So-Called Cancel Culture Is a Vacant Concept, So It Can Be Turned Back Against the Culture Warriors


Is American society being overcome by an oppressive gang bent on stifling other people’s free speech—and even worse, are people now self-censoring in ways heretofore unseen, to avoid the wrath of so-called woke mobs who are intolerant of dissenting views?

In a word, no. What right-wing culture warriors have successfully labeled “cancel culture” continues to be an empty vessel into which anyone can pour their grievances, as part of an effort to gain victimhood status by claiming that the world is just so unfair to them. It would be funny if it were not so serious. Come to think of it, it continues to be both funny and serious.

In two Verdict columns—one last week and the other last May—I have pointed out that the right’s decades-long effort to label everything “politically correct” has now been re-branded under the cancel culture/wokeness banner. The new packaging in no way changes the fact that there is no substance to any of this. No matter the epithet, complaints of this sort all boil down to conservatives saying: “I don’t like being disagreed with, and you’re being intolerant for not agreeing that I’m right.”

When there is a phrase that is being misused or that has no meaning, I try to follow George Orwell’s instructions to refuse to use the phrase. As Orwell taught us, when people speak without truly understanding what they are saying, they can inadvertently reinforce a narrative that is socially destructive.

It has now reached the point, however, where the better move might simply be to deliberately overuse the offending phrases, hoping to make them useless through dilution and mockery. After all, if there is no meaningful definition of political correctness, cancel culture, or wokeness, then everything and everyone can be accused of being guilty of them. Why play defense when we can go on offense?

We Have Arrived at the Point of No Return, so Why Not Forge Ahead?

I try to be careful when choosing my words, both when I write and when I interact directly with people. I do not always get everything just right, of course, but the effort is important. If we want to be understood—and, again per Orwell, to prevent our own loose word choices from twisting our own thinking—we should only use words and phrases that have clear meanings.

And this is just as true in academic contexts as it is in popular culture. For example, I have long been fighting a losing battle against the use of the term “efficiency” in the sense that economists use the word. One of the reasons that I moved from economics into law was that I had figured out that the concept of efficiency (sometimes called Pareto Efficiency, although all economic definitions of efficiency suffer from the same fatal flaw) has no fixed meaning. After leaving economics, however, I was disheartened to see my colleagues in law toss around the word efficiency as if it meant something, just as my economics colleagues had done.

At some point, I realized that there might be no putting that genie back in the bottle, so I decided simply to claim that every policy I like is efficient and that every policy I dislike is inefficient. And because there is no neutral, objective baseline against which efficiency can be measured, I will not be wrong. I will also not be right, but neither is anyone else. That is what happens when people use empty words.

We are definitely at that point now with PC/cancel culture/wokeness. As I noted in my column last week, the brothers Cuomo are both hiding behind claims that their falls from grace were the dastardly result of cancel culture, turning themselves into victims of an intolerant world rather than facing the truth, which is that they did bad things and faced at least some consequences for doing so—too little and too late, but still something.

One might have thought that it could not become any more absurd than Chris and Andrew C., but then we all witnessed the spectacle of Vladimir Putin complaining about having been canceled. He even tried to compare himself to the author J.K. Rowling, who has received much-deserved criticism for her anti-trans rantings on Twitter and elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, Rowling wanted nothing to do with Putin, so she distanced herself from the murderous war criminal. Even so, the episode exposed the emptiness of cancel culture in another important way.

Is Cancellation the Purest Form of Capitalism?

A Canadian comedian who runs a YouTube channel called “Rational National” responded to the Putin/Rowling situation in two ways, both of which are useful for thinking about what is and is not happening. First, he said that Rowling had not in fact been canceled because she is still quite successful, her books still sell, and she has upcoming projects that have not been taken away from her.

This is true, and it applies just as much to the other high-profile people who whine about being canceled even as they either face no consequences at all or quickly land on their feet after a brief period of minor discomfort. Even so, this way of thinking suggests that it would truly be an example of cancel culture—which, to be clear, we are to believe is most definitely bad—if someone like Rowling were to lose her career as a result of backlash against something that she said or did. The idea is apparently that it is not cancel culture if something has not in fact been canceled.

This, however, completely misunderstands what is happening. Those of us who truly believe in freedom of choice and the power of “the free market” understand that not everyone has a right to earn a living in exactly the way that they would like. If I am selling something but no one is buying, I have not been canceled. I have just been told that there are no customers who are willing to give me money, clicks, or likes.

If Rowling’s bigotry resulted in her never selling another book, then, she would simply be facing the consequences of market choices made by free people. Entertainment is the ultimate “at-will employment” situation. In most American workplaces, people can be fired for any reason—or for no reason at all. And an author’s employers are her potential readers, who have every right to stop buying her books for any reason—or again, even for no reason at all. I happen to believe that at-will employment is a bad way to run most workplaces, but it is inevitable in the context of entertainment.

Rational National’s second argument is that, even though J.K. Rowling has not been canceled, when symphonies and other public entertainment venues change plans and decide not to perform works by Tchaikovsky and other Russian artists, that is “genuine” cancel culture. Tchaikovsky, after all, did not invade Ukraine, and his being dead makes it impossible to know whether he would have supported Putin’s mass murder. Why should his music be “censored”?

The answer is that nothing is being censored. Rather, the market is speaking. It does not matter whether the symphonies’ decisions are being driven by the opinions of the people who run them or by fear of the public’s reaction. There is nothing wrong with saying, “You know, right now, I just don’t want to celebrate Russian culture. I know that’s not necessarily rational, but it just feels wrong.”

Republicans “canceled” French fries in the early 2000s after the government of France criticized the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq. I, along with most people, thought that that was beyond silly, but it was certainly their right. If a restaurant owner today were to decide not to offer Russian salad dressing, or borscht, or vodka, we might think that she is overreacting (or we might not); but there is nothing about this that is inappropriate or oppressive. Buyers and sellers can decide what they are willing to buy and sell, and they can change their minds if they want to. This is not censorship, political correctness, or any of the rest. It is capitalism.

Beyond the Marketplace: What Is Wrong with Making Personal Decisions?

But what about situations in which people harshly condemn other people for their views. As I described in my column last week, the editors of The New York Times became very exercised by the idea that people were “shaming and shunning” those with whom they disagree. To which I responded, in essence: Yes … and?

People are always making decisions about who they like, who they will avoid, and whether they will respond to or simply ignore someone with whom they disagree. An article in The New Republic last week reported that “OkCupid Users Don’t Want to Date Climate Deniers,” and my first thought was: “Oh great, now climate deniers are going to complain about being canceled or woke-mobbed, or something.” But for heaven’s sake, is it really a problem if someone says that climate change is a deal-breaker for them in the dating world?

The issue, however, is supposedly that democracy itself is at stake, at least in the eyes of The Times. Far beyond the realm of dating, young people are supposedly now uniquely unwilling to listen to those with whom they disagree. I, however, am confident that democracy is not going to die because some twenty-somethings sometimes exercise bad judgment (at worst) and refuse to listen to someone. Again, the right to speak is not the same as a right to have other people listen.

The anecdotes floating around about people losing their jobs over seemingly minor things turn out to be isolated cases, and there have always been injustices in the workplace. On campuses, for all the rending of garments over students’ supposed unwillingness to risk being judged, I have not seen any change in that regard over the last thirty-plus years of teaching. And as long as we are dealing in anecdotes, I have asked various of my current students whether there is something that I am missing, and they have said that there is nothing to this whole brouhaha.

That, of course, does not stop the right-wing culture warriors from trying to use the PC/cancel culture/wokeness panic to their advantage. In response to political pressure, my state’s university system has announced that it will soon administer an “Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity Survey,” the purpose of which “is to assess the extent to which you feel free to express your beliefs and viewpoints on campus.” This is essentially a casting call for people willing to take on the comforting role of society’s innocent victim.

There is nothing new here, with old grievances being reissued with different labels. Again, my point in writing this column is to acknowledge that there is no turning back now, because we have entered the phase of the social panic where people have begun to reflexively refer to cancellation in a completely mindless way.

Most amusingly, the editors of The Washington Post opined last Wednesday that former Vice President Mike Pence deserves a fair hearing as he tries to rehabilitate his reputation so that he can run for president in 2024. The headline? “Mike Pence provokes bipartisan intolerance. He deserves to be heard.”

Pardon me, but it is not intolerant to judge Mike Pence. He has fully revealed who he is, and if people do not want to sit and listen while he piously whitewashes history (pun intended), they have every right to turn away. He does not “deserve” to be heard, and no one has any reason to listen to him. Those who choose to do so are free to indulge him, but that is a matter of grace on their part.

The amusing part of The Post’s editorial, however, was the opening line: “Whatever one’s views on former vice president Mike Pence — ours have been critical — there’s no denying that efforts to silence and cancel him have been bipartisan.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we now live in a world in which one of the major newspapers in the world uses the word “cancel” as a synonym for “ignore, as is everyone’s right.”

The Post’s unthinking use of “silence and cancel” regarding Pence unmistakably tells us that there is no going back. There is no longer any point in begging people, “Stop talking about cancel culture. It means nothing!” Game over. The language has been further debased by an all-purpose, content-free insult.

The only response, then, is to start the next game, in which we say that everything—and I mean everything—is cancel culture. Donald Trump is trying to cancel Hunter Biden. Republican senators voting against Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination are merely a bunch of censorious cancel-culture warriors. The “Stop the Steal” people are trying to cancel American democracy. And what do I have to say to anyone who disagrees with this column? Stop canceling me!

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