According to a recent survey by Centre for Policy Studies U.K., just over half of adults (under 30) have cut off individuals because of their political opinion. Cancel culture has become contentious today especially given the increasing disparity and tension between the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Cancel culture is the only subject that appears on the news that can “cancel” the news that publishes about it as ridiculous as it sounds. However, cancel culture is not in the slightest sense new (even though it has become more pronounced); it has been embedded in the structure of society long before the crusades.
Since the formation of the smallest fragment of civilization, there has been a desire to “cancel” people and ideas considered dangerous. Kingdoms and tribes have since established laws for dealing with unwanted behaviour and beliefs. Whenever an action resulted in a severely negative connotation on the community’s stability, it often resulted in exile (or death). While death is not a common punishment today, some similarities can be drawn between reasons for cancelling individuals (or ideas) before the advent of the internet and in the modern period. The most common similarity would be the need to self-preserve by the actors cancelling (whether that is their authority or morals). Jean Jacques Rousseau (philosopher) was exiled for sharing beliefs that were considered detrimental to the social order. The Romans and scribes crucified Jesus of Nazareth primarily because they were convinced his views could impact the state’s stability. These punishments were not just to silence the individual dispensing the “harmful” belief but to prevent the further development of the ideas within society. Similar to the cancel culture today, the aim is hardly ever to enlighten or educate but to silence and truncate the influence of the holder of such views. Exile (in worse cases, death) was essentially a form of cancel culture that happened through the established authority’s approval.
The exiled individual faced a very similar reality as the cancelled individual does today. The individual was dejected by the community where they had spent a significant portion of their life developing their identity (which is linked to their profession in the community). In some ancient communities, except being a prominent figure like Achilles or Hercules, your “resume” and craftmanship were not as helpful in integrating you into new places as they are today. The folktales detailing human interactions with creatures such as vampires, warlocks, and mermaids provided a reason for skepticism towards an unfamiliar individual’s identity. Surviving in solitude would also pose a difficult task to most individuals as they needed protection from bears, wolves, snakes, and other wild creatures—a community was essential.
Today (thankfully), individuals do not necessarily have to face off bears and lions. Neither would they be suspected of being a warlock or witch (at least in some parts of the world). However, they still face the difficulty of finding a few extra friends or a job. Bandwagon cancelling is now typical, whereas it may not have been a thing. People who have never heard (or know anything) about an individual or company unleash a series of social media posts stating why “the accuser” should be cancelled. The social justice warriors have taken it upon themselves to rid society of all “ills”, excluding those present within their social group. The internet has facilitated this by providing finger-tip access to information for more people than ever was before. This acts as a double-edged sword as the information may work to the advantage or disadvantage of the individual. This was the case with a woman named Juli Briskman, who displayed a middle finger to the former U.S. President, Donald Trump, during a motorcade and ended up fired from her job. She was technically “cancelled”, as the company did not want to be associated with an individual whom they assumed would attract negative coverage due to her remarks to the then-president. Surprisingly, she would later go on to run for a local government seat in Virginia and win! However, the story is not always a happy ending, and careers tend to be significantly impacted by cancel culture.
Cancel culture then transcended beyond the pre-industrialized level to a more organized nature, with the establishment of the global market and more complex economic relationships. As governments enlarged, increasing in their territory and becoming more specialized, so did their arsenals—of which cancel culture was a part. One prominent form of this happens through sanctions and trade embargo (yes, you heard that right!). Sanctions may essentially be cancelling happening at a governmental scale. I identify cancel culture’s aims to be:
Draw attention to a supposed “ill” belief or action.
Show that there is a popular agreement about the “dangers” of the cancelled action.
Punish the individual for attempting to arouse “harm” and to deter further instigators from engaging in the cancelled act.
When countries impose trade embargoes on other countries hoping to negate what they interpret as harmful behaviours, their goals are identical to the outlined aims. These two may not be as different after all.
Therefore, “cancelling” may not necessarily be ill-intended, especially when used as an economic sanction intended to influence authoritarian government. If sanctioning a country could impel the leaders to be more cautious in their governance, it may be moderately beneficial. However, this is not always the case as it does not eradicate the negative impacts it has by devaluing the country’s currency, crippling the economy (thereby increasing poverty and crime) and eventually hurting the people it intended to be helped; if helping was ever the case in “cancelling”. It seems like a grey area, similar to a firearm; the most crucial factor is the wielder. Cancel culture can negatively impact the image and financial stability of a group or company. Hence, cancel culture also has an economic component to it.
An interesting similarity between cancel culture and the free market can be drawn. While economic factors may not trigger a reason to cancel, an individual’s behaviour when cancelling may be likened to the forces of demand and supply in the market—the invisible hand. Here is how: Individuals involved in the free market are expected to be motivated by self-interest, which would eventually allow the producers of the most demanded goods to be rewarded by the consumers who can pay for the goods they produced at a reasonable price. Milton Friedman talks about this referring to the interaction between the metal and bicycle market where the market is at full efficiency when people are allowed to purchase metals for their bicycle construction without limitations from the government. Even so, a cancelled individual (especially when it is a celebrity) is a producer of services, while the individuals involved in cancelling are acting in liberty as the consumers. These customers could constitute only a fragment of the consumer base or the majority.
Therefore, the consumers’ refusal to purchase goods from a producer results from an overlap between their political stance and their economic position as market consumers. Despite how outrageous these could become, the consumers should always have the choice to choose what to consume. An example of this was when Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick in what became a very controversial Nike ad. A fragment of the Nike consumer base protested by burning their Nike apparel and using the hashtag #BoycottNike, to express their disapproval of the popular NFL quarterback (who was famous for taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem as a protest). Similar to Juli Briskman’s case, the tables soon turned, and Nike stocks rose rapidly.
Although these two previous examples seem to have ended up like a “happy ever after” for the initially cancelled group, this is not always the case. The protesters against Nike had every right to voice their disapproval with Nike’s deal as consumers. The leadership in the company Juli Briskman formerly worked for also saw it in their best interest to disassociate themselves from an individual whose actions (they thought) could hurt the company’s image. Even educational institutions are known to act in such a manner towards controversial individuals. The liberty to decide not to associate with an individual or consume from a particular company due to political preference reflects the interplay between cancel culture and the market.
States must first protect themselves before functioning as a state. Hence, treason or propagating ideas capable of inciting revolt against the ruling authority is a key concern for the state. Similarly, individuals and social justice warriors would attempt to cancel an individual (or company) when they sense that their actions contradict the moral principles advocated by the social group or held personally by the individual. While these are social issues, they become merged with economics at the political level through sanctions and with finances at the business level. Thus, cancel culture may transcend the commonly held view of mere tensions in moral differences.