Recently I had an online debate with someone over whether Dr. Seuss was “cancelled.” The person claimed that because the Seuss family decided to remove images from the books (that almost everyone considers racist), that it amounted to “getting cancelled by the woke mob.” I disagreed. It was the family doing it themselves. How is that “getting cancelled?” After all, could I “cancel” myself if I realized I wrote something racist? Could my kid cancel me simply by updating the content of my Beyond Belief books after I’m gone? The debate ended the way a lot of online debates do, with no one changing their mind. Eventually, someone brought up Hitler (it wasn’t me, I swear). And the world, as usual, was not changed. At least not for the better.
The debate stuck with me though because I thought it was an interesting situation. One firmly rooted in a moral gray area. In my mind it was like the picture of two faces, or vases, depending on your point of view. Both claims were correct. And both were wrong.
I shared this with my wife, who is a stand up comic. She tours internationally and comedy is a world where “getting cancelled” is a serious issue. Stand up comics fret over it on stages everywhere, in podcast interviews, and even in Netflix specials. I thought she would be very worried about it, and that this whole Dr. Seuss situation would be interesting to her. But her response shocked me.
“It’s all fake.”
“Getting cancelled. It’s a myth.”
She saw the look of utter confusion on my face, and tried to explain it to me slowly, which, let’s be honest, happens a lot at my house.
“Well, it’s sort of a thing, but it doesn’t really happen like people think it does. It’s mostly a way to grow your audience with people who are angry about that kind of thing.”
My look of confusion must have got worse, because she slowed it down even more.
“Think about it for a second. Can you name someone who was actually cancelled? Like, the whole world just decided they should never speak again, and then that was it… they were gone? Can you think of anyone?”
It dawned on me that I couldn’t.
Then she pointed out all the comedians who were supposedly cancelled. What were they up to now? Louis C.K. had a new special come out and went on a world tour. Dave Chappelle just had a hit special and is as well known as ever. Even Bill Cosby, who was convicted of drugging and raping over 60 women, is about to go on a global stadium tour.
“People freak out about ‘cancel culture’ all the time,” she said “but there isn’t really a cancel culture. There’s an outrage culture. People get outraged when someone says or does something terrible. Then the fans of that person get outraged that their guy is getting ‘cancelled.’ And then the public figures, at least in comedy, cash in on it. They rant about it in their acts and claim that they’re the victims of cancel culture. But they aren’t cancelled. You know how I know? Because they are complaining about it in their acts.”
I admit that I’d never really thought about it that way. And at first I didn’t believe it. But then I tested her idea by checking the sales of Dr. Seuss books. It turns out that sales jumped by 200% the week that the supposed cancellation was announced. Weird. It was almost as though my wife was right. Again.
To me, the idea of “getting cancelled” had become a harsh new reality of the modern world. Like getting “blacklisted” used to be. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw huge differences. When a person was blacklisted back in the 50s (usually for being a communist) their name literally went on a physical list and they couldn’t get work. The modern version of “getting cancelled” is a squishier concept. There is no list. People still work. In fact, they thrive. I wondered about other fields where people crow on and on about getting cancelled. There’s academia. People claim that they are cancelled because they have unpopular views, but honestly, most of those people complaining are writing books, making appearances on TV, going on the lecture circuit, and pretty much building whole careers out of being cancelled. Jordan Peterson, whose book is a best-seller all while he complains about being cancelled, stands out as a prime example. Journalists who claim that they have been cancelled seem to be doing pretty well too. Matt Taibi publicly frets about getting cancelled, all while getting invitations to talk about his work on prime time cable and getting invited to explain why it is so important to Congress. Even the politicians who go on and on about getting cancelled seem to be the ones thriving. I recently heard Ted Cruz rant about cancel culture – on his own show which is broadcast on a network that reaches 245 million people a month. Yeah, when will these poor folks get a break?
It is weird how the concept of cancel culture snuck into the public imagination and took up real estate in our civil discourse, all without the critical examination that we give most big ideas. While it is true that some public figures have faced consequences for their actions or statements, such as losing endorsement deals (I’m looking at you Kanye) or being removed from television shows (Jay Johnston knows what’s up), this is not a new phenomenon. The difference today is that social media has made it easier for the public to voice their opinion as news breaks. For the first time ever, millions of people can hold individuals accountable for their behavior in an instant, and so it seems like a bigger and stranger phenomenon than it really is. It’s the same old thing it’s always been. People get angry when public figures say racist or hateful things. But now they have a way of sharing their anger that was never available before. It isn’t really that people are cancelled, it’s that they are called out.
Maybe the only thing that should really get “cancelled” is our willingness to believe that public criticism and legal consequences for terrible behavior have suddenly become a new and awful thing. For now, keep an eye on those who complain the loudest about getting cancelled and ask yourself this: are they actually silenced? The very fact that you are hearing their complaint should give you your answer.