Cancel culture vs boycotts

In November 2020, law student Elizabeth Rose penned an article on Medium called “In Defense of Cancel Culture” in which she compared cancel culture with boycotting.

Cancel culture is essentially a boycott. Its refusing to participate or support those that promote racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise ignorant behavior. Protest is at the heart of this country and it shouldn’t be limited in the name of making already powerful people feel safer to spew ideas that are not tolerable in today’s society.

Cancel culture and boycotts are two completely different things.

With a business, a boycott is publicly refusing to patron a business and trying to convince others to do the same. Related to it are the sit-ins, which is an attempt to block access to a business by occupying the business’s space without actually patroning them. Note this is not the same as people who visit a cafe and sit there merely to use their free WiFi without actually ordering anything.

The main problem with a boycott is that the business may not be substantially harmed by the boycott. The business may even prosper more from it. Look at the controversy behind Chick-Fil-A from 2012 as a ready example. They saw an increase in business when liberals (now largely called leftists) tried to get people to stop eating at Chick-Fil-A over the donation practices of the company’s non-profit organization. The company is still around, and there’s largely no indication they’ve changed course.

Which is why “cancel culture” is a thing. And why, to me at least, it’s no coincidence that what we have come to call “cancel culture” really took root in late 2012 into 2013, with one of the earliest examples of such being Justine Sacco. The passive act of doxxing giving way to the active pursuit of disrupting someone’s livelihood or getting a business shut down.

You see, the primary trouble with boycotts and doxxing is simply that nothing may come of it. An employer may not fire someone merely on the demand of an outrage mob. And a business may not only survive a boycott, but may actually do better because of it and thrive – e.g. again, Chick-Fil-A.

Cancel culture is about ensuring that doesn’t happen. It’s about ensuring the person or business, in essence, goes away.

And bringing in the government if necessary. Imagine instead of a government complaint the lesbian couple had instead merely tried to boycott Masterpiece Cakeshop. The bakery likely would’ve survived. That’s why they went through the government. They wanted that bakery gone.

To borrow another meme, cancel culture is the Karen. Whether they’re trying to get someone fired from their job or a business shut down.

An example I give that readily demonstrates this is Carson King. For those who don’t recall, he’s the guy who held up a sign during an Iowa/ISU game saying he needed beer money. And it turned into a large charity drive with Anheuser-Busch and other companies even getting involved – because a viral charity drive is good publicity when you commit to matching donations. Until a reporter for the Des Moines Register dredged through the guy’s tweets and found two from years past that were… problematic. Then Anheuser-Busch pulled the plug on any further donations, saying they’d fulfill what they’d already committed to, and other companies backed out.

What would’ve probably raised a lot of money for a good cause suddenly came to a crashing halt. It still did a lot of good in the short time it was going. But to end a charity drive over two old tweets is… despicable. But that’s also how “cancel culture” works. No good can overcome a perceived wrong. Inadvertently starting a million-dollar charity drive no longer matters once you’re painted as a racist.

ABC News has a good summary article on what happened: “Viral ‘beer money’ fundraiser erupts into racist tweets, a fired reporter and online drama

Some like to counter that “it’s not cancel culture, it’s accountability culture.” No it isn’t. Accountability implies a chance at redemption. And with “cancel culture”, there not only is not chance at redemption, but no interest in those doing the “canceling” at even giving you that opportunity.

So, no, “cancel culture” is not the modern boycott. They aren’t the same in the least because their ends aren’t the same. Boycotts are about getting a business to change course and fail if they don’t. Cancel culture is entirely about shutting down a business or getting a person fired, making the business owner or individual suffer a penalty far disproportionate to the perceived wrong they may have committed.

Again, cancel culture is not the modern boycott. Since a business may survive a boycott. And cancel culture is about ensuring that doesn’t happen.