Cancel Culture and Political Correctness Have Something in Common
The phrase “cancel culture” seems to be everywhere these days. This week, the focus has been on comedian Shane Gillis, who was fired from his new job at Saturday Night Live after video clips surfaced of him making jokes mocking Asians, which of course led many other comedians, pundits, and ordinary people to decry “cancel culture!” The week or so before that, the topic du jour was another comedian, Dave Chapelle, whose recent Netflix special both lambasted “cancel culture” and indulged in jokes mocking LGBTQ+ people (btw, Gillis did that too) and others. So now, of course, there are calls to “cancel Chapelle,” to “cancel ‘cancel culture’” and to cancel “cancel ‘cancel culture,’” and so on. It’s turtles all the way down. . .
But this piece isn’t about Gillis, or Chapelle, or comedy, or even turtles. It’s about political correctness. Hey, remember that turn of phrase? Circa 2014–17, it seemed to be ubiquitous (as I alluded to, and satire, in that link). But now, “political correctness” seems to have largely disappeared. I suppose it’s been #canceled. Canceled by the phrase “cancel culture.”
Interestingly, “canceled” and “politically correct” share two things in common: 1) both phrases originated in communities (people of color and progressives, respectively) who understood the necessity of holding people responsible for their words and actions, and 2) both are now tossed around willy-nilly anytime anybody publicly critiques anything.
Complaints about “cancel culture” and “political correctness” serve the same linguistic function: They enable us to take sides in controversial debates while simultaneously projecting an air of neutrality. They allow us to say things like “I’m not pro-racist/homophobic/transphobic jokes, I’m just pro-‘free speech’ and anti-‘cancel culture’/‘political correctness’/etc.” Wow, that sounds really principled of you! But may I ask: If you are morally opposed to “canceling” people, then why have you decided to chime in on this particular debate (and not others) and complain about what certain people are saying (but not others)?
My dude, you have taken a side! Just admit it. Own the fact that you have taken that side! (And if you doubt that this is true, I encourage you to read my much longer and far more thorough essay on free speech, political correctness, etc.)
Admittedly, complaints about “cancel culture,” “call outs,” and the like, are sometimes more about social media than about what any particular party is saying. No matter what your politics or proclivities, there will always be people out there with dissenting opinions. And social media has (for both better and worse) brought us all closer together. This will inevitably lead to pile-ons and protests — it has happened to me, and to many people I know, at one point or another, for both reasonable and unreasonable reasons. Quite honestly, I don’t see this dynamic changing any time soon, so long as we all have cell phones and social media platforms to congregate on. This is simply the new reality, so I suppose we should all get used to it.
Given all this, the next time there is a controversy or kerfuffle brewing on your Twitter feed, in your local community, or in the culture at large, instead of wielding vague accusations about “cancel culture!” or “political correctness!” I entreat you to focus on the specifics of each individual case. Was the act in question despicable, harmful, or immoral? Were the critiques of said act justified and reasonable? I am absolutely positively sure that we won’t all agree on the answers to those questions. But that is the thing that we are actually talking about! Let’s talk about the thing!
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I have written extensively about this particular topic — links to those essays and more can be found in my blogpost Call-Out Culture, Identity Politics, Political Correctness, and Social Justice Activism: essays and a new lecture.