In short, it’s a nonsense term deployed by bad-faith actors who cannot stand the idea of consequences yet who, when confronted with their ideological opponents, deploy the same tactics they pretend to be opposed to in order to shut down opposition.
In his landmark 2018 study, ‘How Fascism Works’, American philosopher and professor Jason Stanley describes how in its nascent stages fascism seeks to hollow out the substance from public discourse in order to facilitate its own rise. He writes:
In a healthy liberal democracy, a public language with a rich and varied vocabulary to make distinctions is a vital democratic institution. Without it, healthy public discourse is impossible. Fascist politics seeks to degrade and debase the language of politics; fascist politics thereby seeks to mask reality.
The goal of fascist propaganda is not merely to mock and sneer at robust and complex public debate about policy; it is to eliminate its possibility.
Terms like ‘cancel culture’ are a part of that arsenal. We are living through the late incipient stages of fascism, so it is everywhere. That hypocrisy, evident in figures from the right decrying ‘cancel culture’ while also using all of the establishment power at their disposal to cancel anyone who opposes their worldview, is also ubiquitous. Not only does it suit the fascist’s ends to shut down opposition, so too is it part of their tactics, as Stanley says, to degrade language itself and eradicate the possibility of reasoned debate.
The right will crow about ‘cancel culture’ when a celebrity with a violent or racist past is even threatened with some consequences. In the same breath, the right will enact a targeted campaign against a journalist in order to get her fired from her job for once expressing solidarity with the people of Palestine in the face of a brutal seven-decade occupation.
If that sounds very specific that’s because that’s exactly what just happened to Emily Wilder, erstwhile reporter for the Associated Press.
Associated Press staff received a memo this morning that @vv1lder is no longer with the company, after conservatives rallied to get her fired because she was part of Students for Justice in Palestine in college https://t.co/vgYdZOcRKo pic.twitter.com/zcmmXn4fk0— suhauna hussain (@suhaunah) May 20, 2021
As Eric Ting reports in a piece in SFGATE:
Emily Wilder, a journalist and 2020 graduate of Stanford University, started a new job as an Associated Press news associate based in Maricopa County, Arizona, on May 3.
Two weeks later, she was unceremoniously fired by the news outlet after conservatives resurfaced old social media posts that drew attention from Republicans as prominent as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. In Wilder’s eyes, her firing is the latest example of right-wing cancel culture.
“There’s no question I was just canceled,” Wilder told SFGATE by phone Thursday afternoon. “This is exactly the issue with the rhetoric around ‘cancel culture.’ To Republicans, cancel culture is usually seen as teens or young people online advocating that people be held accountable over accusations of racism or whatever it may be, but when it comes down to who actually has to deal with the lifelong ramifications of the selective enforcement of cancel culture — specifically over the issue of Israel and Palestine — it’s always the same side.”
Essentially, Stanford College Republicans dug up some old social media posts in which Wilder dared to express some criticism of Israel, compiled it into a Twitter thread, and thus initiated a media storm that led to her sacking. This despite AP’s initial assurances that her job would be safe. As per the SFGATE article:
“The editor said I was not going to get in any trouble because everyone had opinions in college,” Wilder said. “Then came the rest of the week.”
As bigger outlets like The Federalist and Fox picked up the story, the pressure proved too much for AP and they caved.
“They told me that I violated their social media policy and would be terminated immediately, but they never said which tweet or post violated the policy,” she said. “I asked them, ‘Please tell me what violated the policy,’ and they said, ‘No.’”
Twitter naturally had some thoughts on the matter:
Kinda on brand, though— Busto Mundo (@BustoMundo) May 20, 2021
This after @AP offices in Gaza were levelled. Absolutely spineless— curiouscat (@curious_cat20) May 20, 2021
the fact that they did this after their entire office was bombed. stunned.— Danny Page (@DannyPage) May 20, 2021
same vibes as UPS apologizing to and thanking the police after the police straight up murdered one of their drivers…— will 🌹🏳️🌈🍷 (@31WA) May 20, 2021
Bio: "Talk to me"— Paul Michael Anderson (@P_M_Anderson) May 20, 2021
Profile: "These tweets are protected."
If this is a political move, it has a massively chilling effect on all kinds of student reporters. @AP signaling that it won't tolerate pro-Palestinian voices is not a reassuring sign for its own credibility as a news organization either.— Sumita Pahwa (@SumitaPahwa) May 20, 2021
This is nothing new Pro Palestinian folks get canceled all the time. Shame on @AP.— Arabs For Bernie (@ArabsForBernie) May 20, 2021
Wait, people are being held responsible for their activities in college now?https://t.co/1VTw0Wj621— Fenton O’mama (@oldmantea) May 20, 2021
I guess that CNN will be firing Wolf Blitzer now, since he used to work for AIPAC.— fabucat ⚾️ (@fabucat) May 20, 2021
not that it should matter but it just magnifies the absurdity of this that she was reporting *local arizona news* and graduated from college in 2020, this isn't exactly the beirut bureau chief sounding off after getting loose with a militia chief https://t.co/wkj2vHulRu— Matthew Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) May 21, 2021
Mentioned there is the key axis along which real ‘cancel culture’ operates: Power. It has long been the case that any criticism of Israel, no matter how mild or governed by reason or aligned with United Nations resolutions, is a fast track to career suicide. Israel is a cornerstone of the US (and Britain’s) imperialist geopolitical strategy. It is understood that this consensus is unimpeachable; that ‘we’, and our allies, are, by definition, the ‘good guys’, and that therefore any criticism of ‘our’ actions abroad is beyond the pale. This can be gleaned almost immediately by a quick glance across the spectrum of mainstream media both in the UK and the US. In a healthy democracy with a functioning press, you would find studious, constant scrutiny of the many acts of aggression that our governments commit in our name. In reality, the corporate press mostly functions as a glorified stenographer, repeating Ministry of Defence and Department of Defense talking points verbatim without any critical thought or commentary applied. Israel and its ongoing human rights violations are done with our support and in furtherance of our geopolitical aims. They are thus immune from consequence.
Despite what the outriders of fascism would have us believe, ‘cancel culture’ is not when a wealthy white comedian gets heckled for telling racist or transphobic ‘jokes’. Real cancel culture is when the powers that be and the structures that support them go after any challenge to the status quo. It is not the powerless aiming to redress historic injustices, it is the powerful aiming to entrench them. Real cancel culture is when a politician with one of the most impressive records of anti-imperialism and anti-racism in the UK gets subjected to the most vicious and effective propaganda campaign in modern history, all because he dared challenge that country’s imperial consensus. Real cancel culture is when Bella Hadid is hounded on social media for daring to express solidarity with a people experiencing a slow genocide. Real cancel culture is when the Associated Press fires a young reporter for having once dared to criticize a state carrying out that genocide.
Header Image Source: Getty Images/Said KHATIB