Cancel culture refers to the practice of withdrawing support for individuals or organizations after they have been accused of objectionable behavior.
This can include anything from boycotting a person or company’s products to refusing to work with them. It often takes the form of public shaming, and its proponents typically argue that it is a necessary response to moral failings.
However, critics argue that cancel culture is excessively punitive and often leads to the silencing of legitimate dialogue. They also argue that it can be used as a weapon to silence minority perspectives.
While I won’t take a political stance in this article, I’ll try to outline some examples of cancel culture across the political spectrum, arguing that it’s been a long-standing feature of American life. While in the 1990s and early 2000s, conservatives were very active in canceling and silencing pro-gay and anti-war voices, the 2010s and onward saw a rise of a left-wing cancel culture movement.
Left-Wing Cancel Culture Examples
The following are examples of people and groups who have been subject to attempted cancellation by left-wing groups:
1. JK Rowling
JK Rowling, the famed author of the Harry Potter series, has been a controversial figure in recent years. Many have accused her of transphobia and bigotry, due to her comments on transgender rights and gender identity.
In 2020, she sparked further outrage with an essay in which she asserted that “sex is real” and criticised people for replacing the phrase “woman” with “people who menstruate.” The new phrase is used to differentiate between trans women and people born biologically women.
Her comments led to many calls for her to be “canceled,” with many people vowing to never read her books again. Harry Potter cast members including Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have criticized her comments.
2. Chris Harrison
Chris Harrison was the host of The Bachelor for 20 seasons, from 2002 to 2021.
He was eventually pushed out after defending a former contestant when photos came out of her attending an old south Antebellum party. The party could be seen as celebrating the confederate south and embracing cultural appropriation.
The contestant had attended the party in 2018 at college. In 2021, when the images were released, Harrison responded: “is it a good look in 2018 or is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference.”
He later lost his job for defending the photos.
3. Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan’s stance on vaccination, which was seen by many as anti-vax (which Rogan denies), led some musicians to boycott Spotify, the company that hosts his podcast.
The most prominent boycotters were Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, two artists whose heyday was back when musical activism was at its high.
Spotify did not cave to pressure to drop Rogan, but they did roll-out disclaimers on some of his episodes and removed others where he used racist language.
4. Donald Trump
Whether you’re a fan or not, it shouldn’t be controversial to admit that Donald Trump has a long history of using crass and misogynist language.
But it was his support of the January 6 riot which attempted to interrupt the certification of the 2020 election that led to widespread cancellation.
Twitter and Facebook canceled the president’s social media pages, citing their platforms’ policies against endorsing violence.
5. Roseanne Barr
In 2018, the reboot of Roseanne Barr’s iconic sitcom Roseanne was a huge ratings success, with over 18 million viewers tuning in to the premiere episode.
However, just a few months after the show’s return, Barr was fired from her own show after she made a racist remark on Twitter. Barr had been a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, and many felt that a remark she made about Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor to President Obama, was racially charged.
ABC quickly decided to cancel the show, despite its huge ratings.
6. Ben Shapiro
In recent years, Ben Shapiro has become one of the most controversial figures on college campuses. A self-proclaimed “facts don’t care about your feelings” conservative, Shapiro often spouts off inflammatory rhetoric that many students find offensive.
In addition, Shapiro is a staunch supporter of Israel and its actions against Palestine. As a result, many college campuses have chosen to boycott Shapiro and prohibit him from speaking.
Some argue that this is a violation of free speech. After all, Shapiro is entitled to his opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be. Others counter that allowing Shapiro to speak on campus would simply be a platform for hate speech. They argue that his speeches would only serve to further alienate
7. Dr. Seuss
In March 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to discontinue publishing 6 Seuss books due to perceived racism within the books and images.
Conservative media, and particularly Fox News, were highly critical of the move, calling it another example of virtue signaling and cancel culture pushing out beloved parts of American culture.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises, on the other hand, had decided that the books were no longer consistent with mainstream values, but did continue to publish other Seuss books that they hoped would remain part of the cultural milieu.
8. BDS Movement
The BDS movement is a global campaign that was launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society to promote boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.
Its goal is to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect the human rights of Palestinians.
The BDS campaign has three main goals: ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, ensuring equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and promoting the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The movement has gained support from a number of high-profile individuals and organizations, including Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, and Amnesty International. In recent years, the BDS movement has been successful in persuading a number of companies and universities to withdraw investments from Israel or cancel contracts with Israeli businesses.
Right-Wing Cancel Culture Examples
The following are examples of people and groups who have been subject to attempted cancellation by right-wing groups:
9. Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback, became a controversial figure when he began to kneel during the national anthem as a form of protest against police brutality and racial inequality.
This action sparked a nationwide debate, with many people arguing that Kaepernick was disrespecting the flag and the military. As a result of the backlash, Kaepernick was essentially “canceled” by the NFL, and never played another game.
Ironically, Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest has become mainstream with many companies endorsing it, but Kaepernick remained iced out of the NFL.
10. Ellen DeGeneres
Up until the late 1990s, homosexuality was largely taboo, or ‘canceled’ in the US entertainment industry.
This fever broke when Ellen DeGeneres came out publicly as a lesbian in 1997. Homosexuality was still largely taboo in the mainstream media, and DeGeneres may have feared that coming out would damage her career.
DeGeneres’ decision to come out was a brave and groundbreaking act that helped to pave the way for other LGBTQ individuals in the entertainment industry who, until that point, were required to remain quiet about their sexuality so they wouldn’t be canceled.
11. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
Another example of right-wing canceling of homosexuality was the US government’s refusal to allow gay people in the military.
This was epitomized by the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era in the US military. This policy involved the military not asking service members about their sexuality, and service members not telling anyone about their sexuality. If someone admitted they were gay, the military would expel them.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011, after being in effect for 18 years. The repeal was largely a result of the efforts of LGBTQ activists, who worked tirelessly to get the policy overturned.
McCarthyism was a period of time in the United States when there was an intense fear of communism. This fear led to a witch hunt for anyone who was thought to sympathize with socialist or even social democratic values.
Many people were blacklisted, lost their jobs, and were even jailed, which was against people’s constitutional right to freedom of political belief.
McCarthyism got its name from Joseph McCarthy, who was a senator from Wisconsin. McCarthy held hearings in which he questioned people about their alleged communist activity. McCarthyism lasted from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
13. The Hollywood Blacklist
McCarthyism paralleled the Hollywood Blacklist era. This was a period in the 1950s when many people in the film industry were blacklisted from working because they were suspected of having communist sympathies.
The blacklist started as an informal collection of names that industry insiders used to avoid hiring certain people. However, it eventually became more formalized and organized, with the House Un-American Activities Committee holding hearings to investigate suspected communists in Hollywood.
Many people were blacklisted as a result of these hearings, and it became very difficult for them to find work. The blacklist had a chilling effect on the film industry, and it was not until the late 1960s that it finally began to dissipate.
14. Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks were a hugely successful country music group in the early 2000s.
In 2003, they became the target of a massive boycott after lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment critical of then-President George W. Bush.
The boycott was led by conservative groups and individuals who disagreed with Maines’ politics, and it quickly gained traction.
Stores pulled the Dixie Chicks’ music from their shelves, radio stations stopped playing their songs, and fans turned their backs on the group. The boycott lasted for years, and although the Dixie Chicks eventually recovered from the incident, it forever changed the course of their career.
15. Bill Maher
Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect show was canceled in 2002 after controversial comments he made about the 9/11 attacks.
Maher suggested that the terrorists who carried out the attacks were not “cowards,” as President George W. Bush had described them.
Maher’s comments generated a considerable amount of backlash, and advertisers began to pull their support from the show. Shortly thereafter, ABC decided to cancel Politically Incorrect.
Maher later started a new show, Real Time, on HBO which successfully ran for over 20 seasons. Maher has continued to be a vocal critic of both Republicans and Democrats. However, he has also been praised for his willingness to engage in honest and open dialogue about sensitive topics.
16. Book Banning
Book banning in the United States has come and gone with various moral panics.
Recently, many conservative politicians have attempted to have books that depict a black view of American history, accusing them of teaching white people to internalize white guilt.
The majority of the books they have attempted to ban are written by black authors, including acclaimed novels that attempt to get people to empathize with black people’s experiences of discrimination. Examples include The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, and The Hate U Give.
While today we tend to think of cancel culture as a product of the woke left, it’s been a practice of groups on both sides of the culture wars who have wanted to promote their own ideology and silence their opponents. Examples on the left include canceling of JK Rowling and Joe Rogan, while the right was active in canceling people during the Iraq war and the 1990s ant-gay movements.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.