We’ve lost many to the woke mob over the past few years. Cancel culture has claimed entertainers like Gina Carano and Chris Harrison, historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Seuss, and even cartoon characters like Pepe Le Pew and Speedy Gonzales.
While a seemingly modern phenomenon taking place mostly on social media, cancel culture actually has plenty of historical analogies that show what a dangerous and destructive mob mentality it really is.
First of All, What Is Cancel Culture?
Basically, cancel culture is a phenomenon wherein an outraged group demands a prominent figure be “canceled” for something they’ve done or said in the past. Justifications for canceling range from serious offenses like sexual assault to a completely innocuous faux pas.
In fact, some people have even been canceled for merely associating with someone else deemed undesirable.
For example, in 2020 the Twitter mob forced the cancelation of Virtual Pride 2020, a gay pride festival, because it turned out the organizer, Charlie Shakespeare, had liked tweets by Nigel Farage, a proponent of Brexit.
None of these tweets or anything said by Shakespeare had anything to do with gay pride or LGBT rights, but he was called out for being “right wing” and therefore worthy of cancellation.
As this example illustrates, cancel culture is a mostly left-wing weapon to silence their political opponents, but not exclusively. In fact, I remember back in 2014 before cancel culture had even gained full momentum, there were calls to cancel Gwyneth Paltrow because she’d made the stupid but otherwise harmless comment that dealing with interet trolls is like going to war. Conservatives quickly rushed to defend the sacred honor of veterans with their outrage.
“Cancel” is a loose and catch-all term that most often includes demands to remove a figure from some public platform like television, film or social media. They may also be demands to cancel events, break business relationships, or remove their works, name or image from publication. Some have even forced companies to fire individuals.
Cancel Culture as Tyranny
Cancel culture is rarely if ever about serving some higher good. It’s just a torch and pitchfork mob online.
Case in point, all the woke mob did was hurt the LGBT community by canceling Charlie Shakespeare’s Virtual Pride Festival, and what did they gain? At most, they temporarily got Charlie Shakespeare off the air and out of the spotlight, which is, of course, their real goal.
Cancel culture is about using fake outrage to silence people, outrage based on an arbitrary moral code. It’s about gaining powers over others—bullying on an institutional and international scale. It does this through a few different ways, the first of which is building an ingroup identity through “with us or against us” absolutes.
Cancel culture allows people to define their tribal identity by what they hate and who they despise. You can prove to others you deserve to be accepted by them if you can attack their opponents.
For example, a person who truly values tolerance… is just a tolerant person. On the other hand, for someone who wants to be part of the tribe that proclaims “tolerance” as one of their sacred values, merely being tolerant doesn’t do it. You have to attack the “intolerant.”
Sometimes finding someone to attack can be difficult. For instance, modern Western society is easily the most respectful of women’s bodily autonomy that has ever existed and rape is certainly at the lowest rates in recent history if not ever.
So how can a group that defines itself by fighting for women’s bodily autonomy draw a circle around their ingroup in opposition to an enemy if that enemy doesn’t really exist? They have to use the most ridiculous claims to invent an enemy.
Pepe Le Pew, the skunk in love with a cat, promotes rape culture? The absurdity proves cancelation isn’t actually about morality for the sake of justice but “morality” for the sake of tribal identity.
Cancel Culture Hurts Individuals and Society
The first victims of cancel culture are the individuals who get canceled, the ones who don’t make headlines. Usually we only hear about the big names like Gina Carano, and it’s easy to think that while they may have been attacked by cancel culture, it’s not that big a deal. After all, Gina Carano probably gained fame when Disney fired her and now has a deal with the Daily Wire.
But these are just the famous cases. Cancel culture destroys the lives of ordinary people on a regular basis, and they don’t get thrown in the spotlight or offered multimillion-dollar contracts as a result. Consider the example of Emmanuel Cafferty, an employee of San Diego Gas & Electric, who was fired because someone reported him for making a “white supremacist hand gesture” out of his work truck when he was really just cracking his knuckles.
Again, this is an example of the increasing absurdity of cancel culture. People must go to increasing lengths to justify their moral outrage in order to prove they’re not only virtuous enough to be in the woke ingroup, but one of the most virtuous in the group and therefore worthy of admiration.
However, this tyranny doesn’t just hurt these individuals but society as a whole, making it worse for everyone in it, even those who practice cancel culture themselves.
I usually think of the analogy of extreme authoritarian regimes like the one currently in North Korea. North Koreans must go to weekly party meetings where they criticize not only themselves but call out friends and neighbors for actions, words and even thoughts that go against the established state doctrine.
While this may benefit these individuals in the short run by gaining them respect and status within the party and state structure, it ultimately destroys society to the point even those who can climb near the top of the social hierarchy have a miserable quality of life. This happens for several reasons.
1. Suppression of New Ideas
Innovation is difficult when those with new ideas are under threat of cancelation and losing their livelihood. Cancel culture is nothing new, after all. Prior to the Enlightenment, cancel culture or something like it was the default in most societies around the world.
The Church, monarchies and military leaders persecuted anyone who dared go against the established narrative. Think Galileo and Martin Luther.
During the Enlightenment this changed and people began to value and tolerate new ideas, differing opinions and diversity. The result is clear. Technological, political and sociological progress accelerated to unprecedented levels. Allowing many different people to broadcast their perspectives and opinions is how we find the best ones. Cancel culture hinders this.
2. Social Antagonism and Division
Cancel culture is one of the biggest sources of division and political polarization in modern Western society. Gina Carano is a perfect example. Before her cancelation, she was just an actress on a TV show about a cute alien. After getting canceled, though, she’s had to double down on her political views and become a political commentator for the Daily Wire. Cancel culture politicizes everything.
This goes back to cancel culture’s primary use as a line in the sand for tribal identity. If someone wants to prove themselves within a group, the woke mob for instance, they do so by attacking an “other,” someone from the outgroup. This way they can say they fought for the team.
But what is the “other” supposed to do? Maybe before they were an independent person. But when attacked, the only way to defend themselves is join a mob, a team of their own, which is of course defined as being against the first mob. Cancel culture puts people into boxes and makes them despise each other unnecessarily.
3. Lack of Morality
The irony of cancel culture and virtue signaling is that while they seem to focus a great deal of effort on morality, virtue and justice, they actually strip society of these things. The case of Gina Carano is once again a great example. The woke mob demanded her cancelation because she compared cancel culture to the beginnings of Nazi Germany. This was criticized for being anti-Semitic.
Regardless of how accurate or exaggerated Carano’s Claims were, calling her out for them is the epitome of hypocrisy.
You could go to Twitter right now and find dozens of people making Nazi and holocaust comparisons with impunity, many of them prominent figures like Carano’s own costar who are immune from cancel culture because their opinions are deemed acceptable by the mob.
In fact, Nazi comparisons are so ubiquitous that there is a term for it: Godwin’s Law, which states that given enough time, any internet thread will inevitably include an analogy involving Adolph Hitler or Nazism.
We can see from this example that cancel culture actually ignores any consistent moral code, in favor of punishing those who go against the existing group narrative. This doesn’t produce a virtuous or just society. It creates a society where morality plays second fiddle to conformity.
Live by Cancel Culture, Die by Cancel Culture
Finally, though cancel culture allows people to earn a place within a specific tribe by attacking those outside the tribe, it has an even more sinister side. It lets people rise within the ranks of their own tribe by eliminating rivals.
It’s not enough to be “virtuous” in the eyes of the ingroup, you want to be the most virtuous and the most worthy of admiration. What better way to do that than prove you’re even more virtuous than someone who’s a high-ranking person within the group?
This is why cancel culture has even gone after figures that normally have espoused the very beliefs the woke mob and adamant cancelers usually espouse like J.K. Rowling and Bill Maher. Like the political purges in Soviet Russia or Maoist China, those who practice cancel culture will inevitably fall victim to it.
This makes cancel culture even more dangerous. It turns society into one big witch hunt with people turning on each other left and right to try and get to the top of the collapsing social order.
A Matter of Organization
The truth is, in any given case of cancelation, the mob is made up of a small number of people. So how do they represent such a powerful social force? How is it possible that a tiny minority of the population can get Baby, It’s Cold Outside taken off the air or Emmanuel Cafferty fired from his job if the vast majority of people don’t agree?
It’s a matter of organization. In any dictatorial or repressive regime, a small cabal of elites are able to subjugate the population because the majority isn’t organized. Instead, they create a cultural climate where people are divided and antagonistic against one another. They accuse one another to get a temporary gain even though they eventually fall victims themselves, society all the while spiraling into decay and benefiting no one except the few at the very top.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what cancel culture is threatening to do. However, it can’t if people remain brave and unified against it. It’s important to make your voice heard even in the face of the mob, because when we all do that, they lose their power. In the words of the recently canceled Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”