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VALERIE SCHULTZ: 'Cancel culture' by any other name

Valerie Schultz

Valerie Schultz

"This is the No. 1 issue for the country to address today."

— Congressman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio

For several months now, various right-wing pundits and politicians have railed against something they call "cancel culture," as though this were a strange new phenomenon. The irony of the fact that their complaints about being canceled have reached a national audience escapes them. Nevertheless, the canceled incidents they cite distress them, even though cancellation is a longstanding practice of modern life.

Because our culture has made use of cancel culture for as long as I can remember. We sometimes call this action a boycott. As a teenager I boycotted grapes and lettuce in solidarity with the farmworkers' push for just wages and other benefits. Over the years, I have boycotted brands that pollute the earth or contribute to hate groups or harm our health. When legislation fails, a boycott is often the best tool we consumers have to bring attention to social ills, because money talks.

Cancel culture simply describes the end phase of cultural popularity. It's what happens when we as a society move on from a trend, whether in fashion or music or food or style or other fads. We canceled hip huggers and Jell-O molds after the 1960s. We canceled pet rocks and leisure suits after the 1970s. Hairstyles in yearbook photos can make us cringe and want to cancel our high school selves. As time goes on, cool things become uncool and are thus canceled, often by the upcoming generation. We once labeled this the "generation gap."

I think of the cool things I have canceled for myself: I used to praise Woody Allen movies. I used to quote Jackson Browne lyrics. I used to devour the works of J.K. Rowling, even when she wrote under a pen name. I used to be a big fan of Brett Favre. I have personal reasons for canceling these former heroes. I imagine we all have those crushes on famous figures that we don't want to talk about anymore. In the early 2010s, a popular blog called "Your Fave Is Problematic" even helped out by reporting on celebrities deserving of public shaming. That blog eventually got canceled by its own creator.

So let's circle back, and explore the alternate idea that cancel culture can actually be healthy for us. Populist actions that push our social evolution beyond the accepted norms and biases of the past are often accused of going too far, but a lot of good has come from social change movements. What was labeled "political correctness" 20 years ago has opened some eyes to the idea of treating people with respect, especially those with whom one may have nothing in common or with whom one may disagree.

More recently, #MeToo has effectively shed light into the dark corners of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and elsewhere. The Black Lives Matter movement has directed our attention to systemic racism in general and the mistreatment of people of color by law enforcement individuals in particular. The awareness of injustice can be the first step to canceling it.

It's possible that the aforementioned right-wing focus on cancel culture, however, has been carefully and cynically manufactured to infect people with fear; specifically, white people. The waning white majority, which has dominated American politics and business and society and entertainment and positions of power, is being told to fear that allowing new faces to appear and new voices to speak will cancel the country they love.

Rather than embracing our nation's growing diversity, some folks are retreating into a white nationalist mentality. Rather than making room for all Americans, they pursue ways to exclude people who do not look or think or act like them. They demonize the other. The descendants of immigrants in a nation of immigrants are against immigrants. Again, the irony does not register.

The beauty of the American experiment is that we are free to cancel or boycott or ignore anything we don't personally like. The flip side of that precious coin is that we don't get to dictate or squelch or restrict anything any of our fellow citizens might personally like. No one can make you like anything, just as you cannot make someone else like what you deem should be liked.

As I write, I am cognizant that there are readers who have canceled me. But I have faith that there's plenty of space for us to have our differences and still love our country together, without fear and without contempt. It may just be the way to make America great.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at vschultz22@gmail.com. The views expressed here are her own.

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