The term “cancel culture” now features prominently in conservative talking points. They’d like for you to think that it’s a bad thing, that it is a new thing and that it is only practiced by the left. All of these assertions are false.
If you are somehow unfamiliar, “cancel culture” is used by politicians when an individual, business, or group suffers consequences for something they’ve said or done. Recent examples include the high-profile firing of actor Gina Carano by Disney, and Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump from its platform. NPR has an explainer if you’d like further examples.
Cancel culture is as old as human societies. Civilizations have a set of laws that you can pay a criminal penalty, such as a fine or jail sentence, for breaking.
Beyond that, nearly all societies have a moral and ethical code that is not part of the law, but which individuals or groups can also be penalized for breaking. The penalties in the latter case can be worse than the penalties for actual crimes. If the broader society thinks you have violated their moral code, you could lose your livelihood, friends and neighbours may turn away from you. It may, if the case is severe enough, become impossible for you to remain in your current community.
During the McCarthy era, anyone labeled a “commie” in Hollywood could say goodbye to their careers. As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, public figures’ careers could be derailed (they could be ‘canceled’) if they were publicly outed as gay. For most of the last several hundred years, especially in North America, women and people of color were effectively canceled from birth. A Black person or a woman might have a somewhat successful career, but only if they were seen as harmless and were sufficiently deferential to white men.
The left didn’t suddenly invent ‘cancel culture’ in the last few years. Cancel culture has been around for as long as humans have lived in communities. It is also not practiced exclusively by the left. Conservatives still do their best to ‘cancel’ people and businesses they have a problem with. There is a long list of people and businesses that conservatives have tried to organize boycotts against in recent years.
What has changed is society. The moral and ethical codes of societies have shifted in the last few decades and it has moved away from conservatives and their moral code.
Once people were ‘cancelled’ for being gay, now they are cancelled for being homophobic. Once people were cancelled for being Black of female, now people are cancelled for being racist or sexist. Once people were cancelled for being “commies”, now people are cancelled for being Nazis.
Cancel culture isn’t new, the left didn’t invent it and the right isn’t opposed to it. They’re not mad about cancel culture, they’re mad about losing the, so-called, culture wars.