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Why Are We Still Talking About ‘Cancel Culture?’

After a blissful period of relative silence, “cancel culture” discourse has returned with a vengeance. 

The old debate was reignited by a now-infamous letter published by Harper’s Magazine, which proposed that professors, editors, writers and others, are in danger of being silenced by … somebody. 

The most striking thing about the letter is its hazy ambiguity; the letter doesn’t cite a single specific example, only vague allusions to events that the reader may, or may not, be aware of. It doesn’t say who, exactly, is being silenced, or which opinions are being silenced. It doesn’t say who is doing the silencing, but implies that social media might have something to do with it. Maybe.

The letter was signed by self-professed free-speech warriors like Bari Weiss, J.K. Rowling, and David “axis of evil” Frum, along with sincere free-speech absolutists like Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood. 

Responses to the letter ranged from enthusiasm, to condemnation, to outright contempt – after all, many of the people who signed the letter hold positions of tremendous power and influence, their opinions regularly broadcasted around the world. 

Rather than endlessly debating the dangers of cancel culture, the folks at Harper’s Magazine might want to consider the enormous job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which is significantly more important than their perceived victimization. 

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the vague, unnamed threat might just be “mean Twitter comments,” as opposed to the lavish praise they likely prefer. Free speech doesn’t mean exemption from criticism. 

Bari Weiss, famous for trying to silence professors during her college years, responsible for the most cringeworthy moment in the history of Joe Rogan’s podcast, recently quit her position at the New York Times because of perceived harassment and the supposed self-censorship of the newspaper, apparently the fault of Twitter.  

Whatever your opinion of Weiss, she’s likely to land on her feet; there’s a very lucrative market out there for opinionated people who loudly claim to have been “cancelled.”

But what does it really mean to “cancel” someone? What is “cancel culture,” really? It’s difficult to say, because there is no shared definition; everyone seems to have their own idea of what it means. 

For example, J.K. Rowling jokingly claims to have been “on my fourth or fifth cancellation” in her recent essay. But it’s impossible to silence the world’s most successful children’s author; her influence is being dampened by her terrible opinions, to some degree, but it certainly won’t evaporate completely. You can’t “cancel” a multi-millionaire with 14.3 million Twitter followers. Or a successful comedian with a lucrative Netflix special titled, “Triggered.” 

But you can “cancel” a small, relatively unknown creator through online harassment campaigns; it happens all the time, and it’s something that still plagues social media. YouTuber Lindsay Ellis has spoken about being on the receiving end of harassment campaigns from hate groups, while YouTuber Contrapoints has discussed the same phenomenon, having been persecuted by both bigots, and her own “fans.” 

But there’s a difference between a harassment campaign and suffering the consequences of hateful behaviour. For example, nobody is citing the firing of Blake Neff, Tucker Carlson’s former writer, as an example of “cancel culture.” Neff was unceremoniously fired from Tucker Carlson Tonight after a CNN story reported that Neff had been posting horribly racist and sexist remarks online, anonymously, for several years.

Clearly, we all understand that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, a point in which a person should no longer be in a position of power and influence.

The problem is that we disagree on where, exactly, that line is.

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