On "Cancel Culture"Roundup
tags: media, moral panics, Cancel Culture
Historian at Georgetown - Democracy and Its Discontents - Contributing Opinion Writer - Podcast: Is This Democracy
Scott Adams has finally been canceled. After the cartoonist behind the “Dilbert” comics had gone on a brutally racist rant on YouTube almost two weeks ago, most newspapers in the country decided they didn’t want to be associated with him anymore and announced they would cease to publish his work. In a livestream, Adams had called Black people “a hate group” and announced that “I don’t want to have anything to do with them.” He had also advised white people “to get the hell away from Black people.” Yup, that’s the kind of aggressive racist confession, open plea for segregation, and overt personal bigotry that will get most people in trouble in America.
What had not gotten him “cancelled” previously, however, was the fact that he’s been very open about how he has been subscribing to the regular universe of rightwing extremist conspiracy theories for years, be it on Covid vaccines, the war in Ukraine, or trans people. This latest racist rant was, finally, where most publishers in America were willing to draw the line.
Adams, of course, feels wronged – as we would expect from someone who is convinced that it is white people who are being discriminated against and persecuted in America. The fact that he is now bemoaning his “cancellation” at the hands of the mob is unsurprising, both as a purely opportunistic move and as an individual coping mechanism. Since the “cancel culture” narrative has become so pervasive in the social, political, cultural discourse, it is out there as a constant offer for everyone who deliberately seeks to present themselves as the victim and as a way to make sense of our own (bad/uncomfortable) experiences: Am I being canceled? A victim of “wokeism” running amok? It is actually an enormously attractive frame of reference: If you accept it, an action or opinion that provoked pushback is immediately legitimized, an unpleasant experience is instantly dignified. You’ve become a character in a major societal and political struggle for “free speech.” In this way, “cancel culture” – a specific diagnosis, a claim about the world widely perpetuated not just on the Right, but pretty much across the political spectrum – is shaping, rather than just reflecting, reality and individual experiences, regardless of whether or not there actually is a phenomenon that is adequately described in such terms.
A “free speech crisis” pundit letting the air out of the “cancel culture” balloon?
Adams hasn’t exactly gotten a lot of mainstream support in his quest to portray himself as the victim, however. And this is where this affair does get interesting. Some of the most influential “cancel culture” pundits who have significantly contributed to cultivating the idea that America is currently facing a “free speech crisis” have come out against Adams. Thomas Chatterton Williams, for instance, declared this *not* a case of cancel culture, but just someone “going on a stupid and boring racist monologue” and rightfully having to deal with the consequences. He is absolutely right. But it’s not really a position that is consistent with all the “cancel culture” moral panicking that TCW has often helped to legitimize in the eyes of a broader mainstream public. After all, Adams uploaded his rant to YouTube and was then attacked by what the “cancel culture” discourse likes to deride as an “online mob”; and in contrast to most anecdotal evidence that is usually presented as a manifestation of encroaching “woke” illiberalism, a cancellation did actually happen in this case, as publishers distanced themselves from Adams in reaction to public speech.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on why anyone should care whatever Thomas Chatterton Williams has to say about the Dilbert affair. TCW is a well-known cultural critic who mostly writes for The Atlantic. When he is regularly given a platform by the country’s most important media outlets, it is often in his function as a crucial mainstream critic of “the Left” and “wokeism.” TCW was a leading author behind the (in)famous “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” published in Harper’s Magazine in July 2020. While the letter didn’t use the term, it used all the building blocks of the “cancel culture” panic. It decried “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” yet directed most of its attention and energy towards illiberal threats from the Left, describing the situation in terms and with examples that are clearly coded as left or “woke”: the spreading “ideological conformity” and “censoriousness,” the “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The letter concluded with a plea that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
To be fair, others have taken the “cancel culture” paranoia to much greater extremes than TCW. He is rarely in the trenches like some “free speech” pundits are who have built their entire personas and platforms around the idea that they are the brave truth-tellers daring to fight back. But TCW fulfills an important role in the mainstreaming of the reactionary moral panic precisely because he upholds the image of a thoughtful voice, a thought-leader who will not be pulled into the mud.
It's also not like TCW is above doing some proper, run-of-the-mill “cancel culture” punditry. Shortly after the publication of Harper’s Letter, for instance, he strongly defended the notion that “cancel culture” existed and that it was an acute threat in an interview with Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker. In fact, he outlined what is the standard tale the “cancel culture” discourse wants us to believe: Not just that there is some annoying stuff going on – but that it is a) a new phenomenon, b) rapidly getting worse, c) coming mostly from the illiberal Left, and d) constitutes an acute national crisis in desperate need of intervention.