Indiscriminate use of the C-word has become a regular part of American life. But its malleability, and the haziness about the difference between “cancellation” and plain-old criticism or consequences, gives it a whiff of sloganeering meaninglessness: “Cancellation” can be anything, and therefore nothing.
Consider a partial list of people — well, mostly people — who have fallen under the “cancellation” umbrella: Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling was canceled for her remarks about transgender people; the horse trainer Bob Baffert blamed “cancel culture” after his Kentucky Derby-winning thoroughbred, Medina Spirit, was suspended for failing a drug test; comedian Roseanne Barr was cancelled for making racist tweets about Valerie Jarrett; the Muppets, for 1970s-era cultural stereotypes that land a bit differently when being streamed in 2021; comedian Louis CK, for allegedly sexually assaulting several women; hipster millennial celebrity chef Alison Roman, for criticizing model-turned-celebrity chef Chrissy Teigen; Chrissy Teigen, for revelations that she’d bullied a reality star several years ago; TikTok star Addison Rae, for not crediting the creators of viral dances she performed in a skit on “Jimmy Fallon.” And so on.
The concept is so amorphous that it’s tempting to dismiss it altogether. Yet even while many of “cancel culture’s” supposed victims can appear to be simple opportunists, or bearers of sour grapes — if you’re doping your horse, it’s maybe a little bit of a stretch to blame nefarious outside forces for your punishment — individual “cancellations” can, in fact, be strung together and understood as something like a “culture.”
But even as it’s evolved into a political tool and feature of modern life, it’s not a strictly ideological phenomenon, as it’s often misrepresented. “Cancel culture” is neither a liberal conspiracy to enforce progressive norms, nor a right-wing straw man built to power the conservative outrage machine, but an ideologically neutral mechanism.
Social media has remade the way we mete out shame and enforce boundaries. The way it bolsters group identity and incentivizes outrage has created a politics in which everything from the Jan. 6 riots to apologetic pre-“Muppet Show” disclaimers on Disney+ is part of the same “culture war.” Where in a pre-social media era, norms would be enforced by institutional decision-making and leadership, they’re now enforced instantly with a tap (or tens of thousands of taps) on a smartphone screen. And like any tool with its combination of newness and potency, this phenomenon poses a potential danger to both weakened, fading power structures and, in the potential for backlash, to those who might supplant or transform it.
In that way, Liz Cheney’s defenders might have actually been on to something. But to understand how, you have to understand the transformation of “cancel culture” from — to borrow a phrase from an earlier cultural upheaval — a personal phenomenon to a political one.
In 2010, the conservative journalist Helen Andrews, nee Rittelmeyer, and her ex-boyfriend, the libertarian journalist Todd Seavey, appeared on a C-SPAN 2 panel promoting a book that featured both of their writing. Seavey took the opportunity to launch into a jeremiad that fused her political beliefs with her alleged personal shortcomings, railing against her as someone “guided by the desire to increase suffering,” as a hapless Andrews sat by while the audience laughed at the attack. It was the most salacious thing broadcast via C-SPAN since the Clinton impeachment hearings.
The exchange went viral on YouTube, burning up the still-vibrant political blogosphere. According to Andrews it also darkened her job prospects, leading her to relocate for a time to Australia. Today, she remembers it as a formative lesson in how, and why, people “cancel.”
“I had to do a lot of personal thinking at that time about what exactly is ‘bad’ or ‘toxic’ about what was happening to me, and whether there was any principle to be drawn out of it, because I had a very strong feeling that what was happening to me should not happen to other people,” Andrews told me. “The bedrock rule that I walked away from that with was that … public shaming can be okay, but the prerequisite is for you, the shamer, to have had some kind of relationship with the person first, because if they have no reason to believe that you care about them, why would they care about your moral condemnation?”
Public shaming, then, generally suggests at least some community-based connection between the person being shamed and the person shaming them. For those who generate today’s “cancellations” on social media, this is rarely the case. Those platforms, and the incentives they create for a sort of punitive catharsis, are the missing link in the mutation of garden-variety public shaming into what we now call “cancel culture.”
The Patient Zero for this metamorphosis is a woman named Justine Sacco. In 2013, Sacco, a public-relations professional, earned the ire of a social media mob for an awkward, impolitic attempt at AIDS-related humor at her own expense. Adding to the drama was the fact that Sacco boarded a flight soon after sending the tweet: While in the air and without internet access, she became Twitter’s number one trending topic for her transgression. People delighted in her misfortune, tweeting out the hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet.” Her life was upended before she even touched the ground and became aware of it; she subsequently lost her job. (Journalist Jon Ronson’s sympathetic portrayal of the ordeal formed the spine of his 2015 book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” After his telling of Sacco’s plight was excerpted by the New York Times Magazine, Ronson was, predictably, dogpiled for coming to her defense.)
It was an early moment when run-of-the-mill public shaming became a supercharged, social-media-driven process by which ideological norms are enforced. Sacco’s joke, in her mind an acknowledgment of the massive gulf in health disparities between white westerners and Black Africans, was taken even by its most charitable interpretation as a too-glib dismissal of the horrific realities faced by the latter. To beat up on Sacco wasn’t simply to ruin the reputation of an individual human being who had made a mistake, it was to strike a blow for racial justice, putting Sacco’s head on a pike.
The incentives at play online make it all too easy and gratifying for individuals to form a crowd with perfect strangers and pile on against one’s perceived enemies — almost always perfect strangers themselves. But the pressure such pile-ons create can, conveniently, be used as cover by those who do personally know the person being canceled, and would like to knock them down a peg, or off the board entirely. In that way, they’re as political a tool as a well-timed leak or an October attack ad.
David Shor, a millennial data scientist who worked on President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign when he was just 20 years old, claims firsthand knowledge of the phenomenon.
After protests erupted in 2020 over the police killing of George Floyd, in some places turning violent, Shor tweeted out an academic study by Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow that demonstrates how during the 1960s, while honest-to-God riots resulted in a decrease in the vote share for Democratic candidates in the following election, non-violent protests actually increased it. An uproar ensued, with liberal critics alleging that Shor was indifferent or even hostile to today’s racial justice protests. Two weeks later, he was out of his job at Civis Analytics, the left-aligned data science firm where he worked as an analyst. (Civis declined to publicly comment on Shor’s firing for this article.)
“The actual issue was that people with purchasing power in the Democratic Party got mad at me,” Shor says. “There is a battle for control of various institutions, and I think that the internet is very important to how that’s played out.”
That dynamic isn’t necessarily confined to the uber-wonky, inside-baseball world of Democratic politics. “It’s relatively elite people who are coordinating with each other, and I think that’s true in my case,” Shor continued. “Institutions like the New York Times are [asking:] What should the norms in those institutions be? Should they be somewhat more liberal than the overall population, or should they be much, much more liberal? … They’re trying to create a new norm, and the way you create new norms is by punishing people.”
In an earlier time, norms were set by institutional gatekeepers. Now they’re determined by which ideas most easily mobilize the grassroots on social media — and, crucially, who inside those institutions might benefit from that mobilization. That’s a fundamental inversion of cultural authority, and a massive shift in how institutional decision-making works.
Liberals have now reigned for decades as America’s cultural trend-setters, frequently as pop-culture and media gatekeepers who punch far above their numerical weight. If liberal writers, thinkers and activists have the upper hand in culture writ large, then what they choose to do with it could shape not just workaday online skirmishes, but an increasingly culture-war-driven national politics.
It’s easy, then, to understand conservative complaints about an ambient and pervasive “cancel culture,” even if it slightly misunderstands the phenomenon and its attendant cultural shift. “Cancellation” is a tool available to anyone with the capital to enforce their desired norms. Condé Nast employees might wield it to oust a prospective editor for problematic tweets, and yes, Kevin McCarthy might wield it within the House GOP caucus. But its crucially novel trait is its availability to those who lack traditional gatekeeper positions. The conservative mob wielded it when they got the AP to fire a cub reporter over her activism as a college student; the liberal mob wielded it when they went after Shor; an amorphous and nonpartisan mob wielded it when they went after Sacco.
The power to set norms belongs to such mobs, in a symbiotic relationship with those who would benefit from their efforts. Increasingly, and disturbingly, they team up to wield it against people who are decidedly not in positions of influence.
Such was the case of Emmanuel Cafferty, an employee of a power company who, in a bizarre fashion, was baited into flashing a purportedly white supremacist hand signal. Never mind that Cafferty is himself a person of color with mostly Mexican ancestry, while the man who posted the photos was himself white; never mind that Cafferty has voiced support for Black Lives Matter. He lost his job, as literally “canceled” as one can be without producing a TV program.
“Americans living in Butte, Montana and Dubuque, and flyover country can imagine getting canceled,” says Andrews. “The fact that this kind of thing is happening to normal people, and could strike at any time like lightning, causes a lot of people to be afraid.”
In that light, it’s easy to understand how the debate around “cancel culture” often takes a fierce and deeply personal character: The terms of “cancellation” are simply intuited, whether by social media mobs or skittish institutions, leaving both its unwarranted victims and their bystanders feeling like sinners in the hands of an angry (and unaccountable) God.
This is where liberals who deny the existence of “cancel culture” stumble into insight. In an interview with Mother Jones, the writer Roxane Gay redefined it as “consequence culture,” saying that a perceived “cancellation” is merely the reality that “when you make a mistake — and we all do, by the way — there should be consequences.” The definition of a “mistake” is left unexamined; the implication is that it is determined by the cancelers — presumably, by people with political views similar to Gay’s.
This is how “cancellation” creates a “culture,” insomuch as those who fear the fallout of being shamed by an online mob are incentivized to avoid such “mistakes.” One can be, in effect, “canceled” from a fandom, or a libertarian listserv, or an indie rock music forum, for cultural or intellectual heterodoxy. But when the parameters for what qualifies as noxious, unacceptable racism or sexism are set by the more-liberal-than-liberal who occupy positions of influence at powerful institutions, the effect inevitably pervades the culture.
Despite that macro-level environment and the endless debates that rage around it, “cancellation” is ultimately defined by those who have the influence in any given sphere — whether that happens to be academia, public life in a small progressive community, Twitter, or any given subreddit. It’s an evolved version of a tool that has existed since the dawn of society, supercharged by the disruptive qualities of social media — but it’s materially different from forms of “accountability” that previously existed in society: it’s not simply informed by changing cultural and social norms; it creates them.
As such, it’s sometimes regrettable and unfair — or even grounds for legal recourse — when we’re excluded from a profession, or an institution, or a community for transgressing against those with the power to “cancel.” Still, we live in a liberal democracy with some of the most robust speech protections in the world. Like any tool with that kind of power, the clumsy or indiscriminate use of “cancel culture” has the potential to cause serious injury not just to its object, but to those who wield it.
Self-imposed exiles from tone-setting elite institutions, like Alison Roman or Vox co-founder (and Harper’s letter-signee) Matt Yglesias, have found success on their own independent platforms; a purposely provocative mega-star like Dave Chappelle can continue to rack up Grammy Awards and Netflix specials. Conservatives enjoy their own robust, parallel media ecosystem from which to lob missiles at the liberal status quo, where getting “canceled” is both a grievous injustice and the ultimate badge of honor — even as conservatives mount their own frequently bad-faith efforts to “cancel” various liberals.
In an era of constant disruption, maybe the most likely outcome is that “cancel culture” could also lead the construction of entirely new institutions which attempt to use that same punitive power toward ends we haven’t yet imagined. Those who hold it now would do well to remember that, and cancel responsibly.