Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic writes that “cancel culture,” while widely debated, is only a source of panic for the most elite in our society. Sarah Silverman says that comedians’ voices are being muted when their entire purpose is to draw attention to the controversial. She still supports Dave Chappelle, even though he publicly criticized and patronized those who had come forward to say they had been sexually abused by Michael Jackson. Comedian and screenwriter Rob Schneider believes that comedians and public figures are being subjected to an “intolerable inquisition.” Yet, Silverman is a long-time comedian with over a million followers on Instagram, and the most powerful people who have been criticized on social media do not face any tangible damage to their careers, especially when they snap back at critics. Nwanevu says that most of the time, this “spirit of defiance” actually enhances their public image; people love to see a rebel in action if the behavior does not directly impact them.
Comedians and entertainers are not the only ones aghast at cancel culture. In July of 2020, a myriad of writers and scholars published a letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying the cruelty of publicly “cancelling” someone online.
But Nwanevu notes that comedians and other cultural and political leaders seem to be more interested in preserving their own comfort than they are in adapting to new audiences who have been educated by the all the voices that are no longer silenced, and are taking to social media to create a better world.
The majority of the names signed to the Harper’s letter are affiliated with powerful academic institutions or serve as highly-educated cultural leaders, and their engagement with and preservation of civil discourse is appreciated. But cancel culture is a manifestation of this very discourse, a space for people to investigate morals and to call out violence that will not be tolerated. If the signers of this letter are leaders of our society, cancel culture seeks to hold them to the high moral standards everyone else is held to. They say, “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes.” There is nothing wrong with this desire. Everyone makes mistakes, but they should have consequences, and they should lead to change.
Nwanevu points out that the perhaps the most intimidating part of cancel culture for those in power is the new set of voices behind it. There are women and marginalized groups, all mostly young, typing out persuasive and biting remarks on abusers of power. Nwanevu reminds us that these groups of people have never had a chance to speak before, let alone be heard by millions on social media. It is not that people are just now misusing their power, or that the public is suddenly more sensitive to it; it’s just that there is now a widely accessible platform for the truth to be told. That being said, cancel culture is the bare minimum, and not nearly as damaging as it is painted to be. It is true, Nwanevu notes, that cancel culture is not reserved for the obviously rich and powerful. When football star Kyler Murray’s homophobic slurs resurfaced from his teen years, he received public backlash. Yet, his career remained very much intact; now, he plays for the Arizona Cardinals.
This new tool of “cancelling” seeks to name violence, to demand justice, and to give voice to those who have too long been silenced (and still are). It seems that those who are most afraid of its strength are leaders who value their creative freedom more than they do the existence of an equitable social platform.