Cancel Cash

Critics of "Cancel Culture" narratives are plentiful and profitable

Cancel Cash

A trove of columnists, commentators, and content creators postured themselves as resisters of so-called “cancel culture” and were subsequently rewarded with influence and wealth. Anti-cancel commentary exists now as a lucrative right-wing grift that’s the media career equivalent of Scrooge McDuck diving off a springboard and swimming in a mountain of gold and cash.

Most critics would describe cancel culture as a cultural phenomenon—taking place most prominently online—in which activists and younger generations of liberals and progressives have targeted individuals and organizations for public shaming and pressure campaigns. Some have gone so far as to claim that this behavior is part of a broader conspiracy meant to bully and penalize deviations from an alleged “approved” worldview, effectively stifling what is supposed to be a foundation of healthy democracy: reasoned debate and freedom to dissent. To naysayers of this supposedly newfound trend, this amounts to a cultural crisis.

First popularized by far-right agitators to villainize critics of their extremist rhetoric and activity, the term has come to be a touchstone for broader Republican politics. The title of this year’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was “America Uncanceled.” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan has called for the House Judiciary Committee, of which he is the ranking member, to host a public hearing on the topic. When Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley lost a book deal because he tried to disenfranchise voters and compromise democracy itself, he claimed he was “cancelled.” It’s become the latest metamorphosis of “anti-SJW” (social justice warrior) discourse.

But at the core of the criticism often lies foundational inconsistencies that undermine its argued concern. Detractors of cancel culture have stoked online backlash and harassment that mirrors the very kind of thing they argue shouldn’t be happening. The leading commentators cashing out on the trend are notably silent on free speech cases that are undeniably more threatening to the values they claim to hold dear than the subjects they discuss. And I’ve yet to see any leading critics acknowledge that fact that what we call “cancel culture” was pioneered and perfected by evangelical Christian activist groups, who have run boycott campaigns and cancelations of their own for decades preceding the modern discourse with varied success. The criticism is anything but holistic and often contains seeds of bad-faith in its arguments.

There’s also a large financial and reputational gain in modern conservative politics to suffer a cancelation. A gold-rush of cancel culture “victims” led a writer at Paradox Politics to caution readers against “posers” in the space in a column that also railed against the purveyors of such canceling:

Edginess has long been a currency, but Trump made that coin valueless for four years. Democrats are back, and edginess is cool again. Now people want the burn scars of cancellation without walking through fire themselves. If we are to remember who participated in the terror of the past four years, who was a wokescold that ruined lives, we must only reward the truly maligned with canceled cred. The canceled chic should be as pillaged as the radical chic of the seventies.

For whatever legitimate criticism of cancel culture that cooler heads in the discourse may have possessed, the topic has become an obsession that has devolved into sheer idiocy. In response to news that the estate of famed children’s author “Dr. Seuss” had decided to withdraw some books containing offensive tropes, outraged conservatives purchased Dr. Seuss books in massive quantities, which only served to enrich the people who made the decision to begin with. It was completely lost on the angered masses that they had financially rewarded the decision to “cancel.”

With the growth of this angle of commentary, interest in the term “cancel culture” has exploded. Google Trends analytics show that the term first piqued interest in 2019, spiking significantly in mid-2020 and again in recent months.

Searches for the term “cancel culture” have grown in number in recent years. The last few months are projected to dwarf prior spikes. These metrics do not measure sentiments or motivations of searchers. (Source: Google Trends)

As cancel culture was beginning to cement itself in the foundation of anti-political correctness discourse,  Osita Nwanevu wrote an insightful piece on the phenomenon at The New Republic. In it, he argued that critics were “plainly threatened not by a new and uniquely powerful kind of public criticism but by a new set of critics: young progressives, including many minorities and women who, largely through social media, have obtained a seat at the table where matters of justice and etiquette are debated and are banging it loudly to make up for lost time.” Sometimes that criticism, particularly online, can go overboard, he acknowledged. But Nwanevu stated that by any good-faith standard of measurement “this is the greatest period for free expression in the history of mankind.” What’s more, the power of the cancellers fails to dwarf the power of their critics. He wrote:

The power to cancel is nothing compared to the power to establish what is and is not a cultural crisis. And that power remains with opinion leaders who are, at this point, skilled hands at distending their own cultural anxieties into panics that—time and time and time again—smother history, fact, and common sense into irrelevance. Cancel culture is only their latest phantom. And it’s a joke.

I hosted Nwanevu on the podcast around the time he wrote that. You can listen to it here.

There are many instances of scenarios where online outrage—what critics would now call cancel culture—has produced unjust and unwarranted consequences. Perhaps the most visible instance of this was the downfall of Justine Sacco, which was chronicled by Jon Ronson. A distasteful tweet posted to a 30-year-old’s Twitter profile, authored with the poorly-executed intention of a South Park-style sense of self-awareness and mockery of her own privilege, was amplified and sensationalized until it destroyed Sacco’s life. Was the tweet bad? Absolutely. But Sacco’s life was destroyed before she ever had a chance to explain herself.

Online outrage mobs exist in every possible flavor and I would agree with the general sense that this method of using the internet can produce devastating effects for its targets, and that sometimes people are caught in crosshairs without sufficient cause.

But the conversation regarding the issue is a nuanced one. And it’s not the conversation we’re having currently. The topic has been effectively hijacked by seedy charlatans, and it’s being used to further polarize the general public.