“Cancel culture” is an alleged pattern in progressive spaces, wherein people boycott the work of someone who is said to have done something problematic. For a mainstream perspective on cancel culture, I suggest The New York Times, and for a perspective more critical of the concept, I suggest The New Republic.
I won’t review all the arguments surrounding “cancel culture”, but will draw a comparison to the adjacent concept of “callout culture”. Callout culture is also an alleged pattern in progressive spaces, but instead of boycotting problematic people, it was about the harassment of problematic people. Callout culture was extensively discussed circa 2015, when I made a linkspam about it. My feelings about it were mixed at best.
Whatever my feelings about “callout culture”, I feel that “cancel culture” is simply an inferior concept. Compared to harassment, boycotts are less obviously bad, and obviously less bad.
Furthermore, where the target of harassment could be anyone, the target of “cancellation” is almost always cultural creators who are very popular and successful. Their supposed punishment, is that they become less popular and successful–and yet they are still more popular and successful than either I or most of my readers. “Cancel culture” completely centers the top 1% of cultural creators. It is, essentially, a complaint that the gods among us are sometimes granted slightly shorter pedestals.
Cynically put, cultural production is a pyramid scheme. Many people get into the business hoping to rise to the top, or at least close enough to the top to make money. Most people can’t possibly make it, there just isn’t the space. There’s a line about how most Americans vote in the interests of rich people because they think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Complaints about “cancel culture” suggest that many people think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed celebrities.
Here’s another angle: the interests of celebrities get over-amplified because we’re paying disproportionate attention to them. I don’t mean to criticize people for liking celebrities. The degree of attention given to celebrities is a fact of life, and has obvious justification. People pay attention to Kanye West (even now despite him being “cancelled”) because he makes better music than I ever could. What I produce—analytical writing—is not so popular and easier to find.
But given the fact that we all like celebrities, perhaps it would be wise to compensate for the bias this generates. If a celebrity talks about being harassed, well harassment is an important issue that all sorts of people end up dealing with. But being “canceled”? Most of us cannot be victims of cancellation, because we were never popular to begin with. Put another way, we were “cancelled” before we even begun, because we have less resources, or we make something that just has less popular appeal.
I had mixed feelings about callout culture. We need to reduce harassment, but it is all too easy for people to silence healthy internal criticism by labelling it as a “callout”. “Cancel culture”, on the other hand, has all of the bad, and none of the good. Cancel culture is just a way of misdirecting our attention towards the plight of celebrities.