Will The Real Cancel Culture Please Stand Up?

Fake definitions of "cancel culture" are a waste of everyone's time.

It’s often been said that Trump’s greatest skill in his unlikely rise to power was his ability to co-opt phrases, slogans, and attack lines that were initially used against him by redefining them and turning them into attacks against his own political enemies. The best example of that might be “fake news,” a term initially coined by liberals in the media to describe fake news websites and then popularized by Hillary Clinton as one explanation for her loss in 2016. But the term was rapidly appropriated by Trump soon after he took office as a way to bash the mainstream media for its outwardly hostile and partisan attitude towards him, and that’s still how most people understand the term to this day.

Consciously or unconsciously, liberal media professionals and activists seem to be engaged in something similar at the moment when it comes to the topic of cancel culture, a peculiar debate that seems to allow its participants to endlessly define the subject in whichever way they choose. And the result is that the debate ends up serving mostly as an ideological Rorschach test rather than a meaningful or productive exchange. The latest entry is a New York Times opinion essay by Sasha Issenberg that defends the utility and value of cancel culture by pointing to its role in the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. What Issenberg is referring to here is how gay rights activists engaged in the naming and shaming of the deep-pocketed donors to anti-legalization campaigns, targeting their investments and corporate business interests and turning anti-legalization activism into a socially and financially perilous activity.

The truth is that there is nothing substantively wrong with Issenberg’s essay. It describes an interesting part of gay rights history, and delves into the use of a common (if perhaps controversial) political tactic, one that justifies itself on the principle of transparency and accountability in how political campaigns and activities are funded in the U.S.

The problem, however, is that this has absolutely nothing to do with cancel culture.

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