How Cancel Culture Became Politicized — Just Like Political Correctness
Updated July 26, 2021 at 2:20 PM ET
When former President Donald Trump announced his lawsuit against Facebook, Twitter and Google this month, he used a word that has become a familiar signal in modern politics.
"We're demanding an end to the shadow-banning, a stop to the silencing and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling that you know so well," Trump said in a speech.
That term, "canceling," has become central to the present-day debate over the consequences of speech and who gets to exact them. It has ascended from minor skirmishes on Twitter to the highest office in the country, and it actually mirrors a cultural conversation that started three decades ago.
"This is a power struggle of different groups or forces in society, I think, at its most basic," says Nicole Holliday, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. "And this is the same case with political correctness that used to get boiled down to, well, 'Do you have a right to be offended if it means I don't have the right to say something?' "
The idea of being "politically correct," having the most morally upstanding opinion on complicated subjects and the least offensive language with which to articulate it, gained popularity in the 1990s before people on the outside weaponized it against the community it came from — just like the idea of "canceling" someone today.
"I do think that 'cancel' in particular is something that was invented sort of by young people, and it actually just kind of means boycott, right? It means 'Do not support this thing,' " Holliday says.
Now, she says, "conservatives have picked it up not to just mean boycott, but rather to say: Our value system is under threat by these people who want to [de-]monetize or de-platform us because we have unpopular opinions."
But it's not just conservatives figures who think cancel culture has gone too far. The fear of being "canceled" has caused some everyday people to be more aware of — and at times, concerned about — what they say and post online.
So how did an effort to hold people accountable for their actions become politicized and get so out of control? To understand the uproar over cancel culture, it may help to examine the past.
How an in-joke on the left became a right-wing weapon
Ruth Perry has seen the long arc of these kinds of debates. She's a professor emeritus of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked for almost four decades and founded the women's studies department in 1984.
Back in her early career, Perry says, she ran with a crowd of idealists.
"We cared about the Earth, we cared about ecology, we cared about treating animals correctly," she says. "We cared about sexism, we cared about white supremacy — all these things."
Perry says her peers would use the phrase "politically correct" to tease each other over whether their actions lined up with their ideals.
"Somebody would say, 'Would it be politically correct if we had a hamburger?' — somebody who was a vegetarian would say that. Or somebody who was a feminist might say, 'It may not be politically correct, but I think he's really hot,' [about] some sexist movie star or something," says Perry.
"Politically correct" was a kind of in-joke among American leftists — something you called a fellow leftist when you thought the person was being self-righteous. "The term was always used ironically," Perry says, "always calling attention to possible dogmatism."
Then, right-wing think tanks and conservatives started to use the term as a form of attack in both the media and academia.
"It felt like, 'Oh, my God, they're using this against us,' " Perry says. "And they're acting as if this term really was a kind of litmus test for political correctness, which it never had been."
A search of newspapers and magazines in the archive Nexis shows just how rapidly the term expanded beyond its original scene. In 1989, the phrase "politically correct" appeared fewer than 250 times in print. By 1994, the archive shows more than 10,000 hits. The idea was everywhere: from comedy shows like Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect to cartoons like Beavis and Butt-Head and even current events shows like Firing Line on PBS.
Where there's outrage, there's economic opportunity
This national obsession didn't just bubble up organically.
"It is an industry," John Wilson, author of the 1995 book The Myth of Political Correctness, says. "There are all these right-wing foundations and books that were published that made a lot of money promoting this idea."
He adds that the word "myth" in the title of his book is important to understanding how it became a phenomenon.
"A myth is not a falsehood: It doesn't mean it's a lie. It doesn't mean everything is fabricated," he says. "It means that it's a story. And so what happened in the '90s is, people, with political correctness, they took certain — sometimes true — anecdotes and they created a web, a story out of them, a myth that there was this vast repression of conservative voices on college campuses."
Wilson says there were grains of truth to the conservative argument — isolated examples of conflicts and protests, often on college campuses, and real cases of people getting punished or fired — but that those isolated cases got magnified into a sweeping national narrative that the right used to claim conservatives were being silenced. And by claiming victimization, Wilson says, conservatives were able to use the term "political correctness" as a bludgeon to hammer the left, a lot like the way the phrase "cancel culture" is used today.
Then, like now, local debates that might have stayed largely unknown beyond college newspapers suddenly became national news.
For example, in 1988, NPR and several other news organizations reported on a fight over Stanford University's freshman requirements. The name of the course at the center of the controversy was "Western Culture," which the students wanted replaced with a more multicultural class, Wilson says. People like Education Secretary William Bennett — a Republican — took the student protests as a broader attack.
"Right from the beginning, this was an assault on Western culture and Western civilization," he said in a 1988 PBS interview.
By 1991, this panic had reached all the way to the president of the United States.
"We find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses," said then-President George H.W. Bush in his commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1991. "The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land."
Bush went on: "The disputants treat sheer force — getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance — as a substitute for the power of ideas."
Another Republican president, Donald Trump, who denounced political correctness during his 2016 presidential campaign, made the same argument against cancel culture almost 30 years later at the 2020 Republican National Convention.
"The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it," Trump said during a speech.
Discussion about public cancellations increased in the years leading up to the 2020 election, and that points to something else that these two battles in the culture wars share.
"There tend to be these flare-ups or panics about political correctness in moments of institutional transformation or instability," historian Moira Weigel says, "and I think it tends to be a way that certain groups claim authority in a changing public sphere."
In those political correctness wars of the '90s, college campuses were becoming more diverse, and Weigel says something similar is taking place right now.
"It usually happens in response to movements for racial and gender and sexuality justice, and I think it's no accident that it's with the rise of BLM [Black Lives Matter] that you see it come back again as a big media theme," she says.
Co-opting cancel culture's origins
Before the entire country started to weigh in on a single person's actions, "canceling" started out on a much smaller scale.
Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, says "cancel culture" builds on a process of accountability that has unfolded in Black communities for years. But, she takes issue with the description of "canceling" as a part of our broader culture.
"Canceling is what comes out of Black discourse — it's what comes out of Black queer discourse — but the assignment of 'culture' to that makes it a label that's big enough to be slapped on anyone and anything," she says. "And that is where the weaponization of what is otherwise accountability really takes off."
If this had remained something that just stuck within Black communities, within Latinx communities, then this wouldn't really be a story.
Clark thinks one reason that cancel culture has become such a hot national topic is people in powerful positions are unaccustomed to having to answer to marginalized people who, through social media, have greater access to them than ever.
"That's what it's all about," Clark says. "If this had remained something that just stuck within Black communities, within Latinx communities, then this wouldn't really be a story."
"But because it has crossed over," she continues, "now this becomes newsworthy, and it becomes something that is positioned as something that every everyday person should fear."
How social media amplified dialogue and flattened real accountability
Undoubtedly, the biggest difference between discussions of political correctness in the '90s and cancel culture today is the way social media creates access to both public and private individuals and puts their dialogue on equal footing.
Jon Ronson has been studying that transition for a decade and wrote about the way private individuals have been disproportionately punished for minor transgressions on social media in his 2015 book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. He thinks the issue with cancel culture is not so much one of right versus left, but with the idea that private individuals should be judged in the same way as public figures.
"The term 'cancel culture' has become this ridiculously catchall term where a private individual who did nothing much wrong, whose life was very heavily impacted by an overzealous social media shaming, is suddenly put into the same basket as a provocateur newspaper columnist," Ronson says.
Clark's studies illuminate a similar problem. She says that when you look at the small percentage of the U.S. population that is on Twitter — 42% of adults between 18 and 29 and only 27% of adults between 30 and 49, as of February 2021 — you understand how out of proportion the narrative of cancel culture is.
"Given the tiny, tiny portion of the American population in particular that uses Twitter, we're not really talking about a lot of people who are clamoring to cancel others," she says. "It sounds loud because it gets amplified. The Twitter commentary gets amplified by mainstream media; it gets picked up in discussions [with people] that otherwise would not have been privy to what was happening online."
Ronson thinks one way to alleviate the debate over cancel culture is to better understand how powerful social media — and our actions on it — can be.
"This is a very new weapon that we have. On Twitter, we're like children crawling towards guns," he says. As with any weapon, the best advice for navigating social media may be to proceed with caution and think before you shoot.
"I just think it's up to every individual on social media to be curious and patient. ... It's absurd to think that you know everything about somebody just because of one poorly worded tweet, and we are judging people that way," Ronson says.
Ronson says he remembers growing up in a culture of racism, misogyny and homophobia in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and '80s and how the idea of political correctness was used to address those issues. In the cases of both political correctness and cancel culture, he thinks some degree of correction is necessary, but what we're witnessing may be overshooting the mark.
"We're living in this very binary world," he says, "and in this world, people on the right are saying, 'You know, we are being silenced by a woke mob,' and people on the left are saying, 'It's not happening — we're just holding people accountable.' "
The truth, Ronson says, "is somewhere in the middle."
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