What happened to Mr. Potato Head? And now Dr. Seuss is under attack? What’s going on? Are the “awake” Liberals going to ban everything? What can we say today without being attacked? Are we not supposed to have freedom of speech under the Constitution?
“Cancel culture” is difficult to define, as people use it differently and more widely than when the term first appeared. The cancellation culture originally referred to the alarming increase in anonymous social media lobbying campaigns aimed at punishing someone for saying something some felt was racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain offensive.
The power of these campaigns meant you couldn’t defend yourself. Even if your alleged crime was minor, or if you had been misunderstood, you could be beaten (usually figuratively) into submission by a crowd of people filled with righteous anger and eager to attack you.
For example, Forbes magazine reported that a teacher was fired for not addressing a student with the student self-designated gender pronoun. Was this teacher really guilty of a crime which required his dismissal? Maybe the teacher was a little callous, or maybe the teacher disagreed about identifying gender and using gender pronouns. But should the teacher have been canceled?
A professor at the University of Southern California was put on leave for using a Chinese word in his Chinese class that resembled the n word, even though it was not the n word. How is this social justice?
These examples are disturbing and they are not as rare as one might think. Canceling culture has become a serious problem in higher education, with faculty and staff who hold minority views sometimes afraid to speak out for fear of an overwhelming and destructive reaction from the campus community. It seems that many colleges and universities no longer see their mission as teaching students to think. Increasingly, their mission is to teach students what to think – and to demand that faculty and staff agree on what it is.
Michael Poliakoff points out in Newsweek that Cornell University’s faculty senate recently voted for mandatory anti-racism teacher and student training. This is not an opportunity to share ideas or encourage disagreements about the nature of racism. It is training, based on the notion that there is only one legitimate view of the problem and its solution, if any. This is an institutionalized attack on freedom of expression.
The use of the term “cancellation culture” has evolved. He – to use a term from the 1960s – was “co-opted” by the political right. Nicole Holliday of the University of Pennsylvania coined the term “semantic whitening” to describe how words that begin with a meaning eventually evolve and are used pragmatically or functionally for certain groups.
Mr. Potato Head did not become Potato Head due to an online campaign against the company; the company simply decided to expand its brand to create greater profitability. No culture of cancellation here, despite the demands of the right. The same goes for Dr. Seuss. There hasn’t been terrible pressure from social media or elsewhere; his estate decided that some of his books were problematic and decided to stop selling them. It is only capitalism in action.
Yet right-wing politicians have taken the term “cancel culture” and used it to suggest that anything traditional and good is being attacked by liberals. So, for example, we have Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan proclaiming that Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s criticism for supporting QAnon’s conspiracy theories is nothing more than quashing the culture.
There remains a serious problem of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia (and other forms of bigotry) in our country. The culture of cancellation sometimes takes extreme forms and results in unfair treatment of people, but that does not mean that all people or institutions should be immune from liability.
Not all complaints about bigotry are unfair. Not everyone should be saved from cancellation.
What started as left-wing extremism has grown into a form of right-wing extremism.
Freedom of expression is under threat today and what is called the “culture of cancellation” is just the tip of the iceberg. This once ominous tool of the left has turned into an empty slogan used by right-wing politicians to score partisan points. A term that started out as a left-wing club has turned into a right-wing smokescreen.
Solomon D. Stevens received his doctorate in political science from Boston College. His two books are “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East” and “Religion, Politics and the Law” (co-authored).