The term “cancel culture” is one that has started to dominate our political discourse in recent years, growing from an irritating but innocuous freckle into an ideological tumor on the back of society. Despite the clear prevalence of its use, there is an ongoing debate regarding its fundamental meaning.
For some, cancel culture is the weaponization of the masses — often in the form of virtual mobs on social media — to punish thoughtcrimes or the expression of “problematic” opinions in a bid to eradicate certain viewpoints. For others, cancel culture is an imaginary term used as “a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to.”
To some extent, both positions are correct. It’s obvious to any objective onlooker that cancel culture is real. Just last year, celebrities including R. Kelly, Kanye West, Scarlett Johansson, Gina Rodriguez, Kevin Hart, and Shane Gillis all faced “cancellation” for reasons spanning from criminal acts to the utterance of subjectively offensive jokes. However, cancel culture is an equal opportunity assassin, and comes for the famous and unknown alike. For example, a teacher in Michigan was recently fired after tweeting that Donald Trump is president of the United States — a simple statement of fact.
I’m done being silent. @realDonaldTrump is our president ❌🧢
Don’t @ me
— Coach Kucera (@CoachKWLW) July 7, 2020
In addition, the crosshairs of cancellation often fall on non-human elements of our culture. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the riots that ensued, criticism of “glorifying police” resulted in the literal cancellation of “Cops” and “Live P.D.”
In similar fashion, HBO Max reacted to increased racial tensions by temporarily removing the classic movie “Gone With The Wind” from its streaming library and only reinstating it after providing a pedantic “trigger warning.” The fact that Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to be awarded an Academy Award for her role as “Mammy” is, unfortunately, irrelevant in the eyes of those who wield the sword of cancel culture in the battle for “progress.”
It’s also important to recognize that there is some truth to the argument that cancel culture has always existed, and is sometimes the necessary reaction to certain deplorable actions. While figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are wrong in their claim that “cancel culture comes from entitlement,” it’s difficult to argue that legitimate criminals such as Bill Cosby should be viewed with the same level of societal respect after their appalling actions are uncovered.
The term “cancel culture” comes from entitlement – as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out.
Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 10, 2020
The issue is not whether or not cancel culture exists, but what “cancellation” should be and when it is appropriate. Earlier this month, an open letter titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” was published by Harper’s Magazine. The letter was signed by dozens of “academics, writers, and artists,” and aimed to defend free speech and condemn cancel culture.
“We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences,” the letter reads “If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”
This letter touched on the central issue underpinning the uncontrolled application of cancel culture: “where does the line between cancel culture and free speech exist?” We have already shown that some instances of cancel culture are absurd — such as firing teachers for stating literal facts — while some instances are understandable and, arguably, completely valid. The “Overton Window” is supposed to be the lens through which we can make the distinction between the protection of free speech and the rejection of fundamentally bad ideas:
“The Overton Window is a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics. The core concept is that politicians are limited in what policy ideas they can support — they generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. These policies lie inside the Overton Window. Other policy ideas exist, but politicians risk losing popular support if they champion these ideas. These policies lie outside the Overton Window.”
Unfortunately, the Overton Window has been largely hijacked. Instead of expanding or contracting, it is being shifted to the Left by the collective efforts of the establishment media, academia and progressive politicians. There still remains a significant element of the political spectrum, particularly on the Right, unrepresented by the “Harper letter.” If the ideological diversity permitted by the Overton Window is only defended by those who seek to shift it by just enough to recover their own personal respectability, then they are promoting merely a temporary stop-gap until the pressure of radical Leftism becomes too great to resist.
For now, it is clear that the Overton Window is not the answer to the question of defining the line between free speech and cancel culture. Instead, we must first agree that the misuse of cancel culture exists, and reject and debunk the flawed arguments of those who scoff at this assertion. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is applauded for stating that “People who are actually ‘cancelled’ don’t get their thoughts published and amplified in major outlets,” they must be immediately presented with a list of those who have been cancelled and, as a result, have no ability to protest.
Currently, cancel culture is either condemned, condoned, or dismissed, but usually from within ideological silos. These bubbles of thought are usually maintained through the desire to promulgate certain political positions. If cancel culture is an effective tool, then it is either celebrated or ignored. If cancel culture is a dangerous opponent, then it is adamantly denounced.
Rather than this binary approach, we need to acknowledge that the notion of “cancellation” is simply a societal tool and, like all tools, has the potential to be used in a wide array of positive and negative ways. We should also acknowledge that the act of criticism is not necessarily motivated by the desire to cancel its target. If we hope to hamper the malicious use of cancel culture while also protecting the ability to disagree, the intent behind the criticism must be our primary focus.
With this in mind, let’s reframe the discussion with intent in the equation. Here’s an analogy: Imagine that “respectable” ideological society is a single room, with a single door to an inescapable void that exists outside. Built into this door is a single mail slot. Occupants of the room carry a set of papers which contain their thoughts and ideas which they present to others in the room. Arguments are not only expected, but inevitable. Ideas which are directly opposed commonly clash, with tribes forming around common principles. As a result, it’s decided that some views are better than others, and so it’s time for this society to determine what is acceptable and may therefore remain. Ideas deemed unacceptable will be cast out into the abyss through the mail slot. Everyone is within their right to share their papers with others, and criticism of its contents is permitted, even encouraged.
The problem with our society is that we fail to notice that our “door” has a mail slot. Instead of rejecting ideas, we reject people. Those whose ideas are deemed unacceptable by an inconsistent metric of morality are cast out of the door, never to return.
This represents the fundamental difference between cancel culture and the valid use of free speech. People are separated from their ideas as those in our “room” are separated from their “papers.” If someone seeks to cast out an individual because of their ideas, then they are engaging in cancel culture. Similarly, the threat of eviction being used to silence those who wish to remain is also an example of cancel culture. The act of criticism itself is not, as long as the criticism is motivated by the desire to demonstrate the invalidity of an idea. In our analogy, this is the difference between attempting to dispose of their papers and disposing of the person themselves. If the goal is to hurl the person — along with their ideas — into the abyss, then a line has been crossed.
Of course, this analogy assumes good intent. In reality, there will be some who hope to use their ideas to enable and justify the destruction of the rights of others. There are also, of course, actual criminals, whose actions are the reason they should be rightly “cancelled.” However, permanently consigning someone to the societal void must be viewed as an absolute last resort rather than the default position, as it has increasingly become.
Until we separate the bodies, lives, and careers of those with whom we disagree from their ideas, we don’t have free speech. Until we accept that criticism is a necessary requirement for debate, we don’t have free speech.
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