Given that President Trump’s response to the challenge of COVID-19 has been much worse than that of our peer countries, which has led to almost 200,000 dead and an economy in shambles, it is hard for him to run on his record of accomplishments. Instead, Trump has tried to distract voters from reality and energize his base by enflaming the culture wars, claiming that his supporters will not be welcome or safe in Joe Biden’s America. He has created a new front in the culture war by criticizing the left for engaging in “cancel culture,” which is when people try to undermine the support of public figures or companies they think have done something wrong.
The “Me Too” movement, in which women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed publicly name their accusers, added fuel to the cancel culture fire. For people on the left, this movement is an effort to hold powerful men, such as Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, accountable for their abuse of women. Conservatives, while they may not defend everyone who has been accused, argue that allegations do not prove guilt and false allegations can ruin the lives of innocent people. The Senate confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh highlights these different views; for the left, it was an opportunity to deny someone credibly accused of sexual assault a lifetime seat on the court. The right saw this as an unfair attempt to use unprovable allegations about high school misbehavior 40 years ago to deny a seat to someone the accusers didn’t like politically.
Community standards encourage conformity. Communities pressure people who violate those standards through shame or embarrassment. Many of us were introduced to the concept in high school English class, with Hester Prynne and her scarlet A. In modern times, Twitter is often the forum for public shaming.
Public shaming is not the best tactic to police behavior. People with a conscience who might feel shame probably already know they should change their behavior, and shame won’t work on people without a conscience, so what’s the point?
Targeting celebrities accused of misbehavior, such as Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, or Kevin Spacey, can cause companies to pull their work from their platforms. But while some have been convicted and went to jail, others have not been held accountable by the legal system. While it makes sense to not support someone who may have done something horrible, it can get complicated. What if the evidence of guilt is not clear? What if they confess, but ask for forgiveness and attempt to atone for their misdeeds? What if they’re dead and can no longer be impacted by your efforts? Is refusing to listen to Michael Jackson’s music making the world a better place or is it just virtue signaling?
Boycotts are a more powerful tool than Twitter shaming, and have been successfully used by the labor movement. For example, Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers boycotted grapes in the 1960s to improve working conditions. Leftists boycott Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-a for their religiously inspired intolerance of homosexuals and birth control. Conservatives have encouraged boycotts of the NFL or NBA because of the political activities of the players.
Boycotts are about power. People organize boycotts because the promoters do not simply have the power to make the target of the boycott change their unacceptable behavior. Boycotts are public shaming backed by the financial power of organized individuals, none of whom have sufficient financial power on their own to force change.
While there’s nothing wrong with considering things beyond artistic merit when deciding to support the work of an artist or athlete, I think we should be very careful about vilifying then. Everyone makes mistakes, and as leftists like to say, people should not be defined by their worst day. Hate the sin, not the sinner. It is important to hold people accountable, but forgiveness allows healing. Boycotts are a powerful weapon, and should be used with care. They should not be a purity test. Not joining a boycott should not itself be a cause for ostracization.
At the same time, efforts to elevate cancel culture to a national crisis are more accurately seen as an effort to inflame the culture war than to create an atmosphere of tolerance. And Trump is the last person to complain about “cancel culture”; just in the last week or two, he’s tried to get people to punish Goodyear for not allowing MAGA hats at work, gone after the publisher of The Atlantic for a story that claimed he called U.S. soldiers who died “suckers” and “losers,” and tried to get a Fox reporter fired for confirming the story.
Organized efforts to use nontraditional sources of power are an important part of a vibrant democratic society even if you don’t agree with their message. If you don’t think someone deserves cancellation, you can fight back by supporting them or giving them a platform to express their views. But trying to cancel “cancel culture” is a political stunt and will only make things worse.
Kent James is an East Washington resident and has degrees in history and policy management from Carnegie Mellon University. He is an adjunct professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College.