In recent years, a new form of social ostracization and blacklisting has become prevalent in society – affecting everyone from celebrities and politicians to authors and food producers. Cancel culture, as it has come to be known, has become a popular term for this collective withdrawal of support for individuals or organizations who are deemed to have acted in a manner that is perceived as offensive or objectionable by members of the public sphere. Since the phrase first emerged in 2017, a large number of individuals and entities have been ‘canceled’ for a variety of reasons to include lack of diversity, the exercising of freedom of expression and ‘hateful speech.’ The sudden emergence and apparent popularity of cancel culture has led to much media attention and generation of debate surrounding the methods and reasoning behind it, with public figures on both sides of the political aisle condemning it as acting against the interests of democracy and free speech.
Indeed, the notion of cancel culture and methods employed by those who participate in it are as ridiculous as they are toxic. In July 2020, Goya Foods – an American food producer – was subject to calls for a boycott supported by public leaders including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after their CEO praised then-President Donald Trump during a White House roundtable discussion. Consider this instance of cancel culture – in its most basic form, the idea of organizing a collective boycott of an entity for the sole reason of their holding of different values and beliefs actively goes against the notion of diversity of opinion and the basic principles of individual freedom of speech: the cornerstone of democracy.
In this case, the campaign seeking to boycott Goya represented nothing less than an attempt to silence what was perceived as dissent after their praising of a democratically elected head of state was deemed as such. Whatever happened to agreeing to disagree and tolerating those with different beliefs? One could very easily choose to purchase goods from a different brand if they feel that their values do not align with those of an establishment, but purposefully organizing a mass blacklisting of that company crosses the line – made all the more concerning when national leaders actively support such measures. Fortunately, despite the best efforts of proponents of the boycott, the campaign backfired, and Goya saw sales rise by 1000% as consumers organized a ‘buycott’ to counter the effects of cancel culture – resulting in Ocasio-Cortez being named the employee of the month for her role in the event.
A wide range of other material has also fallen victim to cancel culture. Events of the last month have proven that not even children’s literature is safe from the movement as the publishing oversight company of American author Theodor Geisel – also known as Dr. Seuss – revoked the licensing rights to a number of his books due to racially insensitive imagery. Racism is undeniably reprehensible and should be condemned in its many forms, yet in this instance, it is important to recognize that Dr. Seuss was a lifelong progressive and proponent of environmental causes who vocally criticized fascism in the 1940s and published numerous books that stress the need for equality, diversity, internationalism and peace. Such was the perceived value of his books that, in 1998, NATO planned to widely distribute translated copies to children in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a campaign to encourage tolerance after the horrors of the Bosnian War. This overwhelming evidence from examining the later works of Dr. Seuss strongly suggests that he did not stand for racism as a number of his books underscore these virtues of diversity, inclusion and peace – the antithesis of racist rhetoric.
This disregard for context and refusal to acknowledge information that could potentially shift the paradigms of those who actively participate in cancel culture has been demonstrated time and time again. In 2020, a replica of Emancipation Memorial – a statue depicting Abraham Lincoln standing above a freed slave and holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation – was removed from a public park in Boston following widespread calls for its replacement on the grounds of “perpetuating harmful prejudices” in the words of Mayor Marty Walsh. The issues surrounding this are both numerous and egregious – not only did Abraham Lincoln’s administration fight a horrific civil war and introduce legislation to end slavery in the United States, but the original statue was largely financed by freed slaves. The fact that a monument, originally approved by former slaves and representing a pivotal historical moment, was removed on the grounds of perpetuating prejudice stands to demonstrate the apparent ignorance and disregard for history by those who promote cancel culture. Indeed, removing a statue celebrating the freeing of the slaves represents nothing less than the erasing of history and causes one to speculate as to why supporters of cancel culture take such umbrage with monuments representing tremendous advancements in equality and human rights.
These toxic and narrow-minded principles of cancel culture ultimately reflect nothing more than a complete disregard for alternative information, the erasing of history and the suppression of those with different views. This has dangerous potential going forward as instances of cancel culture, arguably a form of ochlocracy, appear to be on the rise, making it increasingly important for society to oppose the movement in its various forms and actively embrace diversity of opinion and civil debate. After all, precedent has taught us that those seeking to silence freedom of speech and ban books are not often on the right side of history.