Rather than arguing that it doesn’t exist or that fears of it have been overblown, a recent New York Times op-ed from Sasha Issenberg said that “cancel culture works,” citing the LGBTQ community’s victory with same-sex marriage.
According to Issenberg, same-sex marriage coasted to mainstream success because LGBTQ activists like Fred Karger stopped mobilizing people to vote for a specific cause and instead mobilized them to protest individuals that gave money to measures like Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state of California. One of the first targets of this was businessman Doug Manchester.
“Doug Manchester’s $125,000 donation was not the biggest to the pro-Proposition 8 cause, but he was the most substantial public-facing target Mr. Karger could find,” noted Issenberg. “He began picketing Mr. Manchester’s pre-eminent holdings, including the namesake downtown convention hotel, with a boycott that would endure for years. It was the first time gay-marriage activists adopted a strategy of scaring their most well-heeled opponents away from the fight.”
“Long before the phrase ‘cancel culture’ entered the lexicon or Republican senators complained about the power of ‘woke capital,’ Mr. Karger refined a digital-era playbook for successfully redirecting scrutiny to the opposition’s financial backers,” continued Issenberg. “The movement to legalize same-sex marriage is often understood as one of civil rights test cases. And indeed, savvy legislative lobbying, fortuitous demographic change, and pop-culture influence all played their part, too. But a largely forgotten story is the way a group of political entrepreneurs changed the economic terrain on which cultural conflict was waged. They demonstrated that shaming and shunning could amount to more than an online pile-on and serve as a potent tactic for political change.”
This strategy of effectively shaming opponents into silence became so effective that many of the biggest opponents of same-sex marriage simply stayed away from the topic in 2012.
Fred Karger’s strategy went beyond simple protests when he created what was known as the “dishonor roll” — a database of every significant donor to the Proposition 8 effort.
“His group, Californians Against Hate, mined disclosure reports and listed everyone who contributed $5,000 or more to pro-Prop 8 committees on a ‘dishonor roll’ website, with phone numbers and business addresses,” noted Issenberg. “Other activists made the data searchable via Google Maps, and he pitched out-of-state newspapers to cover local megadonors to the pro-Prop 8 group Protect Marriage.”
“He picketed upscale supermarkets in New York City and Washington, D.C., to discourage shoppers from buying smoothies and dressings from Bolthouse Farms, whose eponymous founder put $100,000 behind the referendum,” continued Issenberg. “After Proposition 8 passed, Mr. Karger led a two-week boycott of the Utah-based Ken Garff Automotive Group, which had 53 dealerships across three states, because one of Mr. Garff’s relatives had given $100,000 to pass Proposition 8. ‘Individuals and businesses gave a vast amount of money to take away our equality, and we want you to know who they are,’ Mr. Karger wrote.”
The article failed to note that same-sex marriage did not become legal in the United States via the kind of grassroots efforts espoused by Fred Karger but was instituted from the top-down by the Supreme Court.
Issenberg concludes the article by noting that threats of boycotts and public shaming have now become commonplace in American culture and will likely be a force used to bring about social change in the future.