Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

My short answer: Yes and no.

Slightly less short: Cancel the term but not the principle.

The much longer version:

The term is a GOP talking-point attack phrase applied to progressives but not to conservatives even when conservatives display the same behavior. Two recent examples:

President Trump has called for multiple product boycotts (Nordstrom, Glenfiddich, HBO, Macy’s, Apple, AT&T, Good Year) without any “cancel culture” complaints, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call to boycott Goya products was attacked as “cancel culture.”

Fox News forced out Tucker Carlson’s head writer Blake Neff after discovering racist and misogynistic statements he recently made under an online pseudonym, and no “cancel culture” accusations followed. But when New York Times editor Bari Weiss resigned the same week, “cancel culture” accusations were literally viral. (The list of people the president has demanded to be fired is even longer.)

But when you remove the extreme partisan imbalance, the principle behind the term is important. As the authors of “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Date” wrote in response to “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published at Harper’s:

“Some of the problems they bring up are real and concerning.”

I agree. I also agree with (almost all of) the opening paragraph of the Harper’s letter:

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”

I appreciate that initial bipartisan focus. But the letter devolves when the authors tick off a lopsided list of vague examples, each demonstrating the sort of reductive and destructive lack of nuance that they claim to oppose.

For a progressive, I spend an atypical amount of time in conversation with conservatives through the Facebook page Rockbridge Civil Discourse I co-founded and co-administer. I read again and again how liberal academics supposedly indoctrinate students and, more recently, promote “cancel culture” on campuses. That’s not what’s happening at my school. When conservative speakers have come to W&L, no one has tried to “cancel” or silence them. I profoundly disagree with Heather MacDonald (I find her denial of campus rape especially vile), but when she spoke against diversity on campus last March, there was no protest against her. Faculty members, specifically those who disagree with her, discouraged it. I’m also a member of a local activist organization, and we discouraged protesting too and instead encouraged attendance at a different event. So, no, liberal professors are not corrupting W&L students with “cancel culture.”

I disagree with the term “cancel culture” when used as a generic sledgehammer, but I also disagree with the assumption that all so-called “cancelling” is inherently wrong. Some is, some isn’t. But even in the cases when cancelling isn’t the right answer, cancelling can still be the right question. “Should x be canceled?” is often useful and vital to ask–in part because it can lead to alternatives that are not “cancelling” (which conservatives object to) but also not leaving a problem unaddressed (which progressives object to). Here’s a specific example:

Should Aristotle be cancelled? 

The author, Agnes Callard, says no, and I agree (the article was forwarded by a friend and co-author of two of my recent books, and he strongly agrees too, so conservatives really shouldn’t be panicked that “cancel culture” has taken over academia). Because the question was asked, the author came up with a way of teaching Aristotle that addresses why professors would consider removing him from their courses. Callard writes:

“The Greek philosopher Aristotle did not merely condone slavery, he defended it; he did not merely defend it, but defended it as beneficial to the slave. His view was that some people are, by nature, unable to pursue their own good, and best suited to be “living tools” for use by other people: “The slave is a part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame.” Aristotle’s anti-liberalism does not stop there. He believed that women were incapable of authoritative decision making. And he decreed that manual laborers, despite being neither slaves nor women, were nonetheless prohibited from citizenship or education in his ideal city.”

That’s how the essay begins. Why? Because Callard is trying to convince philosophers not simply to teach Aristotle, but to teach him more effectively. If she began with a defense, those same philosophers would likely read the defense as a denial of problems, making anything else she has to say at best unconvincing.

That’s what’s missing from the conservative half of the equation. Stopping “cancel culture” requires studying each case, identifying the core problem that absolutely must be addressed, and then providing a better solution. If you all you do is reject something on the grounds that it’s “cancel culture,” then you’re ignoring the problem that cancelling is a (possibly flawed) attempt to answer.

Using the one-sledgehammer-fits-all term doesn’t help and likely harms the anti-cancelling cause. In fact, using the term “cancel culture” is itself an example of “cancel culture” because it silences those trying to speak against a problem by dismissing them and their specific concern with a generic label. It’s the opposite of the open debate principle it falsely claims to support.

So, yes, let’s please cancel “cancel culture.”



%d bloggers like this: