“Cancel culture” is a scare-phrase that conjures up an image of an angry mob demanding that someone be fired, kicked out of polite society or have their entire work blacklisted for any deviation from a particular social and political opinion. Some political commentators spend their days decrying this as some new, terrifying phenomenon.
But cancel culture is not a new thing at all. It’s been part of the American social and political landscape for decades! People have mobilized others to call for boycotts and cancellations over religious, moral and political issues.
As a millennial, I still recall the outrage over the Dixie Chicks criticizing President George W. Bush in 2003 over military action in Iraq. They found themselves the subject of boycotts and blacklists for their words. But we don’t need to stop there.
In 1977, a group calling itself the National Federation for Decency launched a boycott campaign against a major retailer in the United States for advertising on three television shows that the group found objectionable: “All in the Family,” “Three’s Company” and “Charlie’s Angels.” The retailer pulled its ads from two of the three shows, bowing to the pressure.
The Moral Majority founded a similar group in 1981, the Coalition for Better Television, and announced that it would be targeting any shows and their advertisers if the shows featured something the group found objectionable, such as abortion or homosexuality — or anything else that did not emphasize the group’s particular understanding of Christian values.
In 1950, a political journal published a list of names of celebrities, actors and writers who were deemed to be Communist sympathizers, often because they made pointed critiques of American culture, especially around workers’ rights and race, or because they were seen as a bit too friendly toward one of America’s allies in World War II. This “Red Channels” list led to boycotts and the expansion of the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
Some of the names on that list were legendary actor, writer and director Orson Welles, writer Langston Hughes, playwright Arthur Miller (of “Death of a Salesman” fame) and Burl Ives — yes, the singer of “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It was a later blacklist that added noted comedian/actor Charlie Chaplin. Many of the names on the blacklists could not get work or even be credited for their work until decades later.
Television programs, writers, actors, celebrities and public figures have all been subjected to cancel culture for a long, long time. Speaking of the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s, there didn’t even have to be real evidence of having done the things of which they were accused; the mere rumor was sufficient in the court of public opinion to have them deprived of their livelihood “for the sake of the American way of life.”
So why is there so much handwringing now?
Is it because technology has made it so easy to share what someone has actually said with a direct reference to their tweet, article or speech, whether it was from last week or decades ago? Are people worried they’ll have to acknowledge what they said?
Is it because cultural opinions have shifted? We’ve gone a long way from “family values” being shorthand for a marriage between a man who works and a wife who stays at home with the children, and a rejection of any other manner of life, to a bigger vision of family values that includes same-sex couples and an acknowledgment of the diversity of humanity.
Is it because the groups that called for boycotts and blacklists in previous generations find it objectionable that someone would treat them the same way they treated others?
There are times and places for boycotts and social campaigns to address an issue. In any democratic country, there are going to be differences of opinion about what moral, social and political issues should be emphasized. There are companies I will not buy from because I find their labor and environmental practices unconscionable, and I will encourage others to do the same — these are deep moral and spiritual values.
Yet we should not tolerate hypocritical hyperbole about some specter called “cancel culture” that vilifies one group for using the same techniques that some other group has long used. Hypocrisy is not a moral or spiritual value anyone should hold.
Hypocrisy, you’re canceled.
The Rev. Joseph Farnes serves as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Boise. The Idaho Statesman’s religion column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.