Of all the bad-faith, smooth-brain takes out there, surely the worst-faith, smoothest-brain one currently trending is: “but I thought cancel culture was bad?” This is what you are likely to hear if, as a conservative, you fight leftist boycotts by responding with boycotts of your own.
As I have argued before on this website, cancel culture is called a “culture” because it does not function primarily by force of law. It is a system of assumptions and practices, a set of ways that people treat one another and do business. The network of social trends and public examples that makes people think twice before voicing their honestly-held conservative beliefs in a board room or a college lecture hall: that’s cancel culture.
Cancel culture is a beloved football coach having to recite a ritual confession because he was caught wearing a conservative t-shirt, or a teacher at a Catholic high school getting fired for criticizing BLM in public. It’s Disney threatening to boycott the entire freaking state of Georgia over moral objections about Georgia’s abortion law (no killing a baby once its heart is beating, for those keeping score at home). It’s Disney having no qualms about attempting to hamstring and blackmail an American state while happily pandering to the murderous Chinese Communist regime. That’s cancel culture: the use of money and power to punish Americans for views that millions of people hold, but the ruling classes despise.
As the gatekeepers of Principled Conservatism™ are tiresomely fond of reminding us all, private companies and individuals are free to associate as they choose with one another. There is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about most of the actions which make up cancel culture. This is the same logic that allows some of the Left’s most supremely disingenuous hacks to claim that cancel culture is just people being “held accountable.” If people want to enforce social and moral standards of their choosing within their own communities, you should be okay with that as a conservative because #freedom. It’s their standards, after all.
Yeah, except they’re crap standards. That is our objection to cancel culture: not that it should be outlawed, but that it should be scorned and rejected as the bad behavior of a few unhinged weaklings. Because that is what it is. The conservative argument against cancel culture isn’t that you’re a criminal if you participate in it. It’s that you’re an anti-American prick.
Fighting Fire With Fire
It has taken us far too long, but conservatives are finally realizing that they need to get as serious as the Left is about enforcing our values with our economic leverage. So we boycotted Netflix over the kiddie-twerkfest Cuties and cancelled our Disney Plus subscriptions when ex-Star-Wars-now-Daily-Wire star Gina Carano got fired.
In the latest installment of this ongoing saga, the disposable razor company Harry’s stopped sponsoring the Daily Wire because one anonymous account with a total of fifteen followers complained that Michael Knowles says “homophobic and transphobic” things. The Daily Wire community struck back by cancelling their Harry’s subscriptions and switching to other razor companies.
Now, I’ve known Knowles for years. He’s one of my dearest friends. I also happen, for those who don’t know, to be gay. I recognize there is a wide range of opinions among Daily Wire fans about the moral status of homosexuality, and it’s not my intention to litigate that issue here. But that’s kind of my point: the Daily Wire guys, Knowles included, have always been the most sterling of pals of mine, despite whatever disagreements we may have. My boyfriend works at the Daily Wire, for mercy’s sake.
The suggestion that Knowles hates anyone, just because he isn’t falling over himself to celebrate homosexuality, is absurd on its face. I pointed this out to Harry’s in a tweet that, to put it mildly, was somewhat more popular than the original complaint against Knowles. I also noted that I’ll be putting a stop to all my business with Harry’s going forward.
Readers will be shocked to know that Harry’s, lightning-fast as it was to answer @flyingsodacan1’s concerns about Knowelsian homophobia, has not yet responded to me as of this writing. Apparently some customer complaints are more pressing, shall we say, than others. So the sponsorship remains cancelled. But it does seem that customers really are flocking away from Harry’s as I and others invited them to do. Get woke, go broke.
The “Actually” Guys
Almost immediately, however, the predictable responses ensued: “I thought cancel culture was bad though.” Another poster told me, “So what you’re saying is you will no longer have a business relationship (as a consumer) with a brand that has a different view than you.” The implication being, of course, that I was participating in my own kind of conservative cancel culture.
Real galaxy brain takes here. I will go with them this far: it is true that absolutely everybody, conservative and liberal, shapes the culture in ways large and small by exercising his first amendment right of free association. So in those terms, yes: the Daily Wire guys and I aren’t doing much that is different on a structural level from Harry’s itself. We are disassociating ourselves from those whose attitudes and practices we find reprehensible, and asking others to do the same. We are doing this in the hopes of changing the conversation and establishing consequences for bad behavior.
But since in a free society people will always exert this kind of social and economic influence—since we will always work to sway one another by the ways we choose to make friends and do business — it matters profoundly what kind of climate we are trying to create by swinging our cultural weight around. Not all kinds of culture are equal: some are worse than others. So trying to bring about a worse culture is, you know, worse than trying to bring about a better one.
Again, I will grant it to the Left that economic decisions are not just economic decisions, and friendships are not wholly apolitical: everything we do also has ethical consequences, and so we make business choices and form personal relationships based in part on what kind of society we want to live in. If wearing coronavirus masks outdoors is considered generally acceptable, and refusing to do so makes you a pariah, then more people will wear them out of a simple desire to be accepted. If accusing people of “whiteness” as a slur is likely to lose you friends, you’ll be more likely to refrain from doing it.
But this is precisely the point: attacking people because of their skin color is a spiteful thing to do, so exerting social pressure to discourage it is a good thing. Wearing coronavirus masks outdoors is a useless and ridiculous thing to do, so exerting social pressure to demand it is a bad thing. Social pressure in itself is a tool; everyone uses it. But how, and to what ends? That’s the question that changes things.
I and the guys at the Daily Wire want people to tolerate a wide range of viewpoints in American society, and to feel comfortable doing business with folks across the political spectrum. Harry’s and the cancel culture crew want people to purge their minds of bad opinions for fear that one dweeb with too much time on his hands will call you nasty names on social media. We. Are. Not. The. Same.
We on the Right need to get it into our heads that we are up against an extremely powerful minority contingent in American politics which expressly intends to shut down conservative ideas not primarily by outlawing them, but by making them shameful to express.
In an article this week for USA today, Florida Democratic Representative Val Demings outright stated that we should “bring back public shame about racism and prejudice.” Demings was horrified that some Republican leaders feel comfortable airing their retrograde social attitudes out there in public for everyone to see and hear. “They call Black Lives Matter activists ‘terrorists’ while ignoring social ills in Black communities. They proudly use racial slurs like ‘kung flu’ and use demeaning language against LGBTQ Americans.”
Leave aside for a moment the fact that BLM activists did in fact terrorize city streets last summer, the fact that practically every major outbreak of illness except coronavirus is named after where it originated, and the fact that Demings gives absolutely no evidence of this supposedly “demeaning language” about gay people. Put aside all that and merely note her technique: Demings wants people who think differently than her not to be refuted on the merits of their arguments, but to be publicly shamed for talking in a manner she finds distasteful.
This is a slimy, small-minded attitude, the kind that intellectual failures adopt when they have not a single thing to say in defense of their useless ideas. But conservatives will be mistaken — and self-defeatingn— if they infer from this that all use of social pressure is evil and wrong. Social pressure of some kind is inevitable. The only question is where that social pressure pushes us.
We already have a culture in America, and it is not one of self-censorship and fear. It is one inspired by the First Amendment, by John Milton and John Stuart Mill, in which privately-held views are neither outlawed nor otherwise persecuted. We value the free exchange of ideas, and we consider that exchange not only salutary as a practical matter for the discovery of truth, but blessed as a matter of justice by the Creator who endows us with our freedoms.
When conservatives exert their own social pressure, their own economic power, and their own collective action to bring back that culture of open ideas, we are doing a good thing because the culture we are trying to create is good. Conservative boycotts are better than leftist boycotts because conservative ideas about speech are excellent, and leftist ones are poison.
It is utterly farcical to object that conservatives should not encourage companies and individuals to tolerate dissent and disagreement because doing so entails using our credit cards and our personal choices to bring about the social situation we think best. So what? That’s the world we live in, and we are getting wise to it not a minute too soon. If anyone tries to talk you out of this by suggesting that you are being just as bad as the cancellers you oppose, the appropriate response is a hearty laugh and a “Sayonara, sucker.” That’s voting with your feet, after all.
Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.