“Cancel culture” has always existed — for the powerful, at least. Now, social media has democratized it..
By Ta-Nehisi Coates (NYTimes.com)
Mr. Coates is the author of “Between the World and Me.”
- Nov. 22, 20199
We are being told of the evils of “cancel culture,” a new scourge that enforces purity, banishes dissent and squelches sober and reasoned debate. But cancel culture is not new. A brief accounting of the illustrious and venerable ranks of blocked and dragged Americans encompasses Sarah Good, Elijah Lovejoy, Ida B. Wells, Dalton Trumbo, Paul Robeson and the Dixie Chicks. What was the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction, but the cancellation of the black South? What were the detention camps during World War II but the racist muting of Japanese-Americans and their basic rights?
Thus any sober assessment of this history must conclude that the present objections to cancel culture are not so much concerned with the weapon, as the kind of people who now seek to wield it.
Until recently, cancellation flowed exclusively downward, from the powerful to the powerless. But now, in this era of fallen gatekeepers, where anyone with a Twitter handle or Facebook account can be a publisher, banishment has been ostensibly democratized. This development has occasioned much consternation. Scarcely a day goes by without America’s college students being reproached for rejecting poorly rendered sushi or spurning the defenders of statutory rape.
Speaking as one who has felt the hot wrath of Twitter, I am not without sympathy for the morally panicked who fear that the kids are not all right. But it is good to remember that while every generation believes that it invented sex, every preceding generation forgets that it once believed the same thing.
Besides, all cancellations are not created equal. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Brett Kavanaugh at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings of sexual assault, was inundated with death threats, forced from her home and driven into hiding. Dave Chappelle, accused of transphobia, collected millions from Netflix for a series of stand-up specials and got his feelings hurt.
It would be nice to live in a more forgiving world, one where dissenting from groupthink does not invite exile and people’s occasional lapses are not held up as evidence of who they are. But if we are to construct such a world, we would do well to leave the slight acts of cancellation effected in the quad and cafe, and proceed to more illustrious offices.
The N.F.L. is revered in this country as a paragon of patriotism and chivalry, a sacred trust controlled by some of the wealthiest men and women in America. For the past three years, this sacred trust has executed, with brutal efficiency, the cancellation of Colin Kaepernick. This is curious given the N.F.L.’s moral libertinism; the league has, at various points, been a home for domestic abusers, child abusers and open racists.
And yet it seems Mr. Kaepernick’s sin — refusing to stand for the national anthem — offends the N.F.L.’s suddenly delicate sensibilities. And while the influence of hashtags should not be underestimated, the N.F.L. has a different power at its fingertips: the power of monopoly. Effectively, Mr. Kaepernick’s cancellation bars him from making a living at a skill he has been honing since childhood.
It is true that he has found gainful employment with Nike. But only so much solace can be taken in this given that Mr. Kaepernick’s opponents occupy not just board rooms and owner’s boxes, but the White House. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to, to say, ‘Get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now,’” President Trump said in 2017. The N.F.L. has since dutifully obeyed.
Perhaps it is shocking for some to see the president of the United States endorse the cancellation of a pro football player, like he endorsed the cancellation of Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up”), and of Ilhan Omar (“Send her back”). But it is precisely this kind of capricious and biased use of institutional power that has birthed the cancel culture practiced by campus protesters and online. But whereas the wrongdoing of elite institutions was once hidden from public view, in the era of Donald Trump it is all there to be seen.
A sobering process that began with the broadcast beatings of civil rights marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, then accelerated with the recorded police brutality against Rodney King, has achieved its zenith with the social media sharing of the executions of Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald and Daniel Shaver.
Mr. Trump’s boasting of sexual assault proved no barrier to the White House. Roger Ailes’s career as a media exec was but a cover for his true calling, sexual coercion. Bill Cosby, once exalted as America’s dad, was unmasked as a mass rapist.
The new cancel culture is the product of a generation born into a world without obscuring myth, where the great abuses, once only hinted at, suspected or uttered on street corners, are now tweeted out in full color. Nothing is sacred anymore, and, more important, nothing is legitimate — least of all those institutions charged with dispensing justice. And so, justice is seized by the crowd.
This is suboptimal. The choice now would seem to be between building egalitarian institutions capable of withstanding public scrutiny, or further retreat into a dissembling fog. The N.F.L. has chosen the latter option. First there was the notion that Mr. Kaepernick was not good enough to play in the league. When this fiction collapsed under the weight of injury and journeymen pulled off the streets, the N.F.L. conjured up a distraction. Whatever one thinks of Jay-Z’s partnership with the league, what it achieved was the replacement of the name of the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, by Jay-Z’s headlines.
And then last week there was the rushed “tryout,” the details of which are still murky. But what followed was a debate over Mr. Kaepernick’s comportment, attire and what he had to say. The debate helped obscure this central fact — a multibillion-dollar monopoly is, at this very hour, denying a worker the right to ply his trade and lying about doing so.
It has been said that Colin Kaepernick missed an opportunity, that no matter how crooked the bargain, if he were truly serious about getting a job, he would have acceded to the N.F.L.’s demands. But Mr. Kaepernick is not fighting for a job. He is fighting against cancellation. And his struggle is not merely his own — it is the struggle of Major Taylor, Jack Johnson, Craig Hodges and Muhammad Ali.
This isn’t a fight for employment at any cost. It is a fight for a world where we are not shot, or shunned, because the masters of capital, or their agents, do not like our comportment, our attire or what we have to say.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of “Between the World and Me” and, most recently, “The Water Dancer.”