Right-wing media helped usher in the age of “cancel culture,” but now pretend it's an invention of the left
From Roger Ailes to Andrew Breitbart to James O'Keefe to Donald Trump, right-wing media has been built on cancel culture for decades
In an op-ed plastered across Monday’s New York Post front page, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) calls for an end to the “muzzling of America.” Despite getting a spot on the front page of the fourth-largest newspaper in the U.S., coverage across the entire Fox News lineup, a new book deal, an audience of more than half a million followers on Twitter, and a lengthy list of credits on IMDB, Hawley would like you to believe that he is a man without a voice.
Hawley’s essay makes a now-familiar argument against so-called “cancel culture,” which naturally, came for him all because he tried to invalidate the votes of millions of Americans and maybe, sorta, kinda helped incite a deadly mob to attack the U.S. Capitol. Who among us hasn’t had a brush with insurrection at one point or another?
That same morning, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced her bid to become the next governor of Arkansas. In her announcement, she played on the same theme as Hawley, saying, “I took on the media, the radical left, and their cancel culture, and I won. As governor, I will be your voice and never let them silence you.”
“Cancel culture,” like “identity politics” and “political correctness,” is an ill-defined concept that has been weaponized to shut down criticism of conservatives.
Are Hawley, Sanders, and the many other politicians and people in conservative media who regularly denounce “cancel culture” actually the steadfast supporters of radical free speech they make themselves out to be? No, of course not. They’re mostly just raging hypocrites. After all, this week News Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch bemoaned “awful woke orthodoxy” just days after purging Fox News of employees who correctly called the presidential election.
In Hawley’s piece for the Post, he denounced what he called “censorship” coming from companies:
But the left and the corporations are challenging all of this now. Your “conservative” social platform isn’t worth much when Amazon can shut it down. Your vote may still be yours, but if your party is denied the means to effectively organize by corporate monopolies, it’s not going to win. Your church, well, you can still attend for now, but go to the wrong church and you may not have a job in a few years.
Setting aside that we’ve already established Hawley isn’t actually in favor of votes “still be[ing] yours,” his claim that Amazon is tyrannical for halting services to conservative social media app Parler ignores the circumstances behind the decision. According to a court filing, Amazon cut ties with Parler after Parler had ignored repeated requests to stop hosting questionably legal content such as “calls to hang public officials, kill Black and Jewish people, and shoot police officers in the head.” Additionally, Parler did not have a system in place that could automatically detect and block child pornography. Other platforms have taken steps to proactively flag that content, though it remains imperfect.
Hawley is welcome to that sort of absolutist view of what is and isn’t “censorship” if that’s what he believes. Unfortunately for him, it was less than two months ago that he victoriously posted to his Twitter feed that Mastercard had revoked processing services for the website Pornhub following a New York Times article about sex trafficking. Hawley called for Visa to follow suit, and it did. Whatever one’s position on Parler or Pornhub, Hawley’s two responses are in direct conflict.
.@Visa and every other credit card company should immediately do the same
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) December 10, 2020
Sanders is another example of “cancel culture” hypocrisy. In 2017, ESPN host Jemele Hill called President Donald Trump a “white supremacist” in a tweet. When asked about it during a press briefing, Sanders stepped into ethically murky waters when she, as a government official using her position of authority, advocated for Hill’s dismissal, calling it “a fireable offense.”
Just as right-wing media have helped Republicans play up their opposition to “identity politics” while ignoring the role white and Christian identities play in conservative coalitions, and just as they denounce the concept of “political correctness” while promoting revisionist and sanitized versions of American history, the fight against “cancel culture” is another bundle of hypocrisy wrapped in the bow of a new buzzword.
The successful branding of “cancel culture” as the invention of the left is both sad and remarkable -- as well as factually incorrect.
What was the purpose of the House Un-American Activities Committee or of the Army-McCarthy hearings if not to root out and “cancel” Communists? And what of the so-called “Lavender Scare” purge of gay employees within the federal government? The idea that “cancel culture” is new or limited to any particular political ideology is patently false.
Right-wing media try to portray this move as being driven primarily by the left, but just look at this (admittedly incomplete) list of conservative cancellation targets: ABC, ACORN, The Beatles, TV host Samantha Bee, Campbell’s Soup, The Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks), New York Times reporter Sopan Deb, France, Gillette razors, comedian Kathy Griffin, Guinness, director James Gunn, Hallmark, CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, The Hunt, tech reporter Sarah Jeong, then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Kellogg’s, Keurig, KitKat, Match.com, Mexico, The Muppets, The New York Times, Nike, Pepsi, Rachael Ray (and Dunkin Donuts), left-leaning college professors, a series of words that include “science-based” and “evidence-based,” progressive commentator Sam Seder, former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod, Starbucks, Target, transgender people, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel (on more than one occasion), and even the White House Easter Egg roll.
Just last week, The New York Times canceled freelance editor Lauren Wolfe’s contract after she tweeted that she had “chills” watching then-President-elect Joe Biden’s plane touch down ahead of the inauguration.
Will Wilkinson, a New York Times contributing opinion writer who was the vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, lost his job at the moderate think tank this week after conservatives willfully misinterpreted a joke he made by riffing on the “hang Mike Pence” chant of members of the Trump-incited January 6 riot.
Part of the reason the idea of “cancel culture” may seem like it comes more from the left than from the right is that conservative media outlets simply will not stop talking about it. The New York Post has an extensive list of stories tagged “cancel culture.” The same is true of Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and the Daily Wire.
Cancel culture isn’t real, but probably not for the reason you think.
In short, the world is far more complicated than can be contained in a two-word catchphrase. Conservatives have tried to stretch the meaning of “cancel culture” to include pretty much everything. Was it cancel culture for Amazon to cut ties with Parler after Parler refused to comply with requests to remove certain content? If anything, it seems more oppressive to suggest that people or companies should be compelled to continue working with a company that hosts potentially illegal content.
Is it cancel culture to use your First Amendment right to free speech to boycott a business because it took a public stand you disagreed with? If it is, wouldn’t it also be cancel culture to say that someone shouldn’t use their First Amendment right to free speech to encourage that boycott?
Is it cancel culture to express disappointment when a popular author comes out against legal protections for a marginalized group? And if it is, how is it not also cancel culture for the author to advocate for their position in the first place, as, after all, they are trying to curtail someone else’s freedoms?
There’s a nuanced discussion to be had about who gets held accountable for their speech and actions, who doesn't, and why. Unfortunately, we’re now at a point where Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is calling the impeachment of Trump over his role in inciting violence at the Capitol on January 6 “the zenith of cancel culture.” That probably does not bode well for anybody hoping for nuance.
Impeachment is the zenith of cancel culture.
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) January 25, 2021
Gaetz, who is a frequent Fox News guest, epitomizes the fundamental unseriousness that is “cancel culture.” Saying Sean Hannity’s show shouldn’t be on TV? Cancel culture. Expressing disappointment that someone would endorse an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist for Congress? Cancel culture. Someone saying they’re not going to buy a certain brand of beans? Cancel culture. An imaginary war on the TV show Paw Patrol? Cancel culture.
It’s OK to believe that social or professional consequences for things said or done are either too harsh or not harsh enough, and it’s OK to be concerned about the outsized power tech companies like Facebook or Twitter have in the world, but using the framing of “cancel culture” to make these points will always come off as lazy and cowardly.
Instead of chalking something up to “cancel culture,” people should simply say what it is that they mean. Gaetz should just say that he doesn’t believe Trump should be impeached for his role in the insurrection, and he should just say that he supported right-wing conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer despite her views about Muslims. If Hawley and his right-wing media allies were being honest, they would just come right out and defend the incitement of mob violence rather than hiding behind the “cancel culture” boogeyman. Until then, it’ll be hard to hear the words “cancel culture” without thinking of cowardly hypocrisy.