Before we get into the list of why cancel culture is good, let’s first accurately convey what it is. For that, we turn to the Wikipedia entry on cancel culture, specifically the opening section that describes it:
Reason One: It’s a Boycott
Cancel culture is just a boycott. Fundamentally, that’s all it is. As a canceler, I withdraw support from individuals and companies by way of not buying from those who do things like place ads in white nationalist media outlets. As a consumer, I can choose to spend or not spend money, or criticize companies or venues, for any reason I want. I can make demands that I will not buy from them unless they do X, Y, and Z. I could give a retailer a bad review for poor customer service, or I could give them a bad review for having a Confederate flag on their wall.
All of these actions are choices I can make as a consumer in a “free market.” Many will say that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and they would be right, but I would imagine those same people also make an effort to not financially support Nazis, because however unethical buying a piece of fruit at a grocery store may be, buying Nazi swag from Nazi vendors is probably worse.
Boycotts also go beyond individual choice and become stronger the more people participate in them. It is why the pushback against cancel culture is so fierce — sellers know it’s a threat. To participate in a righteous boycott is to show solidarity with those who are directly harmed by the actions or products being boycotted and escalate the threat to their bottom line, forcing them to stop trying to get away with business as usual.
Reason Two: It’s a Way the Powerless Can Hold the Powerful Accountable
We live in a world of tremendous inequality. That’s a sad fact. And even sadder, is that those who exist at the apex of hierarchies, be it for reasons of wealth, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, immigration status, nationality, or any of the vectors of inequity present in modern society, rarely face meaningful consequences for harming those lower in said hierarchies. This is unfair, and anyone who supports even a basic degree of egalitarianism should not accept this. The justice system frequently fails to deliver justice for marginalized people, and instead serves to perpetuate injustice.
Cancel culture is a way to push back against this, peacefully and in total compliance with the law, unlike more extreme measures such as vigilantism. Recent social media ousters of powerful individuals, such as the ex-President of the United States, have been framed by scaremongers as “Silicon Valley” or “Big Tech” overriding free speech. In fact, these same social media companies have been pressured for years by activists and everyday people to take action against entities spreading hateful ideologies and inflaming hateful activities that transpire offline by white supremacists, xenophobes, incels, and other dirtbags. Neither Twitter nor Facebook would toss fascists off their platforms if not for the social pressure being exerted by millions of people lodging millions of complaints against countless hateful social media posts made by these people.
Reason Three: It’s Not Carceral
Cancellation does not involve the prison system or law enforcement. This is a good thing. When someone is boycotted, it does not necessitate they get locked up or have the cops called on them. They can go about their lives as free people, and perhaps reflect in a quiet moment at home why they got called out. It is true that some calls for cancellation can result in a target being engaged by the justice system, such as when the calls are being made because of criminal activity, but nobody objecting to cancel culture is out there defending people like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. In fact, these same people tend to wield proximity to Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby as damning evidence in a guilt-by-association attack against someone they don’t like.
That, ironically, is an attempt to cancel someone. How many times have we seen the pictures of Hillary Clinton and Harvey Weinstein standing together at some fundraiser, or been served a tabloid article about Clinton’s ties to Weinstein? Do I support Clinton taking campaign donations from Weinstein? Of course not, but I also do not pick and choose when people have a right to try to cancel someone.
Reason Four: It’s Free Speech
Cancellation is free speech in action. When a call for cancellation is made, an idea has entered the marketplace of ideas. The idea, that a person or company needs to be held accountable, and what that accountability may look like, is now in contention. Free speech warriors and marketplace of ideas advocates should love this. It is people coming together and expressing their opinions. If you decry cancel culture, which is people expressing themselves and suggesting courses of actions for individuals or companies to take to be better stewards of society, then you are decrying people for exercising their free speech.
Cancel culture in no way eliminates other people’s free speech. It may eliminate access to platforms or jobs at the New York Times, but the targets of cancellation can go on spouting their nonsense elsewhere, such as Harper’s. It’s hard to claim you’ve been silenced and you’re unable to speak when you’re writing letters in major media outlets. And beyond Harper’s, reactionaries can now peddle their Substacks or Patreons, or complain here on Medium, but the point is they are still allowed to express their opinions, just like all the individuals calling for their cancellation. The law in no way inhibits this and, as such, free speech is protected. If it turns out their ideas cannot compete in this marketplace, and they keep getting ousted, that’s just the marketplace of ideas in action and maybe they should think a little bit about how bad their ideas are.
Reason Five: It’s Antiracist
Cancel culture, as decried by racists, is antiracist. It is a tactic employed to counter racist ideas, policies, power, or actions. It is why cancel culture got mentioned over and over at the 2020 GOP convention, and why it came up, yet again, at the 2021 CPAC conference, which was billed as “America Uncancelled.” Make no mistake, the GOP is racist. Categorically and ideologically, it is a racist organization promoting racist policies and employing racist rhetoric. It is an embodiment of racist ideas, policies, power, and actions, so it should come as no surprise that their largest stages are devoted to disparaging antiracist action. This is not to say the Democratic Party is categorically antiracist and without flaws — it is not — but the GOP’s entire brand is racism.
Cancel culture demands consequences for the brokers of these racist ideas, policies, power, and actions. Even if you are not personally targeted by these racist attacks, cancel culture is an opportunity to stand in solidarity with those who are. When you decry cancel culture, then, you are undercutting solidarity against racism, and in doing so, you are almost certainly unwittingly supporting other forms of bigotry and oppression, because we all know the GOP and hate groups and other proponents of racism rarely stop there, but also tend toward misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, classism, and other hateful, divisive means of exerting control over people.
The most vehement opposition to cancel culture comes from white reactionaries who desperately want to say the n-word without facing consequences. That is the essence of what is going on, and what was going on when Rush Limbaugh railed incessantly against political correctness for years. Getting in hot water for saying the n-word is, quite literally, why Bill Maher is staking his claim in the culture wars as an anti-antiracist (what does that make him?) and demeaning the proponents of cancel culture in 2021.
If you agree that racism is bad and antiracism is good, then you should agree that cancel culture is good, because it actively fights back against racism. And, as it happens, this generalizes to all forms of anti-bigotry. You could attempt a convoluted, “no actually it’s racist because [slippery slope]” argument, but you would be in direct opposition to leading voices in all antiracist movements, and you would be in direct opposition to the conclusion of logic and evidence-based analysis: racist rhetoric and widespread platforming of racist ideas leads to racist outcomes, such as violence against minorities, in the real world. Hate speech has real consequences for real people, and as such, it is antiracist and good to call for people engaging in hate speech to be shunned and deplatformed.
The next time you see a powerful white person decrying cancel culture, ask yourself why they are doing that. What is really going on there?