Karol Markowicz has a piece today about cancel culture and the college students who signed on to reprehensible anti-Israel or even pro-Hamas statements, driving donors to pull funding for major higher ed institutions and even leading some professors to say flat-out: don’t hire the people who signed these.
I’ve written repeatedly about the difficulty and sloppy definition of the term “cancel culture,” and why I think most people struggle to define it and just fall back on their priors: if someone I like is getting yelled at, it’s cancel culture; if someone I don’t like is getting yelled at, it isn’t. Pew had a pretty comprehensive report two years ago on this, and there’s definitely a need to update this in light of the Bud Light situation:
Overall, 58 percent of US adults say in general, calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 38 percent say it is more likely to punish people who don’t deserve it. But views differ sharply by party. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say that, in general, calling people out on social media for posting offensive content holds them accountable (75 percent vs 39 percent). Conversely, 56 percent of Republicans — but just 22 percent of Democrats — believe this type of action generally punishes people who don’t deserve it.
I’ve seen many people claim that the reaction to these student statements after the attacks on Israel is an illustration of conservative/small-l liberal hypocrisy on the issue. But it just isn’t, not if you have a consistent and clear definition of the term. The letter signers have taken a clear political position in support of a terrorist military group who raped and murdered women, children and babies. There are consequences for that. There have always been consequences for that! If you drive into your job interview with a giant ISIS flag on the back of your Toyota pick-up, you’re probably not going to get the job!
Cancel culture is really not what many people claim it is. It ought to be properly understood as unfairly canceling normal people from their jobs for saying things that are at worst an apology level offense — such as a bad joke, a sexist comment, a racial epithet, or something similar.
The point is that for most of the history of American life, you could apologize for these things and move on. Consider the OG cancel culture story of the internet age, Justine Sacco. It’s the equivalent of: “I’m sorry Karen overheard me quoting that Jimmy Carr joke, I won’t tell it again.” Instead, you lose everything.
Normal people in this sense means: people outside public life, random students, small business owners and people who aren’t on TV. So Josh Hawley losing his book deal over big ideological differences is not cancel culture (he can and did get a new deal), but a random high school student who said a racial epithet at fifteen and lost her cheerleading scholarship is perhaps the perfect definition of cancel culture.
The point is that the rules are different and they always have been. Are we to believe Mel Gibson is the only person to use racist and sexist language toward an arresting officer? Of course not. His tirade only mattered because he’s Mel Gibson. If he was just a random drunk guy, such an incident shouldn’t have had such a damning impact on his career.
The standard is also elevated if you work in the field of media or politics, working in Congress or elsewhere in a prominent place. Your comments matter more, and taking a position on something has consequences. That’s why calling for Ilhan Omar to be censured is not cancel culture. She’s expected to live up to a higher standard. If she was just Ilhan Omar, local antisemite, who cares?
Cancel culture applies an uneven standard. It treats the casual comments of normal everyday Americans as if they are a brand ambassador or a member of Congress or a major Hollywood actor who must always be careful what they say. They aren’t Gilbert Gottfried losing AFLAC. They’re just normal Americans, even if they have a blue check.
The difference with these students? They didn’t make a casual comment. They all signed on to a letter expressing an actual position that may have negative consequences for them. That’s not an apology level offense — oops, I accidentally backed terrorists! — it’s a political position. They’re not being canceled for doing something like saying a slur. They’re hurting their future job prospects by outing themselves as supporters of terrorism. That’s not new, and it’s not cancel culture.