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January 27, 2022

Does Cancel Culture Even Exist?

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As our generation grows ever more cognizant of progressive ideals and slights against marginalized groups, a controversial buzzword emerges: “cancel culture.” Some use it to demonize progressive, social media mobs, countering criticism of less-than-tolerant celebrities and critiquing corporate endeavors for inclusivity. Others argue that the grassroots nature of cancel culture limits its power significantly, or strongly believe that it doesn’t exist.

Either way, we cannot deny the recent phenomenon of stratified social media buzz around companies’ and celebrities’ missteps of progressivism. 

We can look to the recent example of Dave Chappelle, a comedian notorious for his mordant social criticisms. Polemic topics and uncomfortable truths are inherent to his field of work, so many audiences are accustomed to the barrage of allegations wielded against Chapelle and similar comedians. Nevertheless, Chappelle was lambasted online by members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community over demeaning comments toward transgender community in his Netflix special The Closer, which debuted Oct. 5, 2021. 

The special features a diatribe that mocks the appearance and identities of transgender individuals, dismisses the notion of gender fluidity and reinforces J.K. Rowling’s transphobia, with Chappelle unabashedly declaring himself as part of “team TERF.” He further treats Black and LGBTQ+ issues as mutually exclusive, championing the rights of the former at the expense of the latter, when the reality is that both communities are intertwined and should strive for collective advancement. 

Offensive comedy has always been a nuanced and highly contested issue, with many asserting that the genre’s purpose is freedom of expression, dismissing all critiques of the purveyor under the justification of humor. Freedom of speech in the U.S. is indeed sacrosanct, and it should remain as such — up to a point. Comedy departs the realm of waggish witticisms and salient sociopolitical commentary when it deliberately targets a specific, marginalized group with the intention of perpetuating intolerance. 

Conservative objectors may regard this conclusion as hypocritical, because individuals in positions of social privilege are subjected to much scrutiny in the realm of modern comedy. However, those groups tend to be mocked by marginalized comedians beneath their lofty positions, rendering them less susceptible to systemic prejudice. 

Furthermore, alt-right comedians are frequently guilty of overstepping true comedy and veering instead into bigotry, weaponizing their platforms specifically to take jabs at women, BIPOC, liberals and leftists while pandering to an audience for whom such vitriolic “jests” are cathartic. Essentially, this is predicated on the desire to “own the libs.” When comedy tailspins into insidious rhetoric against vulnerable populations, it breaches a threshold that releases the floodgates for unadulterated bigotry and real-life harm.

Chappelle’s special faced much public outrage, prompting an employee walkout Oct. 20th.   Participants issued an ultimatum to Netflix, urging the media platform to bolster trans and LGBTQ+ content and rights, which has not yielded any substantive results. In fact, multiple Netflix employees who have condemned Chappelle’s comments have been censored, suspended or fired

News recently broke that the comedian himself is slated to headline the Netflix Is a Joke Festival in spring 2022, which features over a hundred creators, not to mention his escalating net worth of $50 million. Chappelle and right-wing pundits alike decry the ostensible demonstration of “cancel culture” against him, yet it remains to be seen how the unapologetic comedian has been “cancelled.” 

During a recent visit to his former high school, he rebutted vehement criticisms from the students. He stated, “I’m better than every instrumentalist, artist, no matter what art you do in this school, right now, I’m better than all of you. I’m sure that will change. I’m sure you’ll be household names soon.”

With widespread denunciation of cancel culture, it’s clear that this neologism is more a fearmongering buzzword to belittle a progressive generation than a real social threat. Many claim their own “cancellation” in order to exonerate themselves from accountability, despite facing no consequences outside of Twitter hate. 

I’m not calling for Chappelle to be stripped of his status and ostracized from comedy. However, he clearly has the aegis of large corporations, and they clearly do not apply the same freedom of expression to Chappelle’s critics. This controversy indicts Netflix, and it represents a disturbing trend among other monolithic companies such as Twitter and Facebook, who censor and dismiss employees and users whom they see as an affront to their interests.

Furthermore, it is quite ironic that the right-wing has flocked to Chappelle’s aid, considering that most members would disapprove of his political views. Personally, it seems that they have backed him because his situation suits their narrative that “woke” progressives shout down the right to disastrous, and violent, effect. From Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head to Christmas, they wail from the roof-tops that liberals and leftists are tarnishing all that we hold dear.  

Despite the insincerity of cancel culture, certain organizations and corporations are in fact guilty of unjust censorship. In fact, censorship has historically been levied against left-wing groups who threaten the status quo. Between ousting democratically elected leftists in Latin America and instating American-backed fascist dictators that expunged dissidents, Palmer Raids and the Red Scare vilifying socialists, communists and all their compatriots, attempted extinguishment and more…(deep breath)…time and time again, we see that the real “Cancel Culture” is predominantly levied against the left, to the dismay of the grifters who claim otherwise. Jumping to conclusions on social media without sufficient context is unadvisable, but the supposed phenomenon of cancel culture is overinflated by those who seek to shirk accountability. 

Isabella DiLizia is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]