Why the Fallacy of Cancel Culture Is So Toxic (And No, the Founding Fathers Aren’t Getting Cancelled)

Chances are, if you’re on Twitter (or anywhere on the internet, for that matter) in 2020, you’ve heard the phrase “cancel culture” getting tossed around a lot, especially as people explore activism during an age where the attention to social issues is rising as the safety of leaving one’s house is rapidly doing the opposite. So what is cancel culture, and what should we make of it as politically conscious young people on the internet?

The term “cancel culture” typically refers to the recent trend of social media users (usually young, left-leaning, and socially active people) calling out celebrities and public figures for problematic views, statements, or posts. This call-out process usually evolves into a boycott of a product or content created by the cancelled person, and often comes with its fair share of ribbing, and in some cases, outright angered and volatile responses. It can happen to anyone (see Jeffree Star’s death-reminiscent palette in the midst of coronavirus fatalities, R. Kelly’s abuse of young women, or Drew Brees’s statement that NFL players kneeling for the national anthem is disrespectful to the American flag), and it can go one of two ways. The first, and most extreme route: total cancellation, oftentimes sounding the end of an illustrious career and the loss of movie or book deals, positions on boards of directors, public office holdings, or social media followings. Being completely, cold turkey cancelled takes a pretty extreme mishap on the behalf of the cancelee — think Louis CK’s sexual harassment allegations or Jussie Smollett’s faked hate crime. The second option is more common and infinitely more ridiculed: social media backlash for a celebrity’s tone-deaf, offensive, or just plain stupid words and actions. This is what Texas Senator Ted Cruz likes to call “leftist’ and “absurd,” and what conservative Facebook users call “restricting freedom of speech for political correctness.” Second-route cancelled celebrities might include names like J.K. Rowling following her assertion that trans women don’t exist, Lana Del Ray and her ill-received comparison to female artists of color, or Scarlett Johannson in her belief that she should be able to play any role, regardless of her racial inaccuracy for it. While their transgressions represent a serious lack of understanding about racism, sexism, and transphobia, they still retain their status, money, and most of their fan followings, despite being the subject of a blank-is-over-party hashtag on Twitter for a spell. The distinction between the two sides of cancel culture is important, as it shows us the true aim of the concept: to hold powerful people accountable for their actions.

If you’re a logical, socially-conscious person, you probably know when a comment or view goes too far and strays from the realm of “quirky opinion” into the territory of “definitely offensive and dangerously misinformed worldview.” The people who decry cancel culture as free society’s ultimate undoing fail to have this thought process of limits. My eighth grade social studies teacher told us while explaining the limitations of the first amendment that “your right to swing your fists ends exactly where my nose begins.” It’s the idea that you can say and do what you want in this free country, but only until what you say and do negatively affects others. When your verbal fist connects with the metaphorical nose of, say, a member of a marginalized community, you’re liable to be punished for it — maybe not legally, but definitely socially. Cancel culture isn’t restricting free speech, it’s merely putting into practice the part of the social contract that says you should treat others with basic hallmarks of respect and humanity, and that civil discourse requires a boundary between opinion and insult. It might have been Drew Brees’s opinion that he personally wouldn’t kneel for the national anthem at an NFL game, but it was an insult to the act of peaceful protest when he relegated it to a display of disrespect to the flag. Did he deserve to be called out? Yes, absolutely. Did he learn from the incident and use it as an opportunity to foster constructive conversations about white privilege and patriotism in America? Yes again. Cancel culture, then, made a positive difference in the endless chasm of internet political discourse, if only for a moment.

Knowing that all of this is true, that cancel culture as it’s popularly defined is really just a largely misconstrued logical fallacy, how do we go forward in being responsible consumers of internet content? Well, as a first step, we can and must remember the boundary between who deserves to be fully, no-take-backs cancelled and who needs to be called out, educated, and then brought back into the fold to better themself. After that, we need to put civil discourse on a higher pedestal than the one upon which we place revenge and mudslinging. Does your response, your post create an opportunity to educate and converse in a constructive way that doesn’t leave the other person feeling alienated and unintelligent? If the answer is yes, you’re on your way to fostering a more positive and inclusive environment online, because rarely do people respond to unfettered insults thrown at them in lieu of a genuine conversation with the intent to better educate them on an issue. And lastly, we have a responsibility to hold each other accountable, because nobody is above treating other people with dignity and respect. When you’re about to moan and groan because your favorite singer/actor/writer/athlete got cancelled, stop for a second and ask yourself what people’s reaction would’ve been if you’d said or did what they said or did. If you think that you wouldn’t have gotten away with it, then they probably shouldn’t get away with it either. If you find yourself making excuses for someone based on their celebrity or contributions to society, then maybe it’s time to recognize that human beings are nuanced, and that you can do good and bad things interchangeably. That’s just simply human nature. The part we could all stand to think of more, the part that cancel culture forces us to think of more, is that nothing cancels out. Someone’s positive actions don’t cancel out their negative ones — they coexist with each other. When someone does or says a bad thing, society weighs it individually, not on a scale with every other thing that’s ever occurred in a person’s life. Was the comment offensive? Yes? Then call it out, regardless of the person’s status as a perfect whatever-they-may-be. Then, if it’s viable, educate them. Find a way to move forward in which everyone has bettered themselves. 

Understanding all of this, the things it takes to be a responsible consumer of internet content in the age of cancel culture, what are we to make of the renaming and rebranding of powerful and well-known institutions to reflect the changing social climate? We can start by challenging ourselves to unlearn biased history and then applying those concepts to the people, places, and events which our modern society places upon figurative and literal pedestals. Take, for example, MSU’s very own James Madison College, which has recently drawn heat for stating that it would be looking into a name change, as stated by administrators in a letter in which they express a desire to “combat racism” and for the college to “advance an anti-racist agenda.” The backlash was immediate: everyone from U.S. Senators to the group Young Americans Against Socialism to a bunch of incensed folks on a Spartan sports website weighed in on the issue, arguing that James Madison’s status as a lifelong slave owner should not merit his removal as the figurehead of the college and that somehow, by acknowledging the truths about his character, there was an up and coming movement to “cancel the founding fathers.” Before everyone starts worrying about whether or not they’re the key witness to the end of the world, no, we are not cancelling the founding fathers. What we’re doing is recognizing their extremely bigoted worldviews and agreeing to view them in their entirety, rather than the standard glossed-over image of America’s flawless and idealized main characters. And maybe, just maybe, once you start seeing the founders in that light, theirs become less desirable names to put on every meaningful institution in the United States. Don’t worry, though — it’s highly unlikely that any student at James Madison College will be able to forget the man, regardless of a name change, seeing as it’s a school of public affairs with a curriculum centered around the founding documents. The erasure of the most powerful and privileged people in our nation’s history will never happen, because the systems they built are working exactly as they were designed to: people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are still behemoths of American political power, and the supremacy of straight, white, elderly men in this country’s civic echelons doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. What are we doing if we aren’t actively working to call that out?

Perhaps the largest and most important takeaway we can have here is that by definition, cancel culture does not exist. It’s a logical fallacy perpetuated by people who would like to keep making excuses for ignorant and hurtful behavior. In the twenty-first century, people are held responsible for their actions in the public sphere the way they were never previously held, and it shows when the backlash is bigger over people calling out problematic behavior than is the backlash for the problematic behavior itself. Essentially, if someone calls another person out on the internet, there’s probably a reason for it that has nothing to do with stifling freedom of speech. It’s the educating and reconciliation that happens afterwards that makes a difference in the way we relate to one another.