Cancel culture is destroying liberalism. No, cancel culture doesn’t exist. No, it has always existed; remember when Brutus and Cassius canceled Julius Caesar? No, it exists but it’s just a bunch of rich entitled celebrities complaining that people can finally talk back to them on Twitter. No, it doesn’t exist except when it’s good and the canceled deserve it. Actually, it does exist, but — well, look, I can’t explain it to you until you’ve read at least four open letters on the subject.
These are just a few of the answers that you’ll get to a simple question — “What is this cancel culture thing, anyway?” — if you’re foolish enough to toss it, like chum, into the seething waters of the internet. They’re contradictory because the phenomenon is complicated — but not complicated enough to deter me from making 10 sweeping claims about the subject.
So here goes:
1. Cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.
“Reputation” and “employment” are key terms here. You are not being canceled if you are merely being heckled or insulted — if somebody describes you as a moron or a fascist or some profane alternative to “Douthat” on the internet — no matter how vivid and threatening the heckling becomes. You are decidedly at risk of cancellation, however, if your critics are calling for you to be de-platformed or fired or put out of business, and especially if the call is coming from inside the house — from within your professional community, from co-workers or employees or potential customers or colleagues, on a professional message board or Slack or some interest-specific slice of social media.
2. All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means.
There is no human society where you can say or do anything you like and expect to keep your reputation and your job. Reputational cancellation hung over the heads of Edith Wharton’s heroines; professional cancellation shadowed 20th-century figures like Lenny Bruce. Today, almost all critics of cancel culture have some line they draw, some figure — usually a racist or anti-Semite — that they would cancel, too. And social conservatives who criticize cancel culture, especially, have to acknowledge that we’re partly just disagreeing with today’s list of cancellation-worthy sins.
3. Cancellation isn’t exactly about free speech, but a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals.
The canceled individual hasn’t lost any First Amendment rights, because there is no constitutional right to a particular job or reputation. At the same time, under its own self-understanding, liberalism is supposed to clear a wider space for debate than other political systems and allow a wider range of personal expression. So you would expect a liberal society to be slower to cancel, more inclined to separate the personal and the professional (or the ideological and the artistic), and quicker to offer opportunities to regain one’s reputation and start one’s professional life anew.
“It’s a free country,” runs the American boast, and even if it doesn’t violate the Constitution, cancellation cuts against that promise — which is one reason arguments about cancel culture so often become arguments about liberalism itself.
4. The internet has changed the way we cancel, and extended cancellation’s reach.
On the other hand, a skeptic might say that it wasn’t liberalism but space and distance that made America a free country — the fact that you could always escape the tyrannies of local conformism by “lighting out for the territory,” in the old Mark Twain phrase. But under the rule of the internet there’s no leaving the village: Everywhere is the same place, and so is every time. You can be canceled for something you said in a crowd of complete strangers, if one of them uploads the video, or for a joke that came out wrong if you happened to make it on social media, or for something you said or did a long time ago if the internet remembers. And you don’t have to be prominent or political to be publicly shamed and permanently marked: All you need to do is have a particularly bad day, and the consequences could endure as long as Google.
5. The internet has also made it harder to figure out whether speech is getting freer or less free.
When critics of cancel culture fret about a potential online-era chill on speech, one rejoinder is that you can find far more ideas — both radical and noxious — swirling on the internet than you could in a sampling of magazines and daily newspapers circa 1990. It’s easier to encounter ideological extremes on your smartphone than it was in the beforetime of print media, and easier to encounter hateful speech as well.
But at the same time the internet has hastened the consolidation of cultural institutions, so that The New York Times and the Ivy League and other behemoths loom larger than they did 30 years ago, and it’s arguably increased uniformity across cities and regions and industries in general. And the battle over norms for cancellation reflects both of these changes: For would-be cancelers, the chaos of the internet makes it seem that much more important to establish rigorous new norms, lest the online racists win … but for people under threat of cancellation, it feels like they’re at risk at being shut out of a journalistic or academic marketplace that’s ever more consolidated, or defying a consensus that’s embraced by every boardroom and HR department.
6. Celebrities are the easiest people to target, but the hardest people to actually cancel.
One of the ur-examples of cancel culture was activist Suey Park’s 2014 hashtag campaign to #cancelColbert over a satirical tweet from the Twitter account of “The Colbert Report.” Six years later, Stephen Colbert is very much uncanceled. So are Dave Chappelle, J.K. Rowling and a much longer list of prominent pop culture figures who have faced online mobs and lived to tell, sell and perform.
Their resilience explains why some people dismiss cancellation as just famous people whining about their critics. If someone has a big enough name or fan base, the bar for actual cancellation is quite high, and the celebrity might even have the opportunity — like a certain reality-television star on the campaign trail in 2016 — to use the hatred of the would-be cancelers to confirm a fandom or cement a following.
However, not everyone is a celebrity, and …
7. Cancel culture is most effective against people who are still rising in their fields, and it influences many people who don’t actually get canceled.
The point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority, not to bring the stars back down to earth. So a climate of cancellation can succeed in changing the way people talk and argue and behave even if it doesn’t succeed in destroying the careers of some of the famous people that it targets. You don’t need to cancel Rowling if you can cancel the lesser-known novelist who takes her side; you don’t have to take down the famous academics who signed last week’s Harper’s Magazine letter attacking cancel culture if you can discourage people half their age from saying what they think. The goal isn’t to punish everyone, or even very many someones; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.
8. The right and the left both cancel; it’s just that today’s right is too weak to do it effectively.
Is it cancel culture when conservatives try to get college professors disciplined for anti-Americanism, or critics of Israel de-platformed for anti-Semitism? Sure, in a sense. Was it cancel culture when the Dixie Chicks — sorry, the artists formerly known as the Dixie Chicks — were dropped by radio stations and tour venues, or when Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” was literally canceled, for falling afoul of patriotic correctness? Absolutely.
But as the latter examples suggest, the last peak of right-wing cultural power was the patriotically correct climate after Sept. 11, a cultural eon in the past. Today the people with the most to fear from a right-wing cancel culture usually work inside Trump-era professional conservatism. (And even for them there’s often a new life awaiting as a professional NeverTrumper.) Attempted cancellations on the right are mostly battles for control over diminishing terrain, with occasional forays against red-state academics and anti-Trump celebrities. Meanwhile, the left’s cancel warriors imagine themselves conquering the entire non-Fox News map.
9. The heat of the cancel-culture debate reflects the intersection of the internet as a medium for cancellation with the increasing power of left-wing moral norms as a justification for cancellation.
It’s not just technology or ideology, in other words, it’s both. The emergent, youthful left wants to take current taboos against racism and anti-Semitism and use them as a model for a wider range of limits — with more expansive definitions of what counts as racism and sexism and homophobia, a more sweeping theory of what sorts of speech and behavior threaten “harm” and a more precise linguistic etiquette for respectable professionals to follow. And the internet and social media, both outside institutions and within, are crucial mechanisms for this push.
It’s debatable whether these new left-wing norms would be illiberal or whether they would simply infuse liberalism with a new morality to replace the old Protestant consensus. It’s arguable whether they would expand the space for previously marginalized voices more than they would restrict once-mainstream, now “phobic” points of view. But there’s no question that people who fall afoul of the emergent norms are more exposed to cancellation than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago.
10. If you oppose left-wing cancel culture, appeals to liberalism and free speech aren’t enough.
I said earlier that debates about cancellations are also inevitably debates about liberalism and its limits. But to defend a liberal position in these arguments you need more than just a defense of free speech in the abstract; you need to defend free speech for the sake of some important, true idea. General principles are well and good, but if you can’t champion controversial ideas on their own merits, no merely procedural argument for granting them a platform will sustain itself against a passionate, morally confident attack.
So liberals or centrists who fear the left-wing zeal for cancellation need a counterargument that doesn’t rest on right-to-be-wrong principles alone. They need to identify the places where they think the new left-wing norms aren’t merely too censorious but simply wrong, and fight the battle there, on substance as well as liberal principle.
Otherwise their battle for free speech is only likely to win them the privilege of having their own ideas canceled last of all.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.