Okay, let’s calm down about “cancel culture.” It is not “getting out of control,” it’s not “an attack on freedom of speech,” and it’s not “what George Orwell warned us about when he wrote 1984.” If you’re actually pondering whether “cancel culture” is bringing upon us a totalitarian dystopia from which societal discourse will never recover, this article is a chance to breathe, and consider the various logical reasons behind this pervasive phenomenon that people cannot seem to stop talking about. For those unaware, “cancel culture” is usually defined as intense semi-organized social scrutiny brought upon an individual as a result of unfavorably received opinions made by that individual. This scrutiny, manifested in the form of boycotts, firings, and moral outrage, is often seen as an unfair form of mob justice, accelerated beyond control by the technological advancements of social media, and likely to bring about the erosion of freedom of speech. The truth is, the term “cancel culture,” sensationalized and hyperbolized by its many critics, is really just a modernly applied synonym for ostracism, which is a concept of social exclusion as punishment that has existed in various forms since the foundation of civilization as we know it. The ancient Greeks did it (they called it ostrakismos); you’d be silly to call ancient Greeks “undemocratic” or “against freedom of speech.” And yet, even though some iteration of “cancel culture” has been among us for countless generations, manifested via various advancing technologies (the press, radio, television, social media), some people can’t seem to understand the concept behind “cancel culture,” and how such a concentration of public opinion is not only normal but necessary in today’s society. Let’s consider, for example, the case of Gina Carano, a recurring actress in Disney’s Star Wars television series The Mandalorian, who was fired by Disney after she implied that being a Republican in America today is like being Jewish during the Holocaust. The hashtag #FireGinaCarano was already extensively shared on social media in response to previous tweets she made in which she mocked transgender pronouns, mocked usage of masks during COVID times, and suggested that the U.S. elections were purposefully rigged against Donald Trump. Clearly, Disney had already given her plenty of chances to stay away from controversial topics on a public platform, but she continued, so Disney removed her from the Mandalorian and all future projects.
The outcry from conservative “cancel culture” cynics was expectedly swift. Republican Senator of Texas (and renowned right-winger) Ted Cruz jumped at Carano’s defense on Twitter. “Texan Gina Carano broke barriers in the Star Wars universe,” Cruz tweeted. “Not a princess, not a victim, not some emotionally tortured Jedi… [She] played a woman who kicked ass & who girls looked up to… of course Disney canceled her.” Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator notorious for debating liberals in conveniently-staged set-ups, responded similarly, even offering her a job at conservative media site The Daily Wire. Please keep in mind that both Cruz and Shapiro are staunch capitalists. I’ll elaborate later about the importance of that fact. But first, let’s seriously ask ourselves; is Disney wrong for their decision? Think about what Disney is, for a minute. Think about what Disney represents. Does Disney want to be associated with images of Jews during the Holocaust in any way at all, much less via a position they know is controversial? Is that the product they’re selling? No, right? Disney is a corporation that sells happiness in the form of various media and intellectual properties, and goes to great legal and monetary lengths to protect its image as a steady supplier of that happiness. If you’re Disney’s employee, it would behoove you to understand that, right? Likewise, if you’re a fan of Disney or have a basic understanding of how corporations work, you would understand this basic concept of supply and demand. Disney supplies happiness, and they actively spend millions of dollars on market research to determine what topics aren’t resonating with the public’s idea of happiness. Wouldn’t you know it; the Holocaust is probably not on the list of topics that are currently high in demand by Disney’s viewers. This is where the hypocrisy of capitalist “anti-cancel culture” conservatives, such as Ben Shapiro and Senator Cruz, becomes clearly evident. By pure, free-market-based macroeconomic force, Disney has acquired numerous intellectual properties, securing them into a massively available streaming platform for millions of subscribed viewers, taking an almost monopolistic share of the media market in a manner few corporations have been able to achieve. One of their employees decides to tarnish the public image of this American Corporate Success Story™ by speaking about controversial topics she was warned not to address, and gets rightfully fired, and you want me to believe that this neoliberalist, capitalist wet-dream known as Disney is the guilty party? You want me to believe that’s “cancel culture”?
That’s not cancel culture! That’s corporate culture! I’m literally studying this for an exam right now! It’s Organizational Communications 1! Please stop complaining about this; unless you’re also ready to complain about late-stage capitalism being the number one reason for the ongoing decay of humankind because, you know what? Late-stage capitalism is exactly the reason why Disney fired Gina Carano, exactly the reason why J.K. Rowling’s sales dropped after her anti-trans comments, exactly the reason why they recalled those problematically racist Dr. Seuss books, and exactly the reason why Twitter banned Donald Trump. Money talks and corporations listen.
And none of this is because Disney cares about ethics—Disney knows they’ll gain more than they’ll lose. As much as I’d love to tell you that it’s all just about true good triumphing over evil, the truth is, cancel culture is just a simple numbers game. If you’re complaining about it, chances are it’s because you’re simply losing that game, and not because you actually care about the effects of “cancel culture” on freedom of speech. By “losing that game,” I mean that there are social circles whose values you simply do not share, and on certain social channels, they might outnumber you. Their values outnumber yours. The internet makes it seem like “losing that game” is a bigger deal than it is. It isn’t. “Cancel culture” (you’ll notice I use quotation marks around it) isn’t real. Disney firing Carano or Twitter banning Trump isn’t called “cancel culture.” It’s called “math.” If you’re angry that someone got “canceled,” just take a look around you (both online and offline). The world is indeed a village, and that can be a scary and overwhelming concept, but even within that village, you can find the true logical reason why things such as mob justice manifest themselves. Can’t escape “cancel culture”? Consider the context. For example, if you get “canceled” for mocking the LGBTQ community and feel unfairly scrutinized, consider the many unsolved murders of members of the LGBTQ community which only seem to increase in numbers every year. They were literally canceled. If speaking against Black Lives Matters gets you “canceled,” consider the monumental number of young black lives that were ended by police brutality and hate crimes all around America and the Western world. Those lives were literally canceled. And yes, to take it to the highest of extremes (like Gina Carano did), if you feel “canceled” by societal pressure to adapt to what are essentially non-mandatory beliefs, feel free to consider the millions killed during the Holocaust, but please don’t think you’re like any of them; you were only “canceled” in a very internet-metaphor kind of way. They were literally canceled. So let’s calm down about “cancel culture.” Discovering the everlasting struggle between agency and structure is not groundbreaking nor does it bring any new ways to solve human dialogue. And let’s face it, that’s what this is: agency versus structure. Our initial reaction to becoming scrutinized by society (especially at society at large) is overwhelming, so before you consider yourself a victim of some Orwellian conspiracy, think first: is this an infringement on your freedom of speech, or rather just an expression of everyone else’s freedom of speech which simply outnumbers yours? And then breathe, calm down, and remember: you’re free to say whatever you want, but you’re not free from being judged for it.
By Gary Izquier
Gary Izquier is a Venezuelan-American student of International Communications at THUAS. As a Millennial in a class full of Gen-Z students, he hopes to learn but also express whatever wisdom he can give to a young, international community. When he isn't studying, working, or over-thinking global issues, he can be found either gaming, debating strangers online, or pretending to be Bob Dylan on the guitar.