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Opinion Why we should cancel the phrase ‘cancel culture’

Two Dr. Seuss titles are among six by the famed children's book author that will no longer be printed because of accusations of racist and insensitive imagery. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Complaints about “cancel culture,” always overblown, are becoming increasingly farcical.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) of New York, facing accusations of sexual harassment, says he won’t resign because that would mean “bowing to cancel culture.”

Fox “News” has been going on for three weeks about how Dr. Seuss has become a victim of “cancel culture,” even though his books are not being banned. All that’s happening is that six books with racist drawings are being taken out of print by Dr. Seuss Enterprises. Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) seeks to profit from this publicity by signing copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” for donors, even though that book remains in print.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accused Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) of practicing “cancel culture” by suggesting that the Republican Party should not align itself with former president Donald Trump after he incited an insurrection. Meanwhile, some of the loudest complainers about “cancel culture” tried to remove Cheney from her leadership position in the House Republican Caucus — to cancel her, you might say.

At the risk of feeding the hysteria on Fox News, I propose that we cancel the cant phrase “cancel culture” because it has long since become divorced from reality. It’s a trope used by the right — and now cynically appropriated by some on the left — to resist accountability for wrongdoing. Specifically, it is a way to deflect the demands of Black Lives Matters and the #MeToo movement for a redress of wrongs such as those committed by producer Harvey Weinstein and the Minneapolis cop who killed George Floyd. By talking about “cancel culture,” the right can pretend that the real victims in America are White men — and that there is nothing wrong with hurtful comments, and even hurtful behavior, against women or people of color.

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Even the right implicitly recognizes that some words go too far. The Conservative Political Action Conference, for example, canceled the invitation of a hip-hop artist after his long history of antisemitic statements came to light. The question is where to draw the line. Is anti-Zionism acceptable even if antisemitism isn’t? Is crude language — “locker room talk” — okay in some settings but not in others? Can people earn a second chance with an apology or are there some words so heinous they can never be taken back?

That is the difficult national conversation we should be having. Instead, we are all spectators in the political theater of the absurd as Republicans gleefully pounce on every instance of leftists acting a bit bonkers. Unfortunately, some progressive activists seem intent on providing Fox News with fodder.

It’s crazy that the San Francisco school board wanted to rename 44 schools, including those named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. (But note that the plan has been suspended in the face of opposition from mainstream Democrats, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D).)

It’s crazy that some European publishers are firing translators of Amanda Gorman’s poetry because they are not young Black women — as though the only people who could translate Homer into modern languages are old Greek men. (But note that Gorman herself chose the White Dutch translator who was fired.)

It’s crazy that innocent employees of Smith College have been publicly maligned as racists because an elderly janitor summoned a campus police officer to talk to an African American student who was eating in an area that was off limits to students. (But note that this injustice was thoroughly exposed by Michael Powell, a reporter for the New York Times, not Breitbart.)

These acts clearly reflect an excess of zeal — and a deficit of common sense — in dealing with the very real scourge of racism. But let’s get a grip here. We are not, as some on the right insist, experiencing our own Cultural Revolution. That was a period of state terror in China when hundreds of thousands were killed and millions forced into hard labor. Nor is this the new Inquisition or the new French Revolution.

It is risible to suggest otherwise — or to claim, as Sen. Tim Scott (R.-S.C.) just did, that “Woke supremacy is as bad as white supremacy.”Woke mobs are not going around lynching White people the way that White mobs lynched 161 people in South Carolina from 1882 to 1923. White supremacist violence did not end in the era of Jim Crow, as Scott well knows. A white supremacist murdered nine people in an African American church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. White supremacists remain the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat — and they were energized by Trump’s unapologetically racist presidency.

We should be far more concerned about the threat posed by white supremacists — and by sexual harassment and sexual assault — than by the vastly overblown phenomenon of “cancel culture.” That’s not to deny that there is intolerance on the left, just as on the right, and there is sometimes a tendency to overreact to perceived offenses. But that is part of the struggle to establish new norms of behavior in a multicultural country where women and minorities, quite rightly, will no longer put up with the kinds of abuses to which they have been subjected for so long. There will be stumbles along the way, but the journey toward greater justice is one we must take.

Read more:

Sonny Bunch: How copyright law can save Dr. Seuss — and the rest of us — from cancel culture

Alyssa Rosenberg: The Great Dr. Seuss Hysteria of 2021 shows how silly and unimaginative adults can be

Jennifer Rubin: Why Republicans are screeching about Dr. Seuss

Paul Waldman: Nobody loves ‘cancel culture’ more than Republicans do

Molly Roberts: What the librarian who rejected Melania Trump’s Dr. Seuss books as ‘racist’ got wrong