The title of this column is gibberish, and there is a very good reason for that. We have reached the point where the American right has so thoroughly abused the terms “cancel culture,” “wokeness,” and similar invented grievances that those words can now be used at any time and in any situation, but the only idea being conveyed is “I do not like this thing.”
A business changes its product line? “Cancel culture strikes again!” A corporation makes a public statement about social issues? “Oh, I’m so tired of these woke types!!” Those responses conveniently change the subject, making it unnecessary to be honest about what is truly happening: “The owners of the Dr. Seuss books decided to stop selling a small number of unpopular volumes because of racist content,” and “Large American corporations oppose voter suppression.” Why talk substance when there is outraged posturing to be done?
It was immediately and painfully obvious that the manufactured fury over a nonexistent and amorphous non-thing like cancel culture would quickly consume itself. Any time that a person disagrees with someone, they can be accused of trying to cancel that person. But of course, the person who complains about being canceled is just as guilty of canceling the first person, because in the circular world of right-wing outrage, being accused of canceling is a way of being canceled. Rather than being meta, however, this has merely become more and more obviously stupid.
As this new degradation of the English language and simple logic has played out over the last year or so, I have resisted the urge to weigh in on such an unweighty topic. At some point, however, it became clear that this is not going away, at least not any time soon. And the emptiness of these epithets has become too obvious to ignore.
After a quick, incomplete history of this latest insult to George Orwell’s efforts to insist that words have clear meanings (indeed, any meaning at all), I will describe why the cancel/woke/etc. fad is actually interesting in one way: Unlike its forebears, this fad exposed its own uselessness extremely quickly. We can only hope that it will go away just as quickly, although I doubt that we will be so lucky.
The Sure Sign That Words Have No Meaning: When Everyone Uses Them Mindlessly
We have seen example after example in recent weeks and months of people using the term “cancel culture” as a (spectacularly ineffective) weapon, often with “wokeness” or other synonyms being used literally in the same breath.
For example, disgraced U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri is continuing to claim that there are “questions” about the 2020 presidential election. Only a week after the January 6 insurrection that he helped to incite, I used my Verdict column to refute Hawley’s claim that Pennsylvania’s election law changes in 2020 had never been considered on the merits by that state’s high court.
All these months later, Hawley is still at it, claiming in an interview last week with The Washington Post that Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court somehow ignored the content of the Trump campaign’s complaint and violated its own precedent in doing so. He continues to fail (or refuse) to understand that the Court’s unanimous ruling does not mean that it did not consider the merits. In fact, the Court had to consider the merits before it could invoke an equitable doctrine, but the untrained (or dishonest) eye can misperceive the decision as merely procedural.
But the content of Hawley’s poor argumentation is not the point here. He has become the poster boy for claiming victimhood status, no matter when or how anyone disagrees with him. Hawley became flustered when the reporter called him on his baseless claims, as she showed actual knowledge of the law and the facts in the process of pressing him with follow-up questions.
Without missing a beat, Hawley bailed out and reached immediately for this already-tired dodge: “Don’t try to censor, cancel, and silence me here.” Not, “I disagree, and here’s why,” or even, “Please let me finish.”
No, Hawley wants us to know that he is being censored, canceled, and/or silenced—even though, as the interviewer pointed out, The Post was giving him a forum in which to present his baseless arguments. But none of this should surprise us, because Hawley has also insisted that his rights of free expression were being violated when a private publisher decided not to publish his book after he became politically toxic in the post-January 6 environment.
Again, the desire to wrap himself in victimhood infuses everything that Hawley does. One might even suggest, given how unhappy he becomes when things do not go his way, that he is being a snowflake.
These examples are drawn from literally thousands of instances in which Republicans have taken to invoking cancel/woke/censor/etc. as political tools. It has become their brand, and they make each other happy by reassuring themselves that they are the true victims in modern America. February’s Conservative Political Action Committee’s conference even billed itself as “America Uncanceled.” Cue the shouting about Mr. Potato Head and the litany of conservative bellyaching.
But the way to know that the shark has been well and truly jumped is that people who are not Republican political performance artists are now also using those terms whenever they are in trouble. Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo rejected calls for his resignation by saying that he would not be “bowing to cancel culture.” Amazingly, even the trainer of the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby described the doping-related disqualification of his horse as being “like a cancel culture kind of thing.”
We are, then, most assuredly beyond the point where cancel culture, wokeness, and the full run of conservative gripes are in fact communicating anything to listeners. As Orwell warned, people sometimes choose words for familiarity, not for their actual meaning. The thought process need not even be explicit or conscious when a person blurts out: “That’s cancel culture!” What they mean is: “I’ve heard people deflect criticism lately by using that term, so I’ll play the aggrieved victim, too.”
How Did This Happen?
This is not the forum, and I am not the writer, to engage in a deep dive into the linguistic history of the latest conservative buzzwords that have migrated into everyday usage. I can say that a particularly high-intensity moment came in the summer of 2020, when Harper’s published a letter signed by an ideologically diverse group of writers, who complained about a supposed increase in censoriousness in American culture.
As so often happens with these things, it turned out that there was virtually nothing to this supposedly Big New Problem, other than that some authors who had been criticized decided that their critics were being mean. That is admittedly a bit of an exaggeration, but I am hardly the only person to have noted that the list of signatories included big-name people who were not in any way “canceled” but who were unaccustomed to being confronted with disagreeable responses to their work.
New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg signed the Harper’s letter, but she almost immediately realized that the entire enterprise was misguided. She soon wrote what can only be seen as a mea culpa in which she admitted that, despite all of the talk about people’s lives being ruined by cancellations, there had been only one legitimate example of a man who actually was unjustly harmed by a censorious online pile-on.
Nonetheless, Harper’s followed up their pot-stirring issue with an editorial celebrating what they had done. (Yes, I considered canceling my subscription.) The Times soon saw its pages filled not only with the usual rightwing voices misusing this latest culture war nonsense, but the then-new head of its editorial section wrote about “cancel culture” as if it were a real thing. Now-retired left-of-center columnist Roger Cohen opined that “cancel culture is a problem,” and surprising numbers of people began to act as if using the term was something more than an effort at misdirection.
One of The Post’s resident conservatives assured us that “[t]oday’s ‘cancel culture’ is nothing more than McCarthyism in a woke costume.” A former president of Barnard College insisted that dropping a eugenicist’s name from a Planned Parenthood clinic is a matter of “[e]rasing” that person and preventing us from getting “to know about them fully, not just for what we admire.” These complaints carry loud echoes of the specious complaints that removing Confederate statues somehow attempts to ignore or rewrite history.
At one point, Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate tried gamely to offer a definition, saying that “‘cancel culture,’ in the view of its critics, is a process in which mostly decent people are fired from their jobs or shamed into quitting because they have failed to meet impossibly high standards of progressive sensitivity.” Mathis-Lilley pointed out that obviously that was not at all an accurate description of what was going on with Cuomo (which was the example du jour when that column was written), but it is worse than that.
It is, as I noted above, actually a bit of a fool’s errand to try to define a term like “cancel culture” or any of its creeping variants. These terms are used as political and cultural weapons precisely because they resist definition (and thus limitation). Mathis-Lilley’s definition seems to capture what worried the liberals who have given ground on this topic, including the one example that Michelle Goldberg admitted was doing most of the work whenever anyone wanted to say, “See what happened to that guy?!”
But when it reaches the point where Hawley can complain about being canceled simply because his interviewer asked tough follow-up questions, we know that we are no longer anywhere near a world in which we need to be worried about relatively powerless people being beaten into submission by a “woke mob.” We are, instead, being gaslighted by powerful people who insist that the world is out to get them for nothing more than being a bit insensitive—or, as Donald Trump’s acolytes would sneeringly describe it, for “telling it like it is.”
Jennifer Rubin, another Post columnist, got it exactly right last summer in describing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech after a Republican congressman (now-retired Ted Yoho of Florida) directed misogynistic insults at her:
Ocasio-Cortez’s stirring words came during a time when “cancel culture” has been hotly debated. While it is hard to find a reasonable person who disagrees with the premise that free speech is a necessary component of our democratic society, and that no one should be fired for his or her political beliefs, everyone is accountable for their conduct—even white, male congressmen. The First Amendment means the government cannot punish you even for hateful, bigoted and cruel utterances. That does not mean you are spared from the wrath of those you insult.
Ocasio-Cortez did not “cancel” Yoho. She exposed and denounced his behavior, deprived him of traditional excuses and demonstrated that women—and especially women of color—do not have to silently absorb abuse that has been routinely leveled at them. In doing that, she reminded us that we all have agency, that we all must be responsible for our behavior and that we all are entitled to respect.
Almost a year has passed since Rubin (and many others) so clearly refuted the very idea that there is such a thing as cancel culture, but Republicans have only increased their dishonest use of this term. Why would they stop, when flooding the airwaves with complaints about cancellation (and wokeness and the rest) are treated as if they mean something, even by people outside of Fox News?
Yes, We Have Been Here Before, But This Time It Happened at Warp Speed
When I was beginning to think about writing a column about cancel culture during its first outbreak last year, I thought to myself: “Well, there isn’t much to say, really. It’s a meaningless term, and it is actually merely a re-branding of ‘political correctness’; what more is there to add?”
Indeed, there is an almost perfect overlap between the idea of the “PC police” from the 1990s and the complaints about cancellation and wokeness today. In both, the terms are easy to turn around. Republicans enforce conservative political correctness by insisting on saying “Democrat policies” instead of Democratic policies, “government schools” instead of public schools, “radical leftists” instead of “centrist Democrats,” and on and on. Even so, Republicans swear that only their opponents punish people for political incorrectness.
Similarly, the cult of cancel culture aggrievement loses any hope of coherence as soon as we realize that, as I noted above, every supposed complaint about cancellation is itself an attempt to cancel. Liz Cheney is accused of trying to cancel Donald Trump, and Republicans cancel her. Who is the canceler? the canceled? the uncanceler?
And to be clear: Anyone who disagrees with anything that I have written here needs to stop canceling and silencing me!
The similarity between the old PC dodge and the new cancel/woke scrum ends, however, when we consider just how quickly the misuse of these latest terms has spun out of control. Many people still seem to think that political correctness is a real concept, mostly because Republicans did not completely run it into the ground by forcing it into every conversation. But with canceling, wokeness, and the rest, even the most credulous person must at this point be thinking, “Wait, who’s canceling what, and why should I care?”
That is not to say that Republicans will drop these terms any time soon. Even if the rest of the world stops caring, “cancel culture” will become a new entry in the dictionary of conservative PC. To this day, they use the term “socialist” to mean “anything that Democrats propose,” and they have been doing so for decades.
Even if this new set of empty slogans is not going to go away, however, we can be grateful that they are so, so empty. When cheating horse trainers think that they can hide behind a vapid political slogan, that slogan has all but canceled itself.