The Powerless are Hurt Most by “Cancel Culture”
The rich and famous will usually be just fine. It’s the less privileged who will face the worst consequences.
One common claim in debates about “cancel culture”—an amorphous term meaning social norms that increasingly shame, ostracize, or otherwise punish people for voicing dissenting or transgressive points of view—is that it must not be a very big deal because it doesn’t seem to apply to everyone.
Indeed, when you look at some of the biggest controversies around political speech, it does appear that certain individuals have avoided having their speech explicitly suppressed.
The comedian Dave Chappelle, for instance, survived a media onslaught and internal employee protests over his Netflix special The Closer, which included jokes that upset some transgender activists. Chappelle reportedly netted around $20 million for the special, and despite the controversy, Netflix decided to stand by him.
Chappelle himself made light of those who criticized the special, telling an audience in October, “If this is what being canceled is like, I love it.”
Like Chappelle, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has been the target of numerous activist campaigns after she publicly criticized some tenets and tactics of transgender activism. But other than some small consequences—a few amateur Quidditch leagues will be renaming the Potter-inspired sport to distance themselves from her, and one school will no longer name facilities after her—Rowling has remained largely untouched. She is still rich, famous, and she has access to millions of followers on numerous media platforms.
Looking at these examples alone, one might conclude that nothing is wrong after all. Chappelle and Rowling’s speech was merely met by more speech; at most, they suffered reputational damage, but that’s inevitable during contentious debates.
But here’s the problem: While Rowling and Chappelle can continue to speak freely and don’t have to worry very much about their livelihoods due to their amassed wealth and fame, not everyone is so lucky. The increasingly censorious climate in Western liberal societies like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom hurts those who are most vulnerable.
In July of 2020, I wrote in Persuasion about a Hispanic electrician working for the San Diego Gas and Electric company who was fired for cracking his knuckles in a photograph because a social media mob believed he was flashing a white power sign. This man lacked the fanbase of a Rowling or a Chappelle, who could have risen to his defense and easily debunked the smear; he also didn’t have access to a mountain of lawyers or public relations specialists who could have held his employer accountable or pushed his side of the story in the media. Father Daniel Moloney, an MIT chaplain who was pushed out of his job for expressing skepticism about the role racism may have played in the death of George Floyd, was similarly unprotected.
It’s ordinary workers and people who lack fame and fortune who suffer most from a culture that has become increasingly quick to judge and equally reluctant to forgive. Chappelle doesn’t have to worry about receiving weeks of negative media coverage because he has a global fanbase in the millions. He’ll always have a way to continue to make money and receive adoration. It’s very different if you’re a normal person who found yourself in the crosshairs of a social media mob that makes a snap judgment about you and demands your complete and total defenestration.
Just as concerning as the impact to the individuals at the center of such storms is the broad culture of self-censorship that these campaigns inspire. People who hold opinions deemed unacceptable or unpopular decide that it’s better to keep quiet than speak out and risk their jobs or social status. This chilling effect is broader than you might think. One 2020 Cato Institute poll found that 62 percent of Americans say they have political views they’re afraid to share.
This dynamic exists across ideologies. While we often associate Western censoriousness with the left because progressives are dominant in most cultural institutions, it wasn’t too long ago that social conservatives held the reins of power in many of the same places.
In the 1980s, the Christian right held sway over much of America’s social and political institutions. There was a wave of censorship across the country aimed at preventing children from being exposed to ideas seen as anti-religious or otherwise transgressive against traditional moral values. Several states passed laws that would’ve prevented so-called “lewd” and “lascivious” books from being displayed in places where a minor might be able to see them.
Many people were afraid to speak up against this social movement because it held hegemonic power over institutions including school boards and other local government authorities. Yet there were at least a few people who had the capacity to push back on the religious right because they had already amassed a certain amount of fame or fortune that gave them the breathing room to dissent.
One of those people was the pop star Madonna, whose music videos sometimes contained scenes seen as blasphemous or sexually suggestive. She was also a longstanding advocate for LGBT rights. The religious right’s campaigns against Madonna were largely unsuccessful. Her years as one of the most famous pop stars in the world allowed her to survive controversy; she remains wealthy and connected to this day. Many people we are likely to never hear of will not be so lucky because, like that Hispanic electrician in San Diego, they lack the protective power of stardom and wealth.
So yes, we will continue to see examples of rich and prominent people who can speak their minds about controversial issues and emerge relatively unscathed. But that doesn’t mean being quick to censor and attack is any less of a problem. It will, as always, simply harm the least privileged people the most.