“Cancel culture” is the new culture-war bogeyman on the right, but the concept is not new. Ranting about how cancel culture is repressing people is no different from blaming political correctness. In both cases, the point is that perfectly legitimate viewpoints are being suppressed or driven to the intellectual dark web because oppressive liberal/feminist/woke orthodoxy won’t stand for any dissent (more discussion here). Even Harry and Meghan criticizing racism in the royal family is cancel culture.
A lot of it is just a convenient means to feed conservative audiences their dose of rage-ahol, convincing them they’re under siege. For instance, Fox News has been whining non-stop about Dr. Seuss books being pulled for racist imagery but they do it without showing the controversial images which would undermine their case. Right-wing rape apologist Mike Cernovich says conservatives should cancel liberals by untruthfully reporting liberal organizations as hate groups — with the subtext that when liberals criticize right-wing groups, they’re just lying. Ross Douthat likewise sees an opportunity to bash liberals — don’t they realize Dr. Seuss Enterprises choosing to stop publishing books is exactly like the government banning James Joyce’s Ulysses? No, it’s actually not.
For others it’s discomfort that the rules for what was acceptable have changed so much from 50 years ago — you can’t tell a funny racist joke any more without people judging you, even though you’re totally non-racist! There’s some of this in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s whining that “nobody listened to me.” when she demanded her local library stop a Drag Queen Story Hour: they listened, they just didn’t agree (see this related post).
Which brings me to pundit Bari Weiss’s recent piece in the Deseret News (not linking to her, but you can google it) about the terrible plague of self-censorship sweeping America due to the liberals. The days of the tolerant left committed to free speech are gone and self-righteous woke types are now imposing orthodoxy on everyone (which is apparently totally different from Weiss’s own efforts to cancel critics of Israel). Just look at letters she receives saying things like ““I never thought I’d practice the kind of self-censorship I now do when pitching editors, but these days I have almost no power to do otherwise,” a young journalist writes. “For woke-skeptical young writers, banishment and rejection awaits if you attempt to depart, even in minor ways, from the sacred ideology of wokeness.”
As I said in the first link in this post, that’s meaningless without specifics. Departing from wokeness could in theory mean anything from “I had to lie that I was non-binary and pansexual or I wouldn’t get the assignment” to “I always use rape jokes as ice breakers but suddenly editors say it’s offensive!” Having read complaints by people who think it’s PC to not use the n-word, I’m skeptical without specifics. And I’m extremely skeptical this is primarily a left-wing problem rather than Weiss cherry-picking. Is wokeness more oppressive than a Southern Baptist church yanking its minister’s license for supporting Biden on social media? Efforts to pull gay-themed books from school libraries?
As LGM points out, self-censorship is a part of everyday human existence, not something forced on people by the left. My best friend and I self-censor around each other because our politics are wildly different. People routinely self-censor at work, and this is often a good thing: having someone publicly discuss their female coworkers’ physical appearance or send out a press release identifying a new executive as a former Knockers waitress (there’s no such restaurant) — better guys like that should self-censor. Nor is it a good idea for an evangelical to witness to a colleague who doesn’t want to hear it, or an atheist to make fun of a coworker’s religious views. If a couple of people, at work or away from it, are enthusiastically discussing baseball or D&D, breaking in to tell them how stupid their hobby is — well, self-censoring is just courtesy in that case.
For many people, these issues are hierarchical. Guys who think they have the right to harass women without being called to account for it. Christian conservatives who feel entitled to judge, but not be judged in turn. Anyone who thinks their status entitles them to punch down but shrieks about PC or cancel culture when someone punches back up. Wokeness, right or wrong (and I’ve heard a few stories about people whose “woke” positions do not convince me) falls on the side of the marginalized and the fringe dwellers. That, much more than any actual power to cancel anyone, makes some people feel threatened.