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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

The high cost of 'cancel culture'

A modern art poster symbolizing people being reduced

A modern art poster symbolizing people being reduced to silence. Credit: Getty Images/Planet Flem

The other day, former President Barack Obama caused some excitement in the social and professional media when, during an Obama Foundation event, he chided people on the left — especially on college campuses — who try too hard to be “woke” and think the best way to be an activist is to “cast stones” on Twitter over minor transgressions. The comments were widely reported as a critique of “cancel culture.”

Obama never used the phrase, but cancel culture — the trend of shunning or shaming people for perceived offenses against progressive morality — has been the subject of much discussion. Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a long feature story about people who belong to an informal network of the “canceled.” (For the record, I am briefly mentioned in it.) 

Some people vigorously dispute that cancel culture exists — or argue that, if it does, it’s a good thing. In a Times op-ed, Ernest Owens, a young African-American journalist, scolds Obama for being an out-of-touch scold and argues that the cancel brigades aren’t bullying people but standing up to those who bully the vulnerable. A recent Washington Post opinion piece by Brooklyn-based writer Aaron Freedman contends that cancel culture is nothing more than democracy — people using the freedom to “collectively express their disapproval” of some individuals and their behavior or speech.

In fact, few would disagree that certain individuals deserve vocal disapproval, public scorn or even loss of access to platforms — former Hollywood tycoon and accused serial predator Harvey Weinstein being the most notable example. It’s all a matter of proportionality.

Maybe comedian Shane Gillis was rightly dropped by "Saturday Night Live" over videos in comedy monologues that include racial slurs. But should pop music and art critic Art Tavana, one of the people profiled in the Times feature on the “canceled,” have lost his column with the L.A. Weekly and contracts with several major magazines because a handful of feminists on the internet were upset by his article discussing the sex appeal of musician Sky Ferreira and more generally the role of sexiness in pop music?

Should Katie Herzog, a writer for the Seattle weekly The Stranger, be slammed as a “transphobe” — not only online, but in stickers showing up in the streets of Seattle — because she has written about people who choose to reverse their gender transition?

There is nothing new about attempts to punish or silence people for expression deemed bad. And it’s certainly not only the left that does it. Quite a few conservatives wanted to cancel television star Ellen DeGeneres when she came out as gay in 1997.

But misgivings over cancel culture are proliferating for two reasons. One, social media have enabled quick mobilization that makes it easy to target a person over a trivial or even nonexistent offense. Two, the rapid and chaotic evolution of social norms makes it very likely that people will be targeted over opinions on issues that are far from settled, or offenses that just became offensive. At a campus conference I attended last month, a student denounced a speaker for “racist” language over the word “Hispanic” — in use by the Census Bureau.

Do some foes of cancel culture whine about being criticized? No doubt. Use of the term should be limited to cases in which there is at least a serious attempt to silence someone or damage someone’s career. But that still leaves us with plenty of cases. And even if the “canceled” recover, we all lose when political discourse and artistic expression are chilled as a result.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.