While this case may be particularly revolting given the involvement of Weinstein, this general trend is not new. To the contrary, it’s part of the ongoing backlash to a type of public shaming that has come to be called “cancel culture.” As The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser and Elahe Izadi explain it, canceling involves “shaming a public figure for alleged wrongdoing, and advocating for them to lose access to their platform.” This is nothing new — boycotts have been around for a long time — but the “culture” part refers to the role of social media, where public campaigns can grow larger and faster than in the pre-Internet era.
But cancel culture is best understood through its critics, from social media pundits such as Ben Shapiro and Claire Lehmann to a growing chorus of mainstream writers like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens. There you will find a familiar line of argument: Once upon a time, Americans tolerated, and even embraced, uncomfortable views and “problematic” people. But, now, when someone is ratioed on Twitter or protested at a panel discussion or booed during a comedy set, it supposedly offers evidence that people are afraid of ideas that challenge them. In casting out those they disagree with, cancel culture’s critics argue, the public is excluding the very ideas it needs most.
Strip away this intellectual gauze, and the critics of cancel culture have a pretty simple argument, one Yascha Mounk recently endorsed in the Atlantic: “If everyone always agrees with you, you’re doing it wrong.” In other words, don’t trust your own opinions! Unless you reflexively heed those who you dislike, no matter how good a reason you have for shunning them, you’re doomed to live as an intellectual sheep.
This sentiment is more than just petty contrarianism. Apply it in the real world, and it becomes clear that contempt for cancel culture is little more than contempt for democracy.
After all, what is derided as “cancel culture” is nothing more than a large group of people choosing who and what they want to watch, read and listen to. Though “canceling” on its own suggests the work of the anonymous censor or autocratic TV exec, “cancel culture” reflects the opposite: the public and democratic engagement of ordinary people.
While our society rightly values protest and free expression, the critics of “cancel culture” turn this virtue into a vice, contemptuously dismissing those who collectively express their disapproval. Take comedy, where performers have leaped to the hyperbolic defense of colleagues facing public outcry for allegedly committing sexual abuse and making hateful, derogatory comments to marginalized groups. While the long-standing rule of comedy is that if audiences aren’t laughing, you should change your material, comedians have had a quite different reaction to Shane Gillis’s ouster last month from “Saturday Night Live” — after videos of him using racial slurs and disparaging Asians and Muslims went viral — with Rob Schneider calling it an “intolerable inquisition” and Sarah Silverman condemning a “mutated McCarthy era, where any comic better watch anything they say.”
Stand-up comedy’s relationship to ordinary audiences has historically yielded performers who’ve deviated from stuffy, elite norms — think of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. But today, “cancel culture” is used as a bludgeon for the opposite purpose: punishing audiences who dare not to laugh at jokes. In condemning the general public for their taste in comedy, the critics of cancel culture are rejecting the very idea of free choice in artistic taste.
What is most harrowing about contempt for “cancel culture” is how its anti-democratic attitudes have crept into politics. When Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) resigned from office in January 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct, Democrats were divided on whether he had responded appropriately to public outcry or was the victim of a witch hunt. In July, the New Yorker’s Jane Meyer provided fodder for those of the latter opinion in a profile that portrayed him as “railroaded” and cast doubt on one accuser (though there have been others, including a woman who came forward just last month). Since then, prominent Democrats such as Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) have come forward as regretful of Franken’s departure from the Senate — never mind that the resignation was his choice and a Democrat was duly elected in his place.
Missing from the spate of mea culpas for Franken’s career (which seems at least partially intact, as he returns to the SiriusXM airways) is just how popular the senator’s exit from public office actually was. In November 2017, after the first sexual harassment allegations were leveled, only 22 percent of voters in Minnesota and across the country supported Franken remaining in office. In a democracy it is only logical for politicians to respect the will of the electorate, which is why many Democrats have called for President Trump to step down or be impeached and removed from office, as a growing share of voters say the same. But in regretting Franken’s departure from the Senate, too many Democrats are buying into one of the most clearly anti-democratic critiques of “cancel culture”: When it comes to powerful people, especially white men, the public simply can’t be trusted to decide who they should listen to.
It is a supreme irony that some of the most vocal critics of cancel culture claim to be acting in the interest of democracy. Stephens, a columnist for the New York Times, for instance, wrote a column implying that Twitter criticism of him (for trying to get one of his own critics fired) was equivalent to Nazi propaganda. As laughable as this seems, it gets to the heart of what criticism of cancel culture is about: a contempt for the marginalized majority, the ordinary people who make once-secure elites feel uncomfortable as they have to face their own unpopularity. It’s no coincidence that many of the critics of cancel culture take billionaire money to suppress the speech of their political opponents, all the while inventing an imagined racist majority to legitimize their own heinous, unpopular views.
Democracy is not just about the ballot box: It is a vision of society in which the will of the people — all of us — is supreme. We need more of it, not less, not only in our politics, but also in our workplaces, our media, our culture. It’s a shame that critics like Mounk, whose scholarship looks at how to strengthen democracy, do not recognize the radical vision of people power lying in plain sight: It’s called “cancel culture,” and it might just be playing out in a Twitter ratio near you.