The List: Reasons to cancel the cancel culture debate

Rep. Jim Jordan wants to hold committee hearings on ‘cancel culture,’ but maybe everyone should pump the breaks a little (OK, a lot)

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, speaks to members of the media before the Trump Victory Headquarters grand opening on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, in Westerville.

Earlier this week, news broke that Ohio congressman Jim Jordan called on Rep. Jerry Nadler to hold a committee hearing on “cancel culture,” a phrase that has quickly become a conservative flash point and rallying cry. 

“The wave of cancel culture spreading the nation is a serious threat to fundamental free speech rights,” Jordan writes, going on to reference decisions made by private companies, including Twitter’s decision to deplatform Donald Trump for consistently breaking the social media company’s terms of service, as well as internal staffing decisions made by The New York Times.

But more than committee hearings, what the world really needs is to finally ditch the phrase, for any number of these reasons and more.

The term has become overused to the point of meaninglessness

For years, “cancel culture” has essentially existed as a lazy stand-in for “experiencing the consequences of one’s actions,” rising out of an online dynamic in which someone would do or say something offensive to others, and then be called out for their actions. In more recent months, though, the term has become more weaponized, particularly within conservative circles, with some wielding it any time someone expresses even mild discontent with their words or actions. If everything is cancel culture, maybe nothing really is?

When “cancellation” isn’t cancellation (aka the Seuss effect)

The most recent cancel culture uproar kicked off this week when the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to remove a half-dozen titles by the late author from circulation, citing the racist depictions included within. This, of course, has led to Sean Hannity running segments on books being banned due to political correctness, Donald Trump Jr. posting photos reading The Cat in the Hat to his child (a book that exists on the shelves of many children and of which nothing remotely negative has been said) and former NYT op-ed staff editor Bari Weiss directing her followers to a site railing against the banning of Seuss’ books.

While predictable, all of this fails to recognize the reality that the books were not banned but were instead pulled by the estate, which made a business decision to remove the titles from circulation and to refrain from licensing the characters for movies or products going forward. This is something that happens all of the time, and is the type of free market decision that conservatives would normally laud. 

It’s generally not real

Try to think of some of the people who have been "canceled," and then note the platform still afforded a majority of them. Ellen DeGeneres still hosts a popular daytime talk show. J.K. Rowling continues to make a fortune exploring the Potter-verse. Even Shane Gillis, who lost a potential “Saturday Night Live” gig after videos surfaced of him making bigoted comments, has carried on doing stand-up, hosting a podcast and making national radio appearances, seemingly no worse for the wear. Oftentimes, the people who rail about how they have been canceled are able to carry on unaffected, if not somehow inflated by the experience. To that end...

Sometimes “canceled” folks emerge even more popular than before

When video footage surfaced of country star Morgan Wallen using the n-word, he was summarily put on pause by his record label and largely pulled from country radio playlists. In response to what they viewed as the singer’s cancellation, some country fans have since purchased his album en masse, leading to a surge both in physical album sales and song streams, this despite Wallen releasing a video saying that he understood and expected the repercussions to his career. And, really, there’s nothing like having fans claim an artist has been “canceled” while he’s in the midst of a weeks-long run at the top of the Billboard 200 chart to show how hollow these conversations can be.

It’s not a right- or left-wing trend, but an American one

Any time a group is particularly vocal about something, it’s a safe bet they’re also engaging in the same behaviors. So while cancel culture has most often been referenced by the right in describing the actions of the left, there’s a long list of supposedly left-leaning associates that have been targeted or boycotted by conservatives, including: Colin Kaepernick, The New York Times, Nike, Campbell’s Soup, The Dixie Chicks, Kathy Griffin, Gillette, Starbucks, James Gunn and on and on and on.

Maybe it’s time to accept that uproar and boycott are both human phenomena and stop using “cancel culture” as a means of dismissing or obfuscating what in many cases are difficult, needed conversations.