We all have a cancel culture.
The only debate is, who gets to decide who gets to be cancelled?
When they go on about this a topic that regularly pits progressive versus the center-left— What speech cannot be tolerated in polite society? What kind of words can and should get one fired from one’s job? — it’s just astounding how the answer is different for each political side.
But let’s start with the basics. Most people can agree that Nazism is beyond the pale, no matter which old guy they voted for. If you discover an employee of yours has a swastika tattoo and speaks fondly of Hitler, they’re pretty much automatically shown the door even if they were otherwise excellent at processing orders, or stocking shelves, or testing dildos, or whatever your hypothetical company might be into. I doubt too many talking heads at either MSNBC or Fox News would be too outraged by this termination. No panicked screeds about “cancel culture” about that specific incident will hit either National Review or HuffPost.
This country has strong legal protections for even the worst hate speech; therefore, one can’t be jailed by the state for speaking approvingly of the Holocaust or even taunting minorities online, as the alt-right likes to do. So instead, we police each other with social or economic penalties for such words. So far, so good.
However, things get dicey when other speech gets moved over into the same dire territory as white supremacism.
Let’s start with a ridiculous example. Say someone’s obsession is BTS. She cannot stand one cross word against BTS and will block anyone on social media who questions the divinity of Jimin. Ok, you say, so I’ve just described a quarter of the local high school; so what? So, let’s take it one step further. Let’s say such a member of the BTS Army is now CEO of your company. And she just overheard you say “BTS? More like BT-Suck, amirite? Amirite?” And she fires your ass on the spot, same as she would’ve if she had heard you quoting approvingly from Mein Kampf.
Now, it’s no longer so fair. Because in this workplace, questioning a certain boy band has rather arbitrarily been rendered just as unforgivable as a Heil Hitler salute. Most people can see the problem here. Your work’s blasphemy rules have run amok.
Because every society has always had rules of blasphemy, religious or not.
Saying the wrong thing about your local area’s god has historically been a proven route to exile, or worse. And saying something bad about slavery in circa 1850 South Carolina also might make one feel compelled to look for new environs to call home.
Galileo decided to test the limits of his society’s cancel culture. Socrates even more so. Not even a Pharaoh could run afoul of Egypt’s rules of heresy for long. And Torquemada? Now there was a culture warrior who put your average wokester to shame.
And don’t overlook the blasphemy codes of your own family, your own circle of friends, your own PTA. Which person or relative is He Who Shall Not Be Named? What past incident must not be mentioned, ever? What political subject must not be raised in a certain someone’s earshot? How many speech codes from centuries past originated like this, from the extremely local level?
Some of the historical blasphemy rules were there for a reason, to stabilize their societies — after all, Martin Luther plunged a continent into centuries of warfare through his words alone. But, needless to say, they were also stifling — could the Renaissance and Enlightenment have been possible without the Reformation?
Modern society has tried to liberalize — but never eliminate — written and unwritten rules of blasphemy. But the old human instinct to render immoral, if not illegal, speech we don’t like never went away. So, nazism remains unacceptable, which naturally is a good thing. But then, people decided that this was not enough policing of other people’s words.
So what of the campus uproars that regularly trigger stern debates and finger pointing? Should questioning affirmative action get one as canceled as a Hitler salute? Questioning the standards of transgender care? Giving a platform to a conservative speaker? And, of course, the longstanding ironic one: should support of Israel get one put in the same category as Nazis?
But that’s the left. First, let’s pay a visit to the cancel culture of the right, since that’s a lot easier to grasp. Guess what is the one surefire way to get your ass canned from any righty media operation?
You don’t have to guess for very long.
Yes, the one guaranteed way to lose your job and your friends in the conservative world is to question the bronzer addict whom they worship like 16-year-old girls worshiping… well, I don’t have to say it, do I?
This has led to the banishment of anyone with any morals or virtue from the right. Without the moderating sense of justice, faith, or basic decency of David French or Adam Kinzinger, the wicked and the corrupt such as Sohrab Ahmari and Jim Jordan completely define conservatism these days. No longer is anything but lip service — if even that — given to old conservative fundamentals such as the rule of law, freedom, small government, Jesus, and as we all learned in 2021, democracy itself. And it all started with the rendering of terrible judgment on any heretical opinion of their Leader.
Forget the crazy liberal college — if you want a real example of the dangers of cancel culture run amok, just look over to the Republican party.
The right also gives us an interesting example of proscribed speech that suddenly gets brought back into the fold of acceptability. Back in the day, coming out against capitalism and the free market would have gotten you instantly cast out of GOP circles with the dreaded “socialist” label. But these days, going the full Bernie is perfectly acceptable — just as long as it’s done in service of Trump, or owning the libs.
Anyway, another conservative outcast, Jonah Goldberg, who pre-Trump defined National Review just about as strongly as Buckley did, wrote a pair of pieces on the Republican turn against democracy. Sure, he allows, the hated libs also want to tear down democracy. Even now, Goldberg still views the Dems as Stalinists to the last man. But the problem is that his former party, transformed by Trump, is now just as bad as the Dems — and for a veteran lib-owner like Goldberg, there is no worse an insult.
Or as he sums it up, “I’d rather see Republicans lose than see them win by abandoning conservatism,” meaning the old conservatism, which has almost entirely been replaced by the New Right in just five years. This is the equivalent of a professor at a liberal university declaring “all lives matter” while waving an Israeli flag and declaring the next campus speaker to be Ben Shapiro. No wonder Goldberg, like most canceled writers of either side, now finds his home at Substack.
Righty cancel culture is simplicity itself. Hate the right people and never say anything bad about you-know-who, and you’re good. So what gets you canceled on the left?
This is the question that gets endlessly discussed by our paid writers and bloggers. They usually shrug and say “boys will be boys” when conservatives cancel someone for daring to suggest that one should get their covid vaccine or that, perhaps, a certain former reality TV host is not, in fact, more divine than Jesus; but if a university disinvites a speaker after he questions some piece of progressive dogma, you WILL hear about it. Over and over and over.
Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first, a fact that conservative tut-tutters don’t want you to know: the rules are vastly different for colleges, elite liberal publications, and certain other lefty spaces such as the fetid world of young-adult novels, than for real life. So no, the progressive censors are not actually coming for you, the random TikToker with 22 followers. For instance, questioning affirmative action has been a standard Republican position for decades, long before the guy with the red ties showed up. Yes, it will get you cancelled from MIT; but no, it will not get you cancelled from your job at the car dealership or contracting business. Most people don’t have to worry about losing everything over a microaggression — not even most Democratic politicians.
Macroaggressions, of course, are something else. Say you decide to log a blatantly racist or homophobic social media post, or if someone records you going the full Karen on a person of color. Then, little ol’ you with your 22 followers, half of which are probably bots, really do stand to wind up on unemployment. The prototypical example is probably the “Has Justine Landed Yet” saga; but this is a bit different than what we typically mean when people write 3,000-word thinkpieces on “cancel culture.” For one thing, there is no real debate on the outrageousness of the social media post or racist behavior in question to the point that even conservatives gleefully pile on. Rather than getting a chance to once again dwell on the shifting, byzantine orthodoxy of your local gender studies department, the average pundit has little more to say about a typical Karen than wonder exactly how long their banishment should last — no point trying to dispute that BBQ Becky really did do a racism. That is to say, the debate in these cases centers on the sentence, not the verdict.
But never mind all that, you say. You are instead very much exercised about the unwritten speech codes at a liberal college you’ve never set foot in. What about *that* pressing threat to the Republic?
Very well: there’s no denying the insanity, or malice, of some of the more invidious cancellation campaigns. And the unwritten speech code of the left is far more complex and ever-evolving than the blasphemy code of the right. Probably not every last cancellation is undeserved. But, here’s some markers that this-or-that drive to get a professor or student group exiled from campus may not actually be in good faith:
- Calling the target’s speech literal “violence,” or that it makes them feel “unsafe.” Bad actors do this for a specific reason: First Amendment speech protections end at inciting violence. So if Matt Yglesias signing the same letter as the feared wizard lady is transformed into a literal incitement of violence against trans people, and a clear and present danger to the physical safety of Vox’s trans employees, then well, Matt Yglesias simply has to go. Yes, the people who pushed out Yglesias were lying and acting in bad faith. No, they did not care. They just needed another scalp.
- “Hate speech is not free speech,” or some variant. The First Amendment begs to disagree. When people say this, they’re never targeting some white nationalist ranting about da joooz; rather, they’re always targeting someone holding milquetoast centrist positions, or who inadvertently says something that could be interpreted as prejudiced if you refuse to grant any benefit of the doubt. And on that note:
- Automatically reverting to the least charitable interpretation of the target’s words. If I say “Macbeth and his wife then sank to the blackest of evil” or something in my English Lit class, and you then complain to the dean that I’m being racist to black people… then that says a hell of a lot more about your maliciousness than mine.
- Dredging through old social media posts. If you’re getting someone fired for a racist tweet from 2012, you’re not actually getting them fired for their racist tweet from 2012. Something entirely different they said pissed you off, and like hell would you sit there and let them hold a differing viewpoint from your own — so you started searching their accounts for offensive key words to gleefully show the bosses. (Conservatives who are bad people are fond of this trick as well.)
- Accusations of “cultural appropriation.” No actual Japanese person has ever been offended by Americans liking sushi or wearing a kimono; if anything, they like that part of their culture has been exported. Anyone “bravely” “speaking on their behalf” is motivated entirely by a keen desire to hurt people. Which is, you know, the opposite of helping people. On a similar tack, “only white people are capable of racism;” a rule that does make it a bit tough to explain, say, the Rape of Nanking.
- Cancelling groups merely for being Jewish, on behalf of the oppressed Palestinians. Not that they’re anti-Semitic, of course. And not that they would ever give a damn about the Muslim Uyghurs of China, who have it 100x worse than the Palestinians even if you believe every last blood libel in every last ragged zine dedicated to the eradication of the globe’s only Jewish state. Imagine kicking out a Chinese-American student group for the crimes of PRC’s genocidal dictator, Xi Jinping — that is precisely what progressive anti-Semites do, and for far less justification.
Lefty spaces like the campus do show the danger of letting people of, shall we say, untoward motives freely push anything they want into the Hitler territory of completely unacceptable speech (although, again, the MAGA right serves as a far more stark example). There’s no question that in these spaces, copious injustice has been inflicted on innocent people wrongly painted as horrible as Nazis, often by bad people who know full well that what they’re doing is wrong.
But the good news: real people in real life push back. Despite the incandescent rage of Netflix’s trans employees at their CEO over self-professed TERF Dave Chappelle, his show is still up on the streaming service, even though he would have instantly been pushed out of a university or Vox media. The CEO is aware that pulling the episode would be a direct slap in the face of another constituency, African-Americans — thus demonstrating a social check-and-balance system that helps govern when it’s ok and when it’s not ok to put someone in the Hitler zone.
More mundane workplaces like the auto shop or hair salon, of course, entertain language far more coarse than the faculty lounge. I work in Bronx medical clinics. Some of these girls who I work with would put a white New York Times editor in cardiac arrest by the end of one shift, but nobody in our more street-level world minds. What would get them in a scrap are words thrown at a specific person, not words about people in general. Of course there are exceptions — the Hitler zone exists for a reason — but you just can’t live and work in the Bronx for long if you got enough of a problem with another ethnic group that you have to run your mouth about it.
And going back to our BTS-loving boss: this behavior IRL would scandalize the media and, more importantly, the company’s stakeholders. The CEO would know this and would not actually fire you over BTS snark, even if you might mysteriously get passed over for promotion or something. There’s no entire cure for a bad boss, but: checks and balances exist in the complex arena of social speech regulation. Or at least they do outside the malignant fever-swamps of certain lefty and MAGA societies.
A healthy society welcomes contentious debate or even scandalous speech, and is reluctant to ostracize someone just for their words. If your world is not like that, then that’s a pretty telling sign that your world is deeply sick.