The Term ‘Cancel Culture’ is Destructive
What is cancel culture? What drives cancel culture? Is cancel culture a problem? These questions swirl around endlessly on the internet and media discourse like some bottomless whirlpool. (I’ve weighed in too.) Increasingly, this discussion obscures the real issue, which is that, in many ways, the term ‘cancel culture’ itself is the problem.
It was the Dr. Seuss incident that led me to this conclusion. The Dr. Seuss Enterprise announced they were going to stop publishing six of the author’s works because of racist imagery or in their words because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” In an obliteration of nuance, people began to proclaim that Dr. Seuss was being cancelled.
This incident perfectly encapsulates how the idea of cancel culture is increasingly weaponized. The conversation could have been productive. It could have focused on the harmful impacts of racist imagery. It could have focused on the role these Dr. Seuss books could have going forward. It could have been an opportunity to delve into the history of children’s books being altered to eliminate their racism. Instead, certain people, like those over at Fox News, used cancel culture to neatly slot the withdrawal of 6 books into their culture war. Why have a reasonable discussion when you can just make people angry?
Now, the misuse of a term is never a reason to retire it. If this were true, a strong case could be made to eliminate every term in existence. The term ‘cancel culture’ should be retired because it obscures rather than illuminates and only serves to divide people.
Firstly, it introduces a binary as the Dr. Seuss incident illustrates. There are those who want to cancel and those that don’t. Each side is immediately polarized in opposition to each other with no room for nuance. If say, somebody wanted to stake out a sort of middle-ground and have libraries carry the six Dr. Seuss titles but put them in the adult section, there is no space for them to do so. They simply become aligned with the canceling side. This phenomenon, I would argue, helps people in favor of censorship. When individuals are forced to be for or against ‘cancel culture’, naturally, some fall on the side of censorship. (Though, many people are acting in bad faith and want side-choosing because it heats up their culture war.)
Secondly, whenever it is invoked, the binary nature of the ‘cancel culture’ discussion tends to obliterate the actual issues at play. As illustrated above, instead of having a discussion about racist images we have a discussion about whether we are for or against Dr. Seuss. This happens with almost every issue that cancel culture touches. The conversation becomes about picking sides and little else. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has faced increasing scrutiny for covering up nursing home deaths, an allegedly abusive leadership style, and sexual harassment allegations. One would expect any debate to focus around these very serious issues. Still, some (like this article) have decided to view it all through the lens of ‘cancel culture’.
I want to preface this point by saying that, thankfully — at least with respect to Cuomo — the article’s take remains a minority. (Update: Although it appears not for long unfortunately, as Cuomo himself has described calls for his resignation as ‘cancel culture’.) However, it is a perfect example of how introducing ‘cancel culture’ into a topic tends to bizarrely skew it. The article doesn’t defend Cuomo from the allegations. It thinks he’s a bad governor. However, it finds something admirable in Cuomo standing up to ‘cancel culture’ and refusing to resign as if people want Cuomo to resign because of cancel culture and not his actions. The question that has been obscured is if all of this is true about Cuomo, if he is hurting people and has deliberately misled people, shouldn’t he resign. In this take, standing up to cancel culture has taken precedence over people’s lives.
The term ‘cancel culture’ has become a bludgeon that smashes nuance and limits the discussion of issues that really matter. It captures the intolerance that has grown in our society, purportedly to critique it, but in many ways it is the idea of ‘cancel culture’ that makes productive discussion impossible. The term was always destined to become like this. It is past time to retire it.