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Han '23: The tragedy of “cancel culture”

“Green Eggs and Ham,” a children’s book by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, is an all-time classic. But why am I writing a column about “Green Eggs and Ham” now, in 2021, as our country has only just started to hope for an end to a devastating pandemic that has claimed over half a million American lives — not to mention the overlapping and intersecting crises of unemployment, immigration, racial justice, climate change and the rise of far-right extremism? I am doing so because many of the most prominent voices in our political, media and cultural spaces (or certain “agenda-setters,” as my political science professors would say) have decided that despite all of the critical issues I mentioned, and all of those I did not, the “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss, among many other “cancel culture” debates is the issue that should be top of mind for the American people. For example, on the day that FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate about the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6 and the rise of far-right extremism in general, FOX News was the only major cable news network to not air his testimony live, mentioning his name only nine times throughout the day. On the same day, the network mentioned Dr. Seuss’s “cancellation” more than 60 times, as analyzed by the Washington Post. A few days later, as his Senate colleagues debated and eventually passed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that is set to be signed by President Biden later this week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy posted a tweet of himself reading “Green Eggs and Ham” out loud. The indication was, of course, that a book that is not even one of the Seuss titles allegedly being “canceled” is worth more time and attention than a bill that could cut child poverty in half

Let’s get the facts out of the way first: The Dr. Seuss “cancellation” debate revolves around his estate’s decision to stop printing and selling six of his books because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The author’s public regard and the distribution of his most beloved titles remain intact, with several of his best-known books shooting to the top of best-seller lists in the days following this controversy. Any attempts to cast this issue as a “Fahrenheit 451” scenario, with books disappearing off of shelves as the “woke mob” attempts to suppress the freedom of the press, are misleading and wrong. However, with the prevalence of this issue in our cultural discussions, and perhaps even more forebodingly, in the political platform of one of our two major political parties, it is necessary to separate the substance of the issue from the ridiculous analyses of it. 

 

That raises the question: What is “cancel culture”? Predictably, the answer is complicated, and changes with differing political perspectives. The Republican National Convention passed a resolution declaring cancel culture to be “erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts and speech,” suppressing our Constitutional rights in the process. Progressives, on the other hand, say that the “cancel culture” that Republicans speak of isn’t real. Instead, as AJ Willingham writes for CNN, “There is accountability. There are legal repercussions. There are tides of public opinion and the pull of the free market.”  Both sides accuse the other of obscuring the facts, disregarding nuance and trashing any and all viewpoints that they might not agree with. But the “cancel culture” debate is, at its essence, about an intolerance of opposing views and a lack of accountability for perpetrators of “cancellable” offenses. 

Firstly, intolerance: The intellectual conservative argument against “cancel culture” asks liberals, where has your professed liberalism, defined by an openness to all ideas and a vehement defense of the freedom of expression, gone? Putting aside the crux of the argument that I cited above (that the “canceled” Dr. Seuss books are disappearing, which, in many cases, they are not), it is a question worth considering for progressives like myself. I grew up in the very definition of a “liberal bubble,” with almost exclusively highly educated, left-leaning parents, friends and teachers, all within the heavily Democratic-leaning Washtenaw County in Michigan. Much of the media I grew up consuming reflected clearly liberal values. And I currently attend a university which, for all of its complicated flaws and failings, has been, in my experience, overwhelmingly liberal in its (and its student body’s) espoused principles. It is only natural that a “bubble,” or living within one set of values that is rarely challenged, breeds intolerance for other points of view. I, for one, am still coming to terms with the fact that my world, which I had thought to be an ocean, might be a mere puddle. Might my own “bubble” have caused me to not tolerate the views of people who don’t have the same lived experiences as I do? 

A recent “cancel culture” controversy at Smith College centered upon a Black student who accused white workers of racial profiling. This particular controversy was more nuanced and consequential than the Dr. Seuss debate and illustrates the complicated intersection between race and class at an elite, liberal academic institution much like Brown. It is a common liberal argument that “cancel culture” only affects the rich and powerful, if it affects anyone at all. However, the Smith College incident makes clear that misplaced blame and accusations can be legitimately harmful, especially when the affected parties do not have the privileges of money and power. Moreover, some progressives have decried “cancel culture” themselves, describing it as “toxic” due to its implication that “others are … incapable of compassion and change.” And if the vast problems we face as a society today can only be defeated by asking what we can learn from each other, what we can do for each other and what we owe each other, as I wrote in another column, “canceling” people does seem more unproductive than offering understanding and education. 

Of course, there are limits to conservative demands for “tolerance” by retaliating against “cancel culture,” the foremost among these limits being the abject hypocrisy of such demands. How much longer, progressives might ask, must we tolerate your intolerance of our beliefs? For example, think outside of Dr. Seuss for a moment. What about all of the Black authors and other authors of color who have been systematically ignored and devalued by an overwhelmingly white publishing industry? Is that not centuries’ worth of de facto “cancellation” that the conservative anti-“cancel culture” warriors never cared about? Or consider the conservative reaction to the inclusion of the 1619 Project in many classrooms across America. Did it not also display an inability to accept and understand a view that they were unsympathetic toward, and unfamiliar with because of their own “bubbles”? More to the point, the systems of de facto “cancellation” that have oppressed the free speech (among many other freedoms) of Black, Indigenous, POC and other disadvantaged groups of Americans are just that: systemic. This is in direct contrast to the targeted and highly individualized nature of “cancel culture.” In the Smith College controversy, the two workers who were wrongly accused by the student suffered consequences, but those individual harms should not be conflated with a larger “culture.” 

The other issue at the core of “cancel culture” is accountability, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Rich and powerful people, still the most common “victims” of “cancellation,” rarely face legal, political or economic consequences for their misdeeds. Thus, the “cancelers” see the canceling of these individuals as the only way to express their frustrations and administer any semblance of justice. In other words, says Aja Romano in Vox, “For those who are doing the calling out or the canceling, the odds are still stacked against them. They’re still the ones without the social, political or professional power to compel someone into meaningful atonement, to do much more than organize a collective boycott.” Even then, the backlash to an individual’s “cancellation” can inadvertently bolster their success by bringing attention to their name and work. For example, country singer Morgan Wallen was “canceled” for saying a racial slur on camera, and in the weeks since, his albums have sold thousands of copies and he has been one of the most listened-to artists in America. Nevertheless, the public humiliation aspect of “canceling” a problematic celebrity, no matter how fleeting, is powerful. If it wasn’t, there would be nothing to fear from “cancel culture.” 

But this fear does little to outweigh America’s culture of shamelessness — and there is no shaming the shameless into repentance. For example, take Senator Josh Hawley, recently seen telling a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “Didn’t anybody tell you? You’re supposed to be canceled.” He has been canceled by liberal Twitter about a billion times over, most notably for sowing distrust in the November 2020 election and attempting to overturn its results, along with this instantly iconic photo of his encouragement of a radical mob that would, in turn, ransack the Capitol, killing and injuring Capitol police officers in the process. But despite widespread condemnation, including the two largest newspapers in his home state of Missouri calling for his resignation from the U.S. Senate and his own political mentor calling him “the worst mistake I ever made,” Hawley remains a senator, with all of the power and attention that the position entails. The question of accountability is less about whether those being “canceled” deserve it — there are no credible voices that I know of who argue that Senator Hawley is an innocent victim — and more of whether this method is truly the best, or merely the only, way of doing anything about it. I don’t think many liberals would argue that it is the best method; many, including myself, likely feel that public shaming is neither the most nuanced nor the most efficient method of holding people accountable for their actions. But when there are no “real” consequences, how can you blame those affected by those actions for a couple of mean tweets directed at the problematic individual in question? 

But while there are substantive discussions to be had about issues at the root of “cancel culture,” the phenomenon’s true tragedy lies in its application by the political right. The way that the Republican Party has weaponized “cancel culture” looks to distract from the truly important issues facing our country today. As Megan Garber explains in The Atlantic, “Cancel culture … can be a means of misdirection: The idea might once have been nuanced but now often amounts to an excuse for strategic unseeing. Summoned cynically, it permits the consequence for harm done to take precedence over the harm itself. It defends the status quo.”  In addition, the current use of the term “cancel culture” seeks not only to distract but to obscure. The word itself, “culture,” conflates systemic harms, such as racism, with individual harms, such as the consequences of accusations of racism, even those proved false, and its use results in the trivialization of deeply rooted injustices in our society. This, of course, is exactly why “cancel culture” has been deployed in that reductive way by pundits and politicians who have no interest in policy or the act of governing, much less in fixing structural societal problems (including those genuinely concerning free speech), and have every interest in “owning the libs.” Indeed, this is what Congressman McCarthy did on March 5: He weaponized “Green Eggs and Ham” to distract from the passage of the historic COVID relief bill on a strictly partisan basis. Why would he want people to understand that his entire caucus voted against a bill that had over 70 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat supporting it? Better to focus on “cancel culture” and lie to his followers that the libs were out to cancel their beloved Dr. Seuss classic. 

If the act of “cancelling” is reductive and unhelpful, then the way that “cancel culture” has been adopted by the Republican Party is flat-out disingenuous and unbelievably harmful. To be clear, there are real discussions to be had over the line between hate speech and free speech, liberal and conservative cultural “bubbles” and what can and should be done to truly and productively hold people accountable for their actions. But the right has adopted “cancel culture” as a tenet of its political platform (in place of any policy positions whatsoever) and has used “canceling” as a defense for every one of its misdeeds in the most ridiculous of ways. This was demonstrated when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blamed the state’s blackout energy crisis on the Green New Deal “canceling” oil and natural gas and replacing them with “less reliable” sources of energy, like wind power — a widely panned statement filled with lies and inaccuracies. The right has not only obscured and deflected from other systemic American problems, but it has poisoned the well of possibility of nuanced and substantive discussion about the real issues at the core of “cancel culture.” 




Bliss Han ’23 can be reached at bliss_han@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.


Correction: A previous version of this column's title noted that the author is in the class of 2021. In fact, she is in the class of 2023. The Herald regrets the error.



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