Conjuring and Cancelling with Cancel Culture

By Maeve Maddox

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Like the term political correctness, cancel culture has become an incantation to conjure with.

conjure: To invoke by supernatural power, to effect by magic or jugglery. From Latin conjurare: to swear together, to band, combine, or make a compact by oath, to conspire.

Before cancel culture, there was cancelling, in the sense of rejecting or getting rid of something or someone, the way an unpopular or unprofitable television series is cancelled from the airways.

Around 2016, the phrase cancel culture made its appearance. In 2021, the OED added it to the entries for cancel:

cancel culture: n. the action or practice of publicly boycotting, ostracizing, or withdrawing support from a person, institution, etc., thought to be promoting culturally unacceptable ideas.

Merriam-Webster has also added a definition for cancel culture:

cancel culture: the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.

The term cancel culture may be new, but social disapproval directed at offending members of the community is not. Plenty of words for condemnatory behavior existed before its coinage:

shut out

The new wrinkle is that now, social condemnation takes place instantly, on internet platforms that spread contempt quicker than Puck can girdle the earth.

The phrase would be useful—if everyone who uses it could agree on what it means.

Theoretically, “cancel culture” would describe an outpouring of scorn and condemnation on a person who has habitually misused power and privilege or has promoted harmful behavior in others. The purpose of this public disapprobation would be to remove the targeted person from further opportunities to harm the community. It would target only behavior that any reasonable person would agree is vicious and harmful to the common good.

In practice, cancel culture does target such vices, but it is also employed against people and organizations for their personal opinions, word choice, ancient errors of judgment, and unproven crimes. The purpose of many of these attacks seems not so much to protect the public as to humiliate, punish, and deprive the targeted person of income.

Apart from describing the act itself, the term “cancel culture” has become a knee-jerk response to any sort of criticism directed at personal or corporate behavior.

Robert Gehrke of The Salt Lake Tribune observes,

Blaming “cancel culture” has become the excuse du jour, a “get-out-of-accountability-free” card.

The term also functions as a verbal grenade to be hurled against government or corporate policy that addresses issues of changing perceptions of race and gender.

When the publishers of the Dr. Seuss books made the business decision to let six of the books go out of print, an outcry arose that the decision had been prompted by “the Left” to “destroy” the Seuss canon.

The Seuss organization did say the books would no longer be published because of stereotypical racial illustrations, but the books in question were not big earners. The only one I’d ever heard of, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, sold about 5,000 copies in 2020. According to BookScan tracking, the other five books hadn’t sold in years. Green Eggs and Ham, on the other hand, sold 338,000 copies in 2020. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! sold more than 513,000 copies.

A changing perception of race may have influenced the Seuss withdrawal, but financial considerations surely made it an easy decision. As for having been “cancelled,” the Seuss empire continues to thrive.

Social shunning has been with us since human beings first lived in communities. It has survival value. The cult of individuality-at-all-costs flourishes in Facebook memes, but in the world of flesh and blood communities, members must agree as to what kind of behavior is socially intolerable. The survival of the community depends upon it.

I’ll give Robin Bates (Better Living Through Beowulf) the last word.

Shame is a kind of violence, employed to enforce community norms—which is good if those norms are healthy, bad when used for unjustifiable oppression.

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3 Responses to “Conjuring and Cancelling with Cancel Culture”

  • Barbara Youree

    This was so very informative. I hear the term and had a general idea, but this certainly made it clearer. Now, I’m “in the know.”

  • Gloria Tran

    Excellent exploration of the concept and practice of “cancel culture.”

  • Gina Hoffman

    About 20 minutes ago I read an article saying that the New Zealand Book Festival had removed the Harry Potter quizzes from the schedule because of ‘canceled’ Rowling.
    Well, now I know more exactly what a cancel culture is. Although to tell you the truth, I personally don’t support such a thing.

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