‘Cancel Culture’ Was Always A Term Without MeaningNo ratings yet.

‘Cancel Culture’ Was Always A Term Without Meaning
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A fundamental problem should be acknowledged at the outset of any discussion regarding what’s come to be known as “cancel culture.” The problem is no one has been able to come up with a principled definition of the term. To be sure, serious people have tried to define it, but even these attempts suffer from total reliance on subjective, nondefinable, and unprincipled terms.

Despite not being able to come up with a principled definition, many serious people still persist in claiming that cancel culture is somehow a big problem for the country and the culture of free speech or open debate. But these cancel culture alarmists suffer from a number of blatantly obvious factual realities that discredit their claims.

Let’s begin with the oft repeated cancel culture alarmists claim that free speech or open debate is somehow being stifled because “[e]veryone else lives in fear of the digital Thunderdome.” The glaring problem with this claim is that more people than ever before are participating in open debate. In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that open debate is being threatened. What all evidence does show is that when prominent people speak, they are being confronted with more criticism from the masses who, until the age of social media, did not have the technological capability to voice their dissent so directly. So, when cancel culture alarmists claim that what they are worried about is maintaining an environment where people can speak their minds more freely, it becomes absurd when they get upset when people do just that. Nothing whatsoever about the legal or even cultural aspect of free speech suggests that anyone should be insulated from a Thunderdome of criticism. Indeed, I submit the marketplace of ideas was always meant to be a Thunderdome.

Another problem with cancel culture alarmists is their arguments suffer from what First Amendment attorney Ken White (Popehat) calls a “motte-and-bailey problem.” For any who are not aware, a motte-and-bailey is a fallacy whereby an arguer conflates two positions that are vastly different. For an illustration of how cancel culture alarmists use the motte-and-bailey let’s use an example whereby an institution or company fires someone because a vast amount of people outside of the institution or company demand it on Twitter or by threat of boycott. According to cancel culture alarmists the fact that somebody can be fired because a “Twitter mob” demands it is a horrible development for our culture. But is it?

To be sure, there are undeniable examples where mass demands to fire someone has created victims which no one, including myself, can or should deny.

Equally certain, however, is that in many, many, many, many, instances it can be reasonably argued that the firing was morally justified given the behavior at issue. Indeed, threat of the digital Thunderdome represents the only type of pressure the otherwise powerless people can bring against such grotesque, racist behavior. The problem with cancel culture alarmists is that they do not take any time to distinguish the bad examples with the good. But as Ken White observed is this wonderful debate, cancel culture alarmists also refuse to acknowledge “the fact that boycotts, group public condemnation, and even demands for firing are the sort of speech that comparatively obscure and powerless people have available to them.”

A light must also be shed on the amount of organized hypocrisy you see surrounding cancel culture alarmists. As a San Francisco 49ers fan, I remember quite clearly the reaction by one leader in particular, who conservatives are now literally worshipping with golden statues, toward NFL players who knelt during the national anthem. Conservatives cheered when the orange-painted loser of 2020 demanded peacefully protesting players should be fired or physically dragged off the field. But wait, wouldn’t that make the orange man and his cult following proponents of cancel culture? Not according to them of course. Even when they (I would argue rightfully in this case), “cancel” a speaker at their uncancelling America party they don’t seem to grasp the irony of it all. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to find greater hypocrisy on any issue than the kind exhibited by cancel culture alarmists.

As I am sure that many serious folks will continue to maintain there is something alarming about cancel culture by pointing out the legitimate harm that has happened to innocent people I will end with this point: the solution or remedying to actual injustices can’t be that we focus our attention on an undefinable, unprincipled, hypocritical term. And by focusing on this term, you are in fact giving legitimacy to countless shameless hacks who invoke the term to label any opinion that is critical of their side as CaNcEl CuLtUrE. At a minimum, if folks are going to keep using this worthless term they should have to focus as much, if not more on the terms misuse as the misuse happens far more frequently and presents greater danger of stifling open debate. Moreover, call it cliché to say but to embrace First Amendment freedoms like free speech or free association means having to take the good with the bad. Hate speech causes harm. The orange man’s words have caused death and literally threatened democracy. But I remain opposed to anyone who says we should abandon free speech protections as they represent our greatest bulwark against any threat. And labelling the orange man as a proponent of cancel culture does absolutely nothing to address any of the problems his speech generates.


Tyler Broker’s work has been published in the Gonzaga Law Review, the Albany Law Review, and is forthcoming in the University of Memphis Law Review. Feel free to email him or follow him on Twitter to discuss his column.

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