In recent months, the country has seen the reemergence of cancel culture, the id of American political discourse. It can best be defined as an overly and aggressively punitive practice of reprimanding disagreement in which one is browbeaten, usually by online rage mobs, for statements or actions both innocuous and unacceptable. When one is “canceled,” an attempt is often made to ruin or damage that person’s career or even personal safety. In practice, this tactic is a way to silence dissent through an unjustifiably harsh and inconsistent code of redistributive justice.
Some have suggested that canceling others is really just a form of consequence, that people are doing bad things and facing appropriate repercussions. That would be true if it were not for a few serious flaws of cancel culture. The first is that it excuses abhorrent behavior so long as it is done for the supposed right reasons. Consider the case of Karlos Dillard. Earlier this month, he was driving when, he claims, a “Karen” (an epithet for an obnoxious white woman) cut him off and showed him her middle finger. This incident led to Dillard following her home to confront her. In the video, which Dillard posted to his Twitter, the woman can be seen crying in terror while Dillard attempts to expose her address and license plate. Users then took to Twitter to condemn the woman Dillard harasses. Even if Dillard’s claims are true, how are his actions justified? In what world is it okay for a man to follow someone home and attempt to intimidate her? People cut me off every day. Am I now within my rights to put them in danger of physical harm?
Some have suggested that canceling others is really just a form of consequence, that people are doing bad things and facing appropriate repercussions. That would be true if it were not for a few serious flaws of cancel culture
Another flaw of cancel culture is that people are often canceled for simply offering a different opinion. In October of 2018, then-NBC host Megyn Kelly landed herself in hot water for acknowledging the difference between forms of blackface. She asserted that a person who dons blackface to dress up as, say, Michael Jordan for Halloween has not done something as terrible as putting on a racist minstrel act. She said that when she was a kid, darkening your skin was “OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.” Kelly was fired after making such comments. While new evidence has come to light that would suggest Kelly’s firing was not solely based on these comments, NBC clearly used them as a convenient pretense. Additionally, she faced a fierce backlash from celebrities outside of NBC. You may disagree with Kelly. You may believe that her opinion is flawed. You might believe that no one should darken his skin for any reason at all. That’s fine. But you must acknowledge that Kelly’s comments were merely a commentary of social attitudes toward costumes, not an explicit or even tacit approval of blackface characteristic of a minstrel show.
Kelly’s firing illustrates another flawed component of cancel culture: the punishment often does not fit the crime. While Kelly was not guilty of an abominable transgression, cancel culture has indeed come for people who have said some terrible things. Earlier this month, Skai Jackson, who portrayed Zuri Ross on the Disney Channel sitcom Jessie, resurfaced Instagram posts from Liberty Woodley, a recent University of Florida admittee. In the posts, Woodley, then 16 years old, made disparaging, racially charged remarks about two African-American girls sitting behind her in class. She complained that they “won’t shut the fuck up” and called them “crackwhores.” There is no defending Woodley’s posts; they are racist. Thus, if Jackson and her internet mobs had simply called upon Woodley to apologize to the girls and do a bit of charitable giving or community service, no one would be complaining. Instead, the mob pressured the University of Florida into rescinding her admission. There is no evidence that Woodley had ever treated a black person poorly based on race, or that she is beyond feeling remorse for what she said. Nevertheless, the raging mob demands absolute purity, and any mistake is worthy of damnation.
Proponents of this type of punishment must ask themselves whether these kids really deserve to have their futures ruined for actions that do not evince the full story of their character.
A more high-profile case of this phenomenon is that of Kyle Kashuv. Kashuv, a conservative, pro-gun survivor of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, had an impressive SAT score and was ranked at the top of his class. As a result, he was accepted into Harvard University. That was until The Huffington Post published text messages in which a then-16-year-old Kashuv used the N-word along with other racial slurs, leading to Harvard rescinding his admission offer. Like those of Woodley, his remarks are indefensible, and Kashuv rightly recanted them. We all agree on this principle. Regardless, their transgressions did not warrant cancellation. Teenagers say stupid, even horrendous things very often. That does not mean they are vile, irredeemable racists. They are capable of learning from their mistakes and functioning in society. The cancellation is not necessary. Proponents of this type of punishment must ask themselves whether these kids really deserve to have their futures ruined for actions that do not evince the full story of their character.
Perhaps the most glaring problem of cancel culture is its selective enforcement. Cancel culture has a propensity to almost exclusively come after those on the right side of the aisle. Recent months have seen a slew of left-wing celebrities get off the hook for actions that would surely get those on the right canceled. Recall the case of Megyn Kelly. She said that, as a kid, people did not see anything wrong with darkening one’s skin to portray a character. Late-night comedy host Jimmy Kimmel did just that. In the 1990s, Kimmel would frequently don blackface in order to portray Karl Malone for The Man Show. He also used the N-word and other slurs on a satirical Christmas album in which he made fun of Snoop Dogg. In an apology, Kimmel said that he saw the blackface only as “an imitation of a fellow human being, one that had no more to do with Karl’s skin color than it did his bulging muscles and bald head.”
That is the same logic that Kelly used when talking about blackface. Kimmel is guilty of something worse than Kelly, but he is not facing the same consequences or backlash. Similarly, photos surfaced of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface at an Arabian Nights costume party in 2001. He’s still in office. The case which best illustrates leftist immunity from cancel culture is that of Democratic Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam. In early 2019, a page from Northam’s medical school yearbook came to light. On it was a picture of Northam dressed in either minstrel-style blackface or a Ku Klux Klan hood. He did not specify which figure he was in his apology. Northam is allowed to serve political office after wearing an objectively racist, hateful costume, but Megyn Kelly must be fired and Kyle Kashuv must not attend Harvard.
Cancel culture’s lack of consistency reveals what it truly is: a way for mobs to silence anyone who is not on their side, further dividing the country as a strategy for making American culture a leftist monologue.
Above all, cancel culture is a way to sew division through a prohibition on nuanced thinking. Do Liberty Woodley’s and Kyle Kashuv’s choices to use racial slurs evince a deep-seated hatred of black people? Or, are they immature teenagers who did not process what they were saying? Jimmy Kimmel and Justin Trudeau wore dark makeup. Did they do this because they are vile racists? Or, is it because they worked and socialized at a time when most people did not believe these forms of makeup to be on par with minstrel blackface? It is most likely the latter.
The problem is that the punishment for these crimes is inherently biased. These questions are heretical in cancel culture, and anyone who offers these critiques, as Kelly did, is excommunicated. Unless that is, you are a part of the woke priesthood. In that case, you are immune from punishment. Cancel culture’s lack of consistency reveals what it truly is: a way for mobs to silence anyone who is not on their side, further dividing the country as a strategy for making American culture a leftist monologue.