“‘In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence’” (Noonan, qtd. in Nwanevu 7).
This quote comes from author Peggy Noonan who had written a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the dangers of cancel culture. She had referenced “torture and indoctrination under Mao,” indicating that present cancel culture is not new but in fact tied to a dark legacy of censorship and control of citizens (Nwanevu 6).
As I read through this article, unsure about the stance I wished to take about ‘cancel culture,’ this line jumped out at me. I was mulling in my mind the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ and its origins, and I thought, ‘you know, this really isn’t new.” As Nwanevu illustrates, the idea of attacking a person for what they say and believe has existed for centuries as “Galileo was cancelled. Martin Luther was cancelled. Joan of Arc was cancelled” (7). The implication follows Noonan’s fears about what cancel culture could turn into, but I sat there thinking how comical it was that some of our present laws were established via cancelling.
When Americans grew frustrated with Britain and the crown for all the taxing and rule making, they set about on their own version of cancelling. Not just with general talk and ‘ranting’, but actually going after those people they were debasing: British soldiers as well as the Loyalists (aka Tories). Those who still supported the crown could expect to find themselves not only verbally attacked but also could face things like tarring and feathering, where they would be “stripped of clothes, covered with hot tar, and splattered with feathers,…then forced to parade about in public” (ushistory.org para. 6). The Boston Massacre, too, was a prominent example of ‘fake news,’ where a misfire and subsequent attack of soldiers led to a false story of bloodthirsty killers. It is notable that even those perceived of loyalty to Britain were threatened. This cancelling was not only very present but also mainstream, and people would have faced serious consequences for being “forgiving rather than punitive” (Nwanevu 4).
Let’s think of the implications of that. When drafting rights like freedom of speech in the Declaration of Independence, they were doing so because of how much they disagreed with and couldn’t stand certain individuals. Really think about that. Critics of cancel culture lament that their freedom of speech is being stolen, that ‘safe spaces’ are somehow a threat to that. However, their ‘freedom’ was brought into being because of cancelling. Because people decided to actively establish their rights and opinions by targeting others. It’s almost troubling, then, to think that it’s okay to go scream about first and second amendment rights as justifications for abuse and death; that’s just being American. That’s always been American. It’s just not American to question America, to go against its beloved figures or ideas.
None of this is to defend the actions of Loyalists or British soldiers during that time. The latter, too, did many awful things. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t issues with the idea of cancel culture and the actions being taken in the name of it, and I’m also not using the Revolution as an example for why we should support those being called out. I just want people to remember that we have never been immune to it, especially not in America. I want people to consider these questions before criticizing young ‘activists’ online: What is so important to protect? What is it you’re saying when you demand the protection of freedom of speech? And what does freedom of speech really even mean?
How might we reconcile our own #problematic history with present ideas about forgiveness and education? If we in many ways were shaped by canceling, is it right to deny its power and potential effectiveness?
Other source: https://www.ushistory.org/US/13c.as
Class discussion and impact:
My contributions: Today I started off by agreeing with Maeve’s point that often cancel culture is quite negative, and how it might give advocacy in general a bit of a bad name. But then on the flip side I examined Audre Lorde’s full quote of the master’s tools and how, when law and the government (tools) fail turning to online work could bring change, however that is sadly not really happening. In terms of comedy, I talked about Mel Brooks and The Producers, the idea that comedy can be a tool to some but hurt others who don’t see it the same way. Later I mentioned that comedians sometimes rely on shock humor, intentionally saying ‘hurtful’ things with the sole intent of getting that reaction out of people. Finally, I used my friend’s essays as an example for why we should be trying harder to teach and welcome versus tearing someone into pieces. We all start somewhere, and not everyone can have the same enlightenment as everyone else.
Others’ contributions: Maeve made a significant point about cancel culture in some ways deterring important conversations, and noted how it is possible to understand someone without agreeing with them. Anna talked about social media being a sort of veil for people to hide behind, and how it could be both a tool and a hindrance. And Sinead spoke about it being hard to find the line in comedy, how people sometimes use it to work through difficult topics or using it as a social critique.
This was a very important class for me because it helped me solidify my thoughts about cancel culture. When I gave my example towards the end, that was the first time I’d ever framed the culture in that way, but I definitely stand by it. We talk a lot in this class about how important education and conversations are, and I really couldn’t agree more. If we never want to work together, we never will. Things won’t actually change, they’ll just stay the same but disguised in a different manner. I really hope that in my future career I can remember this; still hold onto my beliefs but never letting them get in the way of helping others.