents’ group whose membership included a number of politically-connected woman such as Tipper Gore – made a concerted effort to challenge the content being produced by the record industry, here represented largely by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA invoked the First Amendment in its defence of free expression in artists’ works, but was ultimately compelled to voluntarily add Parental Advisory Labels to its products. Its perhaps only a coincidence that, although only white artists testified to their opposition at the senate hearing, Tipper Gore was inspired to act by the lyrics of a Prince recording, and the first album to receive the label was by the rap group 2 Live Crew.
PMRC, in requesting that the music industry “exercise restraint”, hoped to silence those voices that were offensive to them. There was ultimately little financial fallout, despite their intentions. But the same cannot be said for other artists who suffered a kind of cancellation at the hands of powerful detractors: Vanessa Williams, who was forced to resign her Miss America crown when Penthouse published her unauthorized nude photos; Mira Sorvino, who was blacklisted by Harvey Weinstein for resisting his sexual advances; an entire generation of LGBTQ actors who were shuffled into obscurity by studio-era Hollywood when their personal lives became uncomfortable gossip fodder for conservative, post-war America.
Cancel culture is not the abuse that is heaped upon the disadvantaged and the culturally unpopular. That is, plainly, harassment. Cancel culture, instead, is defined – quite helpfully, by the Harper’s letter – as professional retribution. It is not violent, but it is the loss of a platform. And for those more ideologically and politically conservative commentators who staunchly defend free expression, it should be doubly emphasized that professional and financial consequence is the most purely capitalist consequence there can be.
In Janet Jackson’s case, a woman suffered the consequences of being the unfortunate subject of a nation’s concentrated racism and misogyny. But in other cases, now suddenly described as cancel culture, it is the disadvantaged who finally have an opportunity to speak truth to power and administer consequences of their own.
We didn’t call it cancel culture until the ones doing the cancelling were members of the LGBTQ community, or black and indigenous people of colour, or women from disadvantaged segments of society. It wasn’t worth naming until then. When trans activists encourage us to boycott the future works of J.K. Rowling, it’s because they want to de-platform the kind of hateful rhetoric that catalyzes real violence against them.
Cultural ostracization is a dangerous tool. It has rarely been used to positive ends. But it is important to view the debate over cancel culture through a critical lens, one which considers the breadth of its application and the root of its criticism. Cancel culture is neither new nor newly restrictive, but the loudest voices in its opposition are those same voices who have shouted down the rest for a very long time.