“I guess nobody’s allowed to make hot dog jokes anymore just because the socialist Upton Sinclair is offended by meat factories!”

– this comedian, on why early 20th century audiences are too sensitive for comedy

I never really bought into the whole “Cancel Culture” thing as a real societal threat that so many people seem to think it is. At least, I don’t think it’s a particularly new phenomenon – I have yet to hear a convincing argument that it’s significantly different from how humans have always treated each other. That is, when you have any sort of group that holds itself to certain moral expectations or standards, then those who are seen to violate those standards are criticized, or even shunned, for those violations.

And really, the modern consequences for these violations don’t seem nearly as devastating as they have been historically – at least when it comes to celebrity cancellations. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin used to be arrested and put in jail for their comedy acts. Joseph McCarthy headed Congressional subcommittees hunting down anyone suspected of being, or sympathizing with, communists or socialists. Being LGBT+ anywhere could get you disowned, arrested, and/or killed (still happens today, even). Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, and Pokemon were all considered satanic worship at one point or another. The Dixie Chicks lost a whole bunch of their audience for denouncing George W. Bush. Cultural backlash against unpopular things is not new.

Compared to the above, what exactly are the losses experienced by today’s cancelled celebrities? J.K. Rowling is still getting published and making movies. Kevin Hart lost one Oscars hosting gig but is otherwise doing the same things he’s always done. And I don’t even understand the point Dave Chappelle’s trying to make right now – “They want to cancel me but I’m too popular to be canceled?” Yeah, no shit? But at what moment are you considered “canceled” if you haven’t actually experienced a tangible consequence for your cancelable offense? Was it when a bunch of transfolk started pointing out that Chappelle’s new material seems oddly focused on being confrontational to trans issues? Was this criticism (that I’ve always seen hedged with, “I like Dave Chappelle, but… “) supposed to be the scary, woke mob coming to silence his voice? Because it seems to me that Chappelle’s “I’m too powerful to be canceled” routine has done nothing but amplify his voice.

I should make it clear that I am aware of the “cancellations” of smaller, non-celebrity figures like Justine Sacco, who made a poorly-received racial joke on Twitter that ended up getting her fired, as well as various small creators who have experienced large backlash from their more insulated fandom communities. Personally, I find these events to be cases of relatively minor (sometimes even nonexistent) public mistakes which received a largely disproportionate backlash magnified by social media’s power as a global network. Yes, I think these are problems – though I repeat that public shaming is not new, outside of the introduction of social media to the equation – but why are these tied into the entire “Cancel Culture” narrative with the celebrity cancellations?

There are vast differences between the statuses and actions of, for example, Justine Sacco (a relative nobody who made one very unpopular joke) and, another example, J.K. Rowling (one of, if not the, wealthiest authors in history who has a lengthy record of aligning herself with anti-trans rhetoric and advocates, then doubling down on that rhetoric when confronted with criticism) and yet both of these instances are conflated with each other under the umbrella of  “Cancel Culture.”

And this tirade doesn’t even cover the other kind of “cancellations” that are exemplified by the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby – i.e. less “cancellation” and more “legal repercussions to literal criminal acts.”

– James