Don’t say “cancel culture” or “culture wars”

Posted on April 21, 2021

American conservatism has become little more than a communications engine, using bigotry as its hottest fuel. One common tactic for conservatives is to manipulate language to reframe bigotry as something else. That’s the case with their spin on “culture.”

You should already know a fundamental rule of persuasion: do not repeat the other side’s language, even to dispute it. (E.g., “I am not a crook” actually reinforces people’s perception that the speaker is a crook.)

Just as important, you should know to scold the media when, like Ezra Klein in the New York Times, they adopt the right wing’s framing.

There is no organized effort that can be defined as “cancel culture.” The phrase is a fairly recent invention, which is employed as both a smokescreen and a dog whistle. Let’s consider some incidents during the past few months:

* The heirs of Dr. Seuss decided to stop publishing six rather obscure titles because they use racist imagery. This was a business decision that not only opposed bigotry but also sought to protect the author’s future reputation. In comparison, the publishers of Dr. Doolittle edited out racist passages decades ago.

* The editor of Teen Vogue was fired for racist and homophobic tweets. The publication was taking a stand against bigotry.

* A reporter for the New York Times was disciplined for making racially offensive remarks to high school students while on a foreign trip. The paper was protecting itself.

* A star of The Mandalorian series was dropped after sharing a social media post implying that being a Republican today is like being Jewish during the Holocaust. (Is there really anyone who doesn’t understand why that’s abhorrent?)

* The brand “Mr. Potato Head” was rebranded “Potato Head.” It became more gender welcoming, and nothing was cancelled.

Do you notice a trend here? The phrase “cancel culture” is overwhelmingly used by right-wingers to condemn reactions against racism, sexism, antisemitism and other antisocial acts. Conservatives like to talk about “cancel culture” – Rep. Jim Jordan even called for House Judiciary Committee hearings on it – because it provides a cover for their own antisocial behavior. (Matt Gaetz is calling himself a victim of “cancel culture” because of the Justice Department’s investigation into his sex offenses!) At the same time, the right-wing media uses the phrase to generate anger within their base – it evokes strong emotions about white victimization, without any rational thought.

Don’t play the right wing’s game.

Do not use the phrase “cancel culture.” And do not argue that conservatives have a long history of attempting to “cancel” progressive ideas and leaders. Of course conservatives are hypocrites, but talking about that is a losing political tactic.

Instead, reject the framing and insist on talking about individual instances. Explain why “this is bigotry… this is antisemitism… this is sexism…” If you have to call it something, say it’s a commonsense business decision or a boycott of racism. For example:

America stands for equal opportunity for all. So, when Georgia Republicans made it harder for Black citizens to vote, it was unAmerican. This was so transparently obvious that hundreds of companies, including Amazon, Google, General Motors and Starbucks, spoke out against that kind of voter suppression. Major League Baseball stood up against racism in Georgia, but really, siding with players and fans was also a commonsense business decision.

Similarly, don’t say “culture war.” This phrase represents the same conservative strategy. If there’s a “war,” that’s linguistically a negative thing. So being against governments flying the Confederate flag or naming roads and schools for Confederate leaders is a war against their “heritage,” right-wingers insist.

Don’t fall for that trick. Do not let white conservatives present themselves, again and again, as victims. Challenge them to have the courage to deal with these topics one-by-one where progressives have the advantage.

And if you can, change the topic from these irrelevancies to the real issues facing America: fixing our economy, fighting COVID-19, building vital infrastructure, guaranteeing health insurance coverage for everyone, investing in a system of clean energy, making the rich pay their fair share in taxes, and so much more.