It was around the time that conservatives were in a panic that Dr. Seuss—he of green eggs, two fish (both red and blue), and behatted feline fame—was being “canceled” that everyone seemed to lose the plot.
This, of course, is Dr. Seuss. The plot was always whimsical at best. And this is “cancel culture,” two of the most feared, bastardized, and, in turn, meaningless words society wields today: like a weapon, if the weapon was a sword constructed of boiled spaghetti noodles. In that case, the plot was never there to begin with.
The phrase “cancel culture” has been used as a false flag by anyone who feels threatened by the idea of accountability. It’s a desperate shield used amidst a panic attack that changing norms, values, and, finally, the validation of marginalized voices might diminish a person of their cherished power: the ability to say and do anything without repercussions or the need to change and evolve.
The fallacy of cancel culture is that, in an age when social media mobs arrive with their megaphones any time a public figure trips a PC landmine, reactionary progressives and the unforgiving horde can cause these people to lose their jobs and all future opportunities. Say one wrong thing, and Twitter will ensure you never work again. Your life is ruined. You are “canceled.”
What is actually happening is that people are reacting in kind to public statements and behaviors made by rich and powerful people, the kind that hold influence in a culture obsessed with celebrity. When people are in the public eye, they make missteps. Those missteps are called out—yes, sometimes loudly and angrily, but most often rightfully.
The people who make those missteps are held accountable, sure. But I can’t think of one case when that accountability has manifested as a “canceling,” at least not in the way that these people are projecting, like it’s some evil agenda to sanitize and neuter all culture and discourse by ejecting from it anyone with ideas contrary to a liberal-progressive utopia. If anything, whenever a person being criticized claims “cancel culture,” their career and financial situation improves.
The notion that cancel culture exists at all is bullshit, to the point that it’s swung in the other direction to empower bad-faith provocateurs. It’s become a joke; a satire of what its most anxious critics purport to be its intent and effect. Which, in the year of Dave Chappelle, Chrissy Teigen, Morgan Wallen, and more—the A-List of the so-called canceled—brings us back to Dr. Seuss.
This past spring, the estate of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, announced that it would stop selling six of the beloved author’s books because of their racially and ethnically offensive imagery—stuff that you can read about here that is indisputably crude and egregious. It was just six books out of Seuss’ 60. And it was a decision made by the estate without public pressure, but with the cognizance that evolving social attitudes should impact how future generations view and interact with a late creator’s work.
The pundits at Fox News practically orgasmed at the chance to whip viewers into a frenzy about the liberal, politically correct mafia putting a hit on your family’s favorite children’s book author. They’re out for your kid’s happiness! Your fondest childhood memories! They are erasing Dr. Seuss, just as they are erasing every other liberty and value you hold dear! Conservative politicians began invoking Dr. Seuss’ name while arguing against things like the Democratic push to expand voting rights. It was laughable, except it landed on willing ears. “First they came for Horton. Who knows what’s next! And that is why you must oppose Critical Race Theory.”
It was a small, though monumental decision made by an author’s estate—one that was in line with his own feelings about those works before his death—because of an enlightened perspective that it is no longer appropriate to perpetuate or defend imagery and ideas that were once, unfortunately, considered acceptable. But by slapping the label “cancel culture” on the news story, regardless of the fact that it was not true in this situation, those bad actors were able to incite a reaction molded to their own agenda.
It quickly became clear that many people either didn’t know or didn’t care about the details behind this faux-scandal. They heard Dr. Seuss was being canceled and quickly sprung into action. Almost immediately, a slew of the author’s titles soared to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Of course, they weren’t any of the ones that were being put out of print, but The Cat in the Hat and The Lorax, classics that nobody was ever in danger of losing access to. There was nothing principled about this consumer movement. Those books were not being canceled, just as Dr. Seuss was not. Not that any of that matters in the nonsense age of politicized hysteria.
As Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara wrote following the Dr. Seuss hullabaloo, “While Barack Obama once warned of an overzealous ‘cancel culture’ and many liberals signed the infamous Harper’s letter, no one these days loves the phrase more than conservatives, who use it as a one-size-fits-all label for what they consider the left’s ongoing attempt to strip ‘America’ from ‘American.’”
Few pop-culture stories were bigger this year than the reaction to Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, The Closer, which received pointed and passionate backlash because of transphobic and homophobic material—the kind of material that Chappelle had been criticized and educated about before.
What was remarkable about this controversy was how quickly it accelerated past reality, and how this new fiction completely misconstrued what happened to Chappelle at all.
The special was called out and condemned. The question was raised whether Netflix was contributing to harm by giving a platform to the dangerous ideas that Chappelle was espousing—and getting paid an ungodly amount of money to do so.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this, Chappelle’s fans got the idea that those who criticized his material and questioned Netflix’s responsibility were demanding that the special be removed from the streaming service: Censorship! Cancel culture! Communism! But no major organization, few of those critics, and not even the transgender employees who worked for Netflix and staged a walkout ever made such a demand.
They were reacting, once again, to material the way its notoriously provocative creator had intended. They then labeled the content as they received it, which it was: transphobic, homophobic, and dangerous. And Netflix, as the streaming service that offered millions of dollars in the hope of stoking such a reaction, bears responsibility, too.
Was Chappelle censored? He was not. Was he canceled? Nope. In fact, days later, he received a standing ovation while introducing a screening of his documentary at the Hollywood Bowl to a sold-out crowd. He greeted the raucous crowd by, whether he intended to or not, acknowledging that fallacy: "If this is what being canceled is like, I love it." Last month, he was nominated for a Grammy Award.
If anything, the Peter-cry-wolf of “cancel culture” has morphed into an insidious PR tool. A Bat Signal if you will; a siren call from the disingenuous to the aggrieved minions. And these moths march dutifully to the flame: occasionally superfans who will support their hero unconditionally, occasionally bigots clinging to their right to continue the same rhetoric unabated, sometimes fervent defenders of free speech who confuse that concept with immunity from consequence or reaction, and, frankly, often extreme conservatives. Each lights their torch and charges forth in defense of… well, in defense of what I’m not sure anybody, they included, even know.
Were you one of the people who criticized Chappelle and The Closer? If your experience was anything like mine, you were the target of death threats, doxxing, attempts at discrediting you professionally, and cruel insults left as comments on photos of your family—an impressive mobilization in reaction to the false idea that their favorite comedian’s career was being taken away because you had pointed out the harm his comments had caused. (And if you were a trans whistleblower at Netflix, you were fired.)
Anyone who has continued to write about Louis C.K., who continues to tour and release stand-up specials after admitting to masturbating in front of female comedians; DaBaby, who gave a horrendously homophobic speech before a concert; or Marilyn Manson, who has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault, has likely had a similar experience.
Then there’s the case of someone like Morgan Wallen, the country singer who actually seemed to be on the verge of being canceled after a video leaked of him using the N-word. Saturday Night Live fired him as a musical guest. Country radio stations pulled his songs from rotation. He was dropped by his agent, and deemed ineligible for Academy of Country Music Awards. It was a rare example of actual accountability and consequence—until it wasn’t. In fact, his career seemed to explode.
Sales of his album, Dangerous, increased by more than 500 percent within a matter of days. With 2021 coming to a close, it ranks as one of the biggest albums of the year in any genre. One has to assume that this was motivated by those who found the idea of his “cancellation” unjust. Maybe they were even rallying around him because of the word he was caught saying and their frustration that it’s become the default standard to vilify any non-Black person who uses it.
Saturday Night Live welcomed him back. He was nominated at the Country Music Association Awards in May. If you listened to country music radio this summer, you probably noticed that his songs were back in rotation. Last month, he announced a massive tour for 2022 that will span 46 cities, with stops at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Los Angeles’ Staples Center.
Is this an example of what is misconstrued as “cancel culture” working? Wallen was admonished for his behavior, took time to reflect (or did he?), and then returned to his career. Or was it proof that it doesn’t exist at all? A country music star used a racist slur, fans rallied in support, he became more successful than ever, and then the industry realized they couldn’t keep ignoring that popularity and caved.
You could argue the same for so many people this past year. Did anybody actually get canceled?
Did Chrissy Teigen get canceled after The Daily Beast’s interview with Courtney Stodden, in which the former tabloid staple revealed that Teigen had cyberbullied her and told her that she should kill herself? Or did she disappear for a while, complain about the trauma of being canceled when she returned, and continue to post thirst traps with pithy captions and photos of her in ballgowns at Hollywood red carpet events with John Legend to her 36.4 million Instagram followers?
Did Ellen DeGeneres get canceled after numerous investigations into allegations that she has fostered a toxic work environment at her talk show? Or did Jennifer Aniston appear as the guest on the first episode of her new season, which has continued to air star-studded episodes—Meghan Markle doing improv!—as if nothing happened at all?
Did Armie Hammer get canceled after accusations that he had committed violent sexual assault and allegedly espoused ideas of sexual cannibalism? OK, well that one seems to have stuck…
Here’s the thing about all of this: There is something negative happening here, something completely broken about our society as we spelunk further into the dark and unsavory caverns of the digital age.
It’s not cancel culture, per se, but reactionary culture. This idea that we all have permission to mercilessly attack anyone we don’t agree with with the intent to legitimately ruin their lives. To wish harm to anyone who makes you angry or annoys you. To make a mountain out of a molehill when a person does anything remotely upsetting—and then blow up that mountain.
That has nothing to do with accountability or consequence. It’s a malicious poison, and it’s infecting all sides of discourse. It’s to the point where we’ve become numb to the gravity of what that really means. As volatile as it is, we assume it’s everywhere, and sort of don’t care. We’ve started to shrug at the violence of it all and move on from it, like a fact of life.
The other day, the Vince Vaughn holiday film Four Christmases was on TV and I openly wondered, “Didn’t he get canceled?” Well, yes. But also no. He was photographed shaking Trump’s hand. It was a news story for about seven minutes.
“There’s more speech now than ever before,” Jon Stewart said earlier this year, calling the idea of cancel culture a myth. “It’s not ‘you can’t say it,’ it’s that when you say it—look, the internet has democratized criticism. What do we do for a living—we talk shit, we criticize, we postulate, we opine, we make jokes, and now other people are having their say. And that’s not cancel culture, that’s relentlessness. We live in a relentless culture. And the system of the internet and all those other things are incentivized to find the pressure points of that and exacerbate it.”
Whatever was the platonic ideal of what was supposed to be happening here has been warped beyond recognition. Consequence, sure, may have been part of it. Maybe I’m a fool who’s been wearing his Pollyanna bonnet for too long, but I do believe that, at one point, all this discourse was mostly about growth. Society is constantly changing, and not everyone evolves at the same pace—or, frankly, even knows the change is happening to begin with. It required conversation. It required listening.
But what began as a demand for education, so that we as a culture can move toward the future together, somehow took on Dark Age characteristics. It was no longer “let’s help them learn,” but “off with their heads.” It wasn’t about planting seeds of growth, but hacking the offending tree off at the roots.
Now, it’s no longer about any of those things. No one is growing. No one is being canceled. It’s all just buzzwords and jargon that are manipulated for political posturing. And that, sadly, is a behavior to which nobody will ever be able to put a stop.