Background: I wrote this in response to an op-ed by a college sophomore, titled “Can we just cancel the ‘cancel culture?’, which ran in my hometown paper and which echoed the rightwing narrative that frames this ill-defined phenomenon as a leftwing threat. But as I write, in a way that mirrors her prose to highlight the contrast, the right’s idea of ‘cancel culture’ is a myth. And in fact the only dangerous examples of cancel culture – those that are actually conducted by powerful lawmakers – exist almost exclusively within the Republican Party.
Seven of the 10 House Republicans who voted to convict former president Donald Trump for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol were censured by their local parties for defending democracy.
And after a free and fair election in 2020 — one that turned up no evidence of widespread voter fraud — 147 Congressional Republicans signed onto a lawsuit to overturn the will of the people, an act that would feed the Big Lie that inspired the Capitol attack.
All of this during the last calendar year alone. Independent-minded Republicans, Goodyear, and Joe Biden voters are just some of the latest victims of America’s toxic “cancel culture.” The list goes on, and the most dangerous examples of this trend exist on the right, where those in power continue to try to dismantle voting rights and silence critics of their leader.
But if you’ve heard conservatives decry this threat — and surely you have, as hysteria over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head has fueled the right-wing grievance machine — they would insist that cancel culture is not only a defined movement but one that’s displayed in ways that are unique to the left. It is neither.
While there are certainly times when public criticism is excessive or unfair, such reactions cut across the ideological spectrum. And in fact, they happen at higher levels on the right, since the purveyors are not students or protesters but part of an organized governing body with real power.
Which brings me to Ophelie Jacobson’s guest column in the Sarasota Herald Tribune this month, where she correctly called cancel culture “subjective” yet framed it as a leftwing scheme. Her proof of this conspiracy was predictable, the kind of isolated incidences ballooned on Fox News as a crisis of liberalism.
She started with a favorite. Noting the removal or vandalization of certain statues, she argued that “the left is coming after our country in an attempt to erase any evidence of history that doesn’t align with the current status quo.”
Not only are her examples of this threat cherry-picked — a tactic used to make a sweeping generalization of the left — they’re also irrelevant to her larger point. The idea that removing statues shows “an attempt to erase” evidence of history is not logically sound.
Statues are not built to preserve history. We preserve history in print, film and museums, all of which provide countless ways to teach about our past. Statues convey honor.
It’s also misguided to cast blanket condemnation over the removal of statues. The act does not reflect a slippery slope, as the cancel-culture warriors often claim. Each case is different.
Take Jacobson’s first example of cancel culture: the removal of the Francis Eppes VII statue at Florida State University. Eppes VII was a slave owner, a supporter of the Confederacy. After facing pressure from students, FSU President John Thrasher, the former Republican state senator and chair of the Florida Republican Party, accepted the recommendation of his appointed Task Force on Anti-Racism, Equity & Inclusion to remove the bust.
Thrasher wrote in a letter that “Eppes was a slave owner and a justice of the peace who oversaw the capture of escaped slaves, and as such he should not be honored on our campus with a building in his name.”
While I myself agree with his decision and believe these actions signal a promising change, I respect that others may disagree for their own reasons. But the notion that removing statues erases evidence of history — or that it’s carried out only by those on the left — is false. (It’s also worth noting that most of the 700 Confederate-related monuments were erected decades after the Civil War, a fact that undermines her charge that the left is intolerant “when it comes to history.”)
This represents a larger effort by conservatives to distort events and arguments to fit a narrative, all while ignoring the hypocrisy and discrepancy in the right’s own participation in this so-called “cancel culture.” They present their effort as a way to foster an environment for free-thinking, but dismissing criticism with catchall terms stifles meaningful dialogue.
Take it from Will Wilkinson, a New York Times columnist who was fired as VP of the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank, for an unfortunate tweet about Mike Pence. In a thoughtful piece, Wilkinson pushed back on suggestions that he was a victim of cancel culture, writing that “(s)logans like “cancel culture” or “political correctness” are used again and again to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position.” Pretty strong stuff from a source who has unique credibility on this topic.
Society can benefit from conversations about race and history, so long as they’re not trivialized and used as tools for division. To stop this toxic trend of oversimplifying discussions with meaningless buzzwords, conservatives must stop hypocritically crying out “cancel culture.”