The GOP’s profligate use of “cancel culture” — like its use of “critical race theory” and “wokeness” — has turned the phrase into an all-purpose epithet to be flung at the left. “Cancel culture” is a cry of victimhood and an accusation (the left is made up of intolerant bullies!). But it has no real meaning. It’s a way of escaping accountability or even mild public criticism for behavior that deserves social opprobrium.
When a right-wing politician who cheered on the Jan. 6 mob loses a book contract, he isn’t being “canceled”; his publisher is exercising good moral and business judgment. When Twitter and Facebook boots a defeated former president from their networks, they are not “canceling” him; they are forcing him to find his own platform from which he can undermine democracy.
The best proof that “cancel culture” is a vapid jibe comes from people who both the left and right can agree are immoral bullies. Russian President Vladimir Putin, widely seen as a war criminal, now whines that economic sanctions deployed in response to his brutal war of aggression amount to a campaign to “cancel” Russia.
Meanwhile, former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D) is decrying his forced resignation after a 165-page state investigatory report found that he had harassed at least 11 women. “One manifestation of the extremism is this so-called cancel culture,” Cuomo said this week to a group of Hispanic clergy. “Cancel culture says if you don’t agree with me and my point of view, you should be canceled. Anyone can get canceled at any time. And it happens today with frequency. No one is immune.”
Yes, how unfair is that? You can be minding your own business — screaming and cursing at employees, leering at female employees, groping them — and then, bam, you need to resign to avoid being impeached by your own party. (Cuomo has denied allegations that he inappropriately touched women.)
When perpetrators of unacceptable conduct invoke “cancel culture” as their defense, they reveal not only their disgraceful character, but also the people they are trying to impress. They are appealing to the right-wing culture warriors in the United States who want to be free to insult, demean and bully others. This includes Republicans currying favor with the MAGA crowd who want to avoid criticism or the consequences of supporting an attempted coup, suppressing voting or spewing antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Hurling “cancel culture” is an attempt to prevent others from making moral judgments and holding people responsible for their bad conduct. It is risible for politicians to demand they escape the public’s judgment in a democratic system premised on voters’ ability to hold their leaders accountable. (It’s one major reason the GOP is bent on making it harder to vote.)
In its report on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and other transgressions, the nonpartisan organization Protect Democracy wrote: “Absent accountability, false narratives perpetuated by political leaders harden, warping the public’s understanding of recent history. Wrongdoers, newly emboldened, recruit and mobilize others to adopt similar tactics.” In sum, “The absence of accountability is not neutrality, but affirmance: an invitation to wrongdoers to escalate wrongdoing and for others to follow suit.” Put differently, democratic societies demand accountability as a way of enforcing their values.
So whether it comes from a foreign dictator, a predator in high political office, a defeated former president spreading lies about an election or a senator who voted to acquit that president for instigating an insurrection and extorting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the cry of “cancel culture” should set off alarm bells. Chances are, it’s a desperate attempt to escape the consequences of dreadful behavior.