What is cancel culture?

In 2021, people who insist on their free speech rights to denigrate others say that efforts to uphold language standards are “cancel culture.” The “cancel” part is that there are consequences for people who publicly demean other people, based on their gender, race, or disability.

How the U.S. has changed

No one would question that American culture changed rapidly in the 1960’s-1980’s. Women gained many rights (including the right to have an independent bank account, credit cards, birth control, and abortion). Law-supported racial segregation ended (although segregation persists). Disabled Americans gained rights, legally.

In this same period, it became socially awkward to make comments or jokes at the expense of women, minorities, or disabled people. Some people didn’t like being told that these comments and jokes were not allowed in the office because they made their coworkers uncomfortable. That’s when Rush Limbaugh started taking on “the political correctness movement.”

Fast-forward to the 2016 Presidential campaign. The Republican candidate, in a public rally, parodied a reporter with Cerebral Palsy. His audience laughed. Battle lines were drawn again in that war against “political correctness.”  That candidate did not feel consequences for his insult.

Unlike what happened to that candidate, speech that assumes only white, able-bodied guys belong in the society has social consequences. When those consequences are negative, they are attributed to a made-up thing called “cancel culture.”

This article defines and explains “cancel culture.” It makes some legitimate points. There have been incidents in the past five or six years where people have been fired or lost opportunities because of their public statements or associations. Some of these actions happened when the person “cancelled” (fired or denied access to work or college) were teens on social media. There is injustice in that. Children do not know better, until they are taught.

I am not a fan of policing Americans for what they believe. But I am a fan of having public spaces like schools, workplaces, restaurants, and stores that are free of conversation that excludes or diminishes some people. Businesses can expect to lose business if they insult their customers. Therefore, they set a standard that welcomes customers. That standard includes rules about how their employees speak about racial minorities, women, and disabled people.

Back to a little American history:

There was widespread injustice in the 1950’s. Thousands of Americans were blacklisted (banned from many jobs) because they associated with people in the Communist Party. During the Blacklisting era, there was a real cancel culture. Businesses banned together; they shared the names of blacklisted workers so that no blacklisted worker could work, industry-wide. That meant they were banned from all movie studios, all television, all publishing, all banking, all advertising, all schools, all colleges, all businesses of many types that were public-facing. Blacklisted people, whether they were wealthy/famous or not, lost their jobs. People who were accused of communist sentiment were harassed into naming other people with similar views. At some point, people who did not actually take any principled communist stand were economically punished along with those who actively supported communist theories.

In short, Blacklisting was supported by America’s government and industry owners. Today’s “cancel culture” is not government-supported, nor is there an industry-wide ban against people who hold views that are not consistent with a school, media, or business’s chosen image. It is different.

Boycott culture:

Boycott is when consumers choose to not spend their money at certain businesses. Boycott is not cancel.

The tactic is used to compel business owners to change their policies, in order to regain the business they lost in the boycott. The tactic, on a large scale, can change company policy. It is a legitimate tactic for an individual or household to choose to spend money with companies that do not have harmful policies. If a company’s owner is donating millions to causes that harm the consumer, it is in the consumer’s interest to find another place to get that product or service.

Groups on the left and the right participate in boycotts. Large, well-funded, organizations on the right have run boycotts, hoping to “cripple” businesses whose policies they disagree with. Here is a comprehensive list of boycotts by the Christian right group, American Family Association, dating back to the 1980s. It is disingenuous for people on the right to complain that boycotts are part of a “cancel culture”.

Is something being cancelled?

Going back to the initial article, The Washington Examiner reporting staff (no name on the by-line), cited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s support of the Goya boycott as an example of “cancel culture.” She is a member of the community that has been harmed by donations made by Goya’s owner. She is also a member of the community who is Goya’s biggest consumers. Goya’s owner is supporting politicians who are detaining Latinx people in poor conditions. Why should Latinx people buy his products?

The boycott does not cancel this owner or his business. The boycott encourages Latinx people to not give money to a businessman who supports the denigration of immigrants. If Goya loses money, the owner may change his stance. In any outcome, he is still a wealthy man, based on years of sales to the Latinx community.

Same with people who no longer want to watch Roseanne Barr. She’s just not as funny when you see that she publishes her racists views. Same with J.K. Rowling. Boycotters can find other books to read and movies to watch, now that they know she holds hateful views about transsexual people.

It is disingenuous for “cancel culture” apologists to bring these examples while entirely ignoring celebrity boycotts like the one that drove the Dixie Chicks out of country music (and also led to threats of violence against them).

Writers, actors, musicians, and other performers gain their fortune and fame at the pleasure of their audience. That audience does not owe them alliance. When the personal opinions of the performer becomes a unappealing, audiences can choose entertainment elsewhere. That is the vagary of being a performer.

It is not cancelling. It is changing.

The society evolves and social fashions change. People who object to needing to change often do not realize that their language or actions exclude other people from social spaces. Businesses, schools, and institutions that seek a diverse workplace and consumer base are enforcing “no hate speech” norms. It is not only law, it is good business.

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