This is Civic Way’s commentary on Cancel Culture, the latest political battleground paralyzing our nation. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- Cancel Culture has become the eye of a fierce—and increasingly unproductive—civic storm
- Given the enormity of the problems facing our nation—and the growing need to find common ground—we must do better than resort to tactics that divide us and paralyze our politics
- Attacking Cancel Culture works because it exploits our insecurities; few of us welcome criticism as a prelude to self-improvement when it is wrapped in self-righteousness, hypocrisy or malice
- However, weaponizing Cancel Culture will hurt us all until we learn to define it more carefully, use it more judiciously and replace it with something that honors our best selves
- Instead of a cancel culture, we need a kindness culture, one based on humility, curiosity, mutual respect, compassion, learning and discovery
Cancel culture. This term has become the eye of a fierce—and increasingly pointless—civic storm. Despite its rising notoriety, it is poorly defined and misunderstood, frequently weaponized for political purposes and, more often than not, feckless. Another iteration of political paralysis.
One recent example of the cancel culture controversy is the alleged cancellation of Dr. Seuss. As it turns out, Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel), revered for his ability to amuse children and impart noble values like tolerance, kindness and environmental stewardship, made some mistakes along the way. He wrote scores of treasured children’s books like Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat and The Lorax, but, early in his career, he used some insensitive images.
By the late seventies, Geisel changed many of his early works, even redrawing some. After he died in 1991, a private entity (Dr. Seuss Enterprises) continued that process, seeking ways to revitalize the Dr. Suess brand. Most recently, the firm identified six books with offensive or insensitive stereotypes, including If I Ran the Zoo and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and made the decision to remove them from publication.
It did not take long for political operatives to strike. What began as a bland, methodical process to burnish the Dr. Suess brand was quickly characterized as a sinister plot to steal our childhoods. At the same time the Biden Administration was pushing legislation to defeat the pandemic and save lives, the Dr. Seuss controversy emerged as one of the more striking—if mystifying—symbols of opposition to the new administration.
What is cancel culture? A dangerous assault on traditional values or a calculated effort to vilify the left? An arrogant movement to bully those with opposing views or a contrived controversy to score political points? Given the enormity of the problems facing our nation—and the growing need to find common ground—this question demands our attention.
What is Cancel Culture?
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, public awareness of the cancel culture term varies widely, especially among certain groups. While 56 percent of adults have heard nothing or very little about the term, adults under 30 are nearly twice as familiar with the term as adults over 50. Awareness also is higher among more highly educated adults.
For those of us who have heard the term, our understanding of its meaning varies. Many see it as a form of expression, a way to call out offensive behavior or hold it to account. Others see it as a form of censorship. Our view depends largely on our background or political prism. Liberals are more likely to see cancel culture as accountability while conservatives are more likely to see it as censorship, if not an attack on American values.
Regardless, of what we think of the cancel culture phrase, many of us find it unsettling. According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, about two-thirds of those of us who have heard the phrase find it imposing, if not menacing. In the popular vernacular, whether applied to a benefit, program or show, cancellation is abrupt, harsh and even irrevocable.
The term’s origins, like so many other phrases and words, are in Black culture. Nile Rodgers, known for such late 70s disco hits as Le Freak, I Want Your Love and Good Times, wrote a song, Your Love Is Cancelled, for Chic’s 1981 album, Take It Off. While the song faded, its principal metaphor—cancelling love—survived, albeit in a different form.
Barry Michael Cooper, a screenwriter for New Jack City, a 1990s Black gangster flick starring Wesley Snipes as a crime boss, adopted the metaphor. While listening to Your Love is Cancelled, he wrote a line for Snipes to use when ending a relationship, “Cancel that b—-! and I’ll buy another one.” In doing so, Cooper gave the word more power and menace.
Cancel culture is another phrase appropriated by mainstream culture from Black culture. The list is endless: cool, feel me, ghetto, lit, straight up, uptight and woke, to name a few. We can note the irony of its usage by politicians like Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan. We can marvel at the impact of its repetition by media outlets like Fox and Newsmax. But, we should not dismiss the cancel culture phrase out of hand.
Instead, we should try to understand and improve cancel culture. It has become one of the most potent tactics for dividing voters and obstructing progress. If we truly want to solve the problems facing our nation—infrastructure, jobs, health care, education and housing, for starters—we had better understand why the term gets so much traction.
The Political Weaponization of Cancel Culture
One thing is clear. The cancel culture term has been weaponized. Turn on right-wing media outlets, read GOP talking points or listen to many politicians and you are bombarded with inflammatory—and often silly—tales of left-wing cancel culture.
The 2021 Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) Conference, headlined by such luminaries as Donald Trump and Madison Carthorn, was called America Uncanceled for a reason. Those organizing the conference understand the power of the cancel culture phrase. They see it as their most potent political cudgel. Even when the rhetoric seems absurd, like stirring promises to protect Mr. Potato Head and Kermit the Frog, it lands.
The weaponization of cancel culture ignores its universal use. For example, even as politicians on the right use the phrase to demonize politicians on the left, they use similar tactics themselves. To protest “liberal cancel culture” and Coca-Cola’s “left-wing politics,” the Surry County North Carolina Board of Commissioners recently banned Coca-Cola vending machines in public buildings.
Earlier this year, the North Carolina Republican Party censured Senator Burr for voting to convict President Trump in the second impeachment trial. While party leaders found the will to shame one of their longest-serving leaders, they refused to confront freshman Rep. Cawthorn’s offenses (e.g., lying, sexual harassment and supporting the January 6th insurrection).
And many politicians who decry the cancel culture of their opponents cannot resist imposing their will on others. This impulse has taken many forms, including the enactment of superficial dogma legislation. In Texas, a new bill will punish professional sports teams who fail to play the national anthem before sporting events. Legislators who normally fear government seem all too willing to force private enterprises and their customers to sing a song—or risk losing millions of dollars in state and local tax subsidies. In many states, the hasty adoption of dogma legislation is what passes for governance.
Cancel culture should be examined and, as appropriate, confronted. Bullies who vilify others solely to impose their views or inflate their moral superiority should be faced. Zealots who refuse to forgive those sincerely trying to correct past mistakes should be challenged. But, cancel culture should not be just another cynical political ploy to discredit political opponents. Rather, it should be a sincere effort to promote civil public discourse.
Conservative leaders have framed cancel culture as a pithier version of political correctness. They read the polls. They understand that most voters dislike political correctness and cancel culture (as perceived). They grasp that the cancel culture tactic generates more votes for their candidates than their policy positions (e.g., guns and abortion). For them, the cancel culture ploy has little risk. It offers a way to inflame base voters without alienating independent voters or preventing them from cancelling the things they dislike.
Why Weaponizing Cancel Culture Works
The cancel culture tactic works because sometimes the shoe fits. There are some whose temperaments drive them to self-righteous rage. There are those who cannot be appeased until they have shamed those with different opinions. There are some whose self-fulfillment depends on tearing down others and displaying their moral superiority. And when such people become laptop warriors, they often use social media as a behavioral surveillance platform, inflating their influence well beyond their numbers.
There are some who believe they can rectify past sins simply by changing names. In San Francisco, a school board task force recommended renaming 44 schools to “dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture.” When the public learned that the list included schools named after Abraham Lincoln and Diane Feinstein and that some recommendations were based on dubious history, the initiative was tabled. Given the daunting challenges facing public school boards, spending significant time and resources on such matters makes little sense.
There are some who believe they can prevent future sins by imposing their will on established conventions. This year, California’s Instructional Quality Commission recommended a new mathematics curriculum model to the state board of education. The Commission’s over-arching goal was to supplant the goal of pure objectivity in mathematics with a goal of social justice. Its recommended framework called for rejecting such established techniques as right answers, linear instruction and ability tracking as manifestations of white supremacy culture. Even if one approves the Commission’s approach, it is difficult to deny that it offered another easy target for those hoping to use cancel culture for political advantage.
A growing number of celebrities have complained about the risks of cancel culture. Kevin Hart, for example, has challenged efforts to attack public figures for offensive behavior or remarks without regard for their circumstances, timing or remorse. Chris Rock worries that cancel culture could make comedians too timid and boring, substituting elevator jokes for provocative social commentary. Hart suggests exalting personal growth instead of perfection, adding, “Everyone can change. It’s like jail. People get locked up so they can be taught a lesson.”
The cancel culture tactic works because it exploits our insecurities. It is hard to be called out for a misstep or character flaw. It puts us on the defensive and threatens our self-esteem. While most of us ultimately see criticism as a prelude to self-improvement, our receptivity often depends on the messenger or message. When the criticism seems arrogant, mean-spirited or inauthentic, we are more likely to reject it. When it precludes the prospects for growth and progress, we tend to dismiss it as petty vindictiveness.
The Risks of Killing Cancel Culture
There is a legitimate debate to be had about cancel culture, but that debate will elude us until we learn to define it more carefully and use it more judiciously. Unfortunately, its recurring use as a political weapon has done little to clarify its meaning or temper its usage.
Words do matter. When we nonchalantly toss about labels like liberal, conservative, socialist, radical or fascist, we weaken our arguments and the words themselves. When we use slogans like cancel culture, political correctness and defund the police without specificity, we drain them of meaning, unduly divide people and obstruct meaningful progress.
Overuse is another risk. There are times when we wear things out from excessive use. What once seemed pleasant or exciting becomes overused, boring or useless. By returning to the well too often, we spoil the water. A favorite shirt. A comfortable pair of shoes. Facebook. Tom Brady. Led Zeppelin’s Staircase to Heaven. Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday. Cancel culture may be next.
The cancel culture phrase is becoming a parody of itself. After failing to define it, those using it the most are applying it to all sorts of situations for which it is ill-suited. This not only ignores our laws, traditions and customs, it devalues the term itself. A few examples of sloppy usage.
- Product boycotts – Refusing to buy a product because you find the company brand or owner offensive (albeit Budweiser, Coca-Cola, De Beers, My Pillow, Netflix or Nike) is a perfectly patriotic way to express your opinion.
- Celebrity boycotts – Deciding to ignore a Woody Allen, Mel Gibson or Armie Hammer movie (i.e., not buy a ticket) poses no threats to their constitutional rights nor does it violate any obligation you might have as a citizen.
- Celebrity criticism – Criticizing, suspending or firing a public figure does not give rise to a constitutional crisis, nor does it necessarily impose a burden on a public figure for which they are unprepared (they are, after all, public figures).
- Monument removal – Removing statutes or monuments honoring traitors, criminals and racists does not exorcize their sordid acts nor threaten our historical legacies.
- Political accountability – Holding incumbents accountable through tough questioning, harsh criticism, elections or impeachment is the very basis of democracy, not a manifestation of some distorted image of cancel culture.
The rush to weaponize the cancel culture term can inadvertently cheapen it. For example, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote that, while the pulling of six Dr. Suess books was “mildly creepy,” it was “much creepier that … so few liberal journalists … seemed troubled by the move.” Truly strange is Douthat’s ignorance of American tradition and law. Private firms in the US, be they the Suess group, New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Sinclair Broadcasting, generally get to decide what to publish and what not to publish. Douthat should know better, but such freedoms are protected under the Constitution.
Embracing a Kindness Culture
We don’t need a cancel culture, we need a kindness culture. A culture based on humility, curiosity, mutual respect and compassion for one another. On learning and discovery.
History’s great civilizations did not progress by standing still, resting on their laurels, ignoring problems, shunning critics or glorifying a sanitized (and fictional) version of their past. They did not preserve—nor replace—cultural symbols for the pure sake of doing so. When they ceased challenging, questioning and changing, they stopped evolving, and they died.
Tomorrow’s winners will compete, diversify and change. They will question, listen, learn, come together, elevate the strategic over the immediate and solve tough problems. They will find constructive ways to culturally evolve. A civil process for challenging archaic conventions. Honest debates about outdated brands, logos or books (e.g., Aunt Jemina, Cleveland Indians or Babar the Elephant). Objective criteria for determining what should be preserved or replaced and a constructive framework for easing the transition to new norms.
In a kindness culture, we will continually seek the intersection between free speech and safe harbor, accountability and suppression, punishment and justice. We will speak up when hurt or offended, but without self-righteousness or arrogance. We will define and expose bad behavior, such as lying, racism and hate, that threatens our well-being and progress, but avoid bullying. We will hold accountable those breaching our cultural norms, but we will avoid vindictive demands for recrimination.
In a kindness culture, we will embrace critical thinking as a means to improvement. Instead of avoiding controversial topics like politics or religion, we will learn how to discuss our disagreements in a respectful manner. We will listen and learn from other views. We will broaden our horizons and consider other perspectives. Diversity, not just of gender, race and ethnicity, but of opinions, will open our eyes to enduring progress.
What does a kindness culture look like? Surprisingly, the US Senate may have recently shown us. It quietly passed a modest bipartisan bill to reverse our nation’s declining investment in future research and development. For a few moments at least, it set aside its partisan rancor and strident rhetoric and did something positive and strategic. Instead of ignoring our weaknesses and blaming others for our problems, it worked across the partisan aisle, took note of our worsening competitive landscape and invested in our nation’s future.
We have been asking the wrong questions about cancellation and the so-called cancel culture. It is not whether or not we engage in cancellation efforts. Cancellation in moderation is free expression, an effort to ensure accountability. Deciding to buy or boycott a particular brand of pillow or soda for political reasons is inherently American. We have been doing it since the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
The right question is the optimum composition of our cancellation efforts. The civility we show to those we oppose. The forgiveness we offer to those who have shown remorse, paid their dues and learned their lesson. The time we set aside for finding common ground, building relationships and solving problems.
Given the magnitude and urgency of the problems our nation faces, we simply don’t have the luxury to devote so much time to bitter, vindictive ideological skirmishes. The problems we face demand working together across such divides. They beg for the kind of mutual respect and trust that ideological skirmishes tend to destroy.
Replacing cancel culture with kindness culture calls for a different approach. It does not mean that we should stop expressing ourselves or trying to hold people and institutions accountable for destructive words and behavior. Rather, it means that we should be bigger and better.
Instead of squandering our talents on vilifying others, we should focus on improving ourselves, our communities and our nation. Instead of attacking those with different views and lifestyles, we should strive to understand diverse points of view. Instead of mindlessly following those who would divide us, we should learn to think for ourselves.