Another one bites the dust. It feels like, every day, one celebrity or another has said or done something that did not sit right with their audience, and their following deliberates over the decision to cancel subscriptions lent towards their former idol. The sin is not exclusive to famous individuals: corporations like Chick-fil-A have come under fire for their political ties to anti-LGBT groups. A number of ordinary citizens have also faced immense social repercussions from their peers and coworkers after publishing controversial views of politics on social media or others have documented occurrences of them using slurs.
Except for a few stray Democrats like Bill Maher, right-wing pundits and politicians comprise the growing collective that views such unified social pressure as a symptom of a failing democracy. “Cancel culture” has received widespread condemnation by many because of how the public has a tendency to sensationalize very small verbal mistakes that rarely demonstrate any ill intent. Most recently, for example, a college Chinese language professor was the target of immense backlash after teaching an expression that sounded phonetically similar to a vulgar slur against African Americans. The University of South Carolina professor lost his teaching position after explaining how a very common Chinese word, nei ge, served as a filler when the speaker did not know what to say. The black MBA students declared that the words inflicted serious emotional damage due to their phonetic similarity to a slur, but Chinese Americans widely criticized the episode. To many Chinese speakers, the superimposition of English language norms on a distinct language took the practice of cancelling too far. After all, the teacher was teaching basic Chinese language comprehension skills, and a teacher should not be fired for simply teaching the course he is paid to teach.
The irony of these types of social issues is the way that the two political camps end up drawing themselves. The economic right-wing that upholds the free market cannot stand people exercising choice when a business’s conduct goes against their personal morals. Meanwhile, the left-wing groups that usually criticize free-market structures for working against social justice are reaping the benefits of choice. Giving people choice in the free-market allows them to freely express themselves: after all, money is a form of speech. Democracy rests on the understanding that a universal system of morals either does not exist or cannot be universally applied without coercion, so political groups must contest each other to persuade others that this conception of morality is just. Sometimes, rational appeals to the intellect of groups or individuals is not effective. Massive corporations such as Chick-fil-A cannot exactly be debated in a neutral environment, and even then, their viewpoints are informed by uncompromising moral pillars of religion. Chick-fil-A is a Christian-owned business with strong values of moral virtue that cannot be easily alienated. The origins of a value structure may be arbitrary, but they are valid nevertheless; we may disagree with them vigorously, but their freedom of conscience is just as important as ours.
However, disagreement does not have to resolve flatly with no way given to either side. Value, in a capitalist society, is determined by how much other people in society want a commodity. In the case of businesses getting cancelled, buying commodities from the business without adequate scruples is of significant cost to the buyer. Buyers who want products from Chick-fil-A must pay an additional “moral tax” in the currency of conscience. Thus, if a business wants to advertise to the most groups of people, then it ought to demonstrate good moral character as defined by a majority of people.
The balance between moral justice and economic value has always existed and it shall always serve as a litmus test for social attitudes. The fact that the free market allows for such social-moral testing is remarkable and pregnant with democratic capacity. Businesses can determine what is morally permissible under current social conditions and change their practices to maximize demand. Liberals may like to complain about how corporations always chase the ever-expanding profit-margin, but this is our time to take advantage of capitalist greed! It is a beautiful force when leveraged for the common good. Self-interest will drive corporations to police themselves and project morality in ways that other businesses will replicate for similarly effective business models. Individuals will replicate, out of forced association, with these more inclusive businesses. Take for example Joe, a century-old man who holds onto outdated homophobia like it’s his last breath of air. If Joe realizes that his favorite restaurant, Chick-fil-A, changed its view on homophobia due to social pressures, then he may realize that his own attitudes are not socially relevant anymore. In an effort to seek social validation, he may change his own perspectives.
Celebrities who profit off of their public image are similar to businesses in many ways. Their image and character is part of their commercial worth, and that is the nature of the business they chose. If you are a prominent hip-hop artist with a strong, liberal following like Doja Cat, then it probably is not wise to voice controversial opinions considering the scrutiny you are under. On the other hand, there is a significant difference to be noted between the two cases. The high degree of celebrity surveillance that goes on is toxic to the security of these individuals and their feelings of privacy. You can say that you refuse to listen to the highly addictive song, “Say So,” because Doja Cat is racist, but you must also acknowledge that her fault is being held as her most prominent feature.
Corporations do not have the same humanity of privacy to justify any restraint from cancel culture, but we do owe a certain degree of dignity to celebrities with their glaring flaws. Would you want people to shun you for your worst character flaw, exposed during a momentary lapse in judgement? The oppressive eye that subjugates celebrities is taxing because it forces them to uphold a façade without flaws every second of the day. Now, if a celebrity or public figure is unashamed of their character flaw, or they defend it based on fundamentally flawed morality, then I argue the mass has full authority to boycott whatever they would like to. However, the slip of tongue should never be punished with knee-jerk backlash, and the laziness of an individual to deal with an unequal and discriminatory standard is forgivable by a reasonable standard of human dignity.
We owe to all people a basic level of respect for their membership of the human race. The last group of people which have a tendency to get cancelled is the most unfortunate. The ordinary individual. The general public has no vested interest in the social ostracization of a random person on the internet, but social media has made these public executions of social lives relatively commonplace. All it takes is one gauche statement on politics or social issues and the world comes crashing down on your head. One high school in Virginia has seen the rise of political Instagram accounts with the express purpose of identifying Trump supporters who would prefer not to have their political affiliation dominate their personality. I am usually the first person in line to criticize Trump and his supporters, but taking people’s private political affiliations and moral beliefs out into the open is dangerous, especially for conservatives.
Common liberal arguments hold that “human rights are not a political issue” and “racism is not a political issue,” but the vast majority of conservatives are not “against” human rights or “for” racism and misogyny. They have different conceptions of what it means to have a fair and just society. They may feel that police officers in underserved areas help establish order and protect individuals. They may think that stronger trade relationships will promote more jobs that uplift the middle class American. They may fear the economic fallout from a spiraling debt crisis which would expand under Medicare for All or universal healthcare plans. They may even know something that we do not. After all, assuming that we, liberals, have the moral high ground just because we think we are inherently smarter than them is arrogance at its finest. Individuals deserve the chance to defend their ideas or hold them privately, but social media accounts that wrench these identities from their sovereign owners remove this autonomy. If someone volunteers their personal opinions to the public forum, then they deserve by all means to be criticized on the merit of their ideas. However, cancelling the individual does little good when the individual is not a commodity, corporation, or a celebrity. There is no agenda for the public forum when it ostracizes an individual except for socially condoned bullying and power.
We must constantly monitor our actions and the actions of others in evaluating our democracy’s health. Cancellation is a feature of polarized politics. If rationalism and social persuasion have failed us to the extent that cancellation is the weapon of choice for the liberal masses, then it means we are divided as ever, and our ability to relate to each other is so meager that basic discussion can never reveal fruitful aims. It stems from an equally dangerous moral basis of society that is characteristic of the liberal tradition. Our moral languages are so different that we cannot help but arrive at an emotivist impasse that fails to reconcile competing viewpoints. The benefits of collective social movement toward moral policing are only in redefining the moral virtue of our populations, but they are separate from their symptomatic significance of modern democratic decay and the refutation of compromise.
Varun Mandgi is a critical writer and columnist for the Incandescent Review. He is a high school senior from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, VA who specializes in philosophy and political theory. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this piece with inquiries or recommendations.
Isabelle Lu is a 16-year-old creative from Long Island, New York. She is a winner of the New York Times Student Editorial Contest and the Scribe Writing Contest in poetry. She likes collecting strange earrings, which when worn may hinder activities like playing the cello and putting on sweaters. In her daily life, she can be found doodling and enthusing about books to unsuspecting innocents. Her art career began with magical girls.