Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Cancel culture and free speech
Socrates was good at getting under people’s skin. The ’gadfly’ of Athens routinely challenged the status quo of Greek politics and religion. He had a nasty habit of accosting prominent citizens in the street to ask how wise they thought they were — an exercise from which they inevitably emerged looking more the fool. Tired of his iconoclasm, Greek society silenced Socrates with trumped-up charges and a glass of hemlock, in one of history’s first recorded cases of cancel culture.
A letter recently published in Harper’s Magazine, a who’s who of the literary and arts world, protested modern “censoriousness” and “intolerance of opposing views.” It’s the latest shot in the war over so-called cancel culture — the public shaming and deplatforming of public figures who cross lines of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transmisia and ableism. Jimmy Kimmel was savaged for past blackface routines. Author J.K. Rowling, a signatory to the Harper’s letter, has watched a significant chunk of her fan base revolt as her hate for transgender folks devolved from “likes” to coded dog whistles to scientifically illiterate rants. They’re just a couple of 2020’s supposed victims of this new cancel culture trend.
Except it’s not new. Cancel culture is a tale as old as time. For as long as humans have had society, we’ve cancelled those who violated its unwritten rules and mores. The only difference today is who’s getting cancelled, and whose finger is on the button.
Jesus was cancelled for challenging the religious and social order of his time. Galileo was cancelled by a disapproving Catholic Church. McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities, and their Hollywood blacklist, were peak cancel culture. Many great minds like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were cancelled just for being gay. When efforts to politically cancel Martin Luther King Jr. failed, he was murdered. Muhammad Ali was cancelled for opposing the Vietnam War. Sinead O’Connor was sent to the penalty box for ripping up a picture of the Pope, while the Dixie Chicks (now just The Chicks) were cancelled for criticizing George W. Bush and his war in Iraq.
Over the millennia we’ve cancelled a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. The common element is that they were all individuals who, in one way or another, challenged the status quo. More importantly, they challenged the privileged and the powerful who benefit from the social structures, philosophies and moralities of the status quo. Cancellation — via ostracism, economic deprivation, imprisonment or death — is a weapon of exclusion used by the privileged to ensure they stay at the top of the heap.
At least until now.
The truth about today’s cancel culture is that it’s a rebellion. And in the way of all rebellions throughout history, the oppressed seize the weapon of the oppressor and turn it back against them. Black and Indigenous peoples, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and their allies have their hand on the cancel button now. They’re pressing it with extreme prejudice against all those who employ the slurs, humourless jokes, microaggressions and junk science that have long been used to keep the marginalized out of the privileged world. The weapon of exclusion becomes a weapon against excluders, a weapon for inclusion.
No one’s free speech has been stolen. It’s just been extended to those from whom it has long been denied, and they’re refusing to let anyone cancel them ever again.
Cancel culture is a tale as old as time, but the times they are a-changin’.
Kieran Green is a writer and communications professional for non-profit organizations, and a former director of communications for the Green Party of Canada.