2019 was the year that the term cancel culture went mainstream, as a rotating cast of characters (some famous, some not) who did unwise things (some awful, some not) faced the shame mobs.
It was not always a fate worse than death. Indeed, critics of the concept have claimed that to be canceled is merely to be criticized, often deservedly. The New Republic's Osita Nwanevu called cancel culture a "con" on the grounds that several of the better-known victims of attempted canceling have actually come out ahead (Dave Chappelle being a prominent example).
But for every Dave Chappelle, there's a Shane Gillis, who was fired as a Saturday Night Live cast member for using offensive language in some of his previous comedy. Gillis isn't dead; he isn't even unemployed, as he's performing standup again. But his chance at mainstream success is ruined for now, because a journalist thought it critically important to subject his past work to our current moment's standards for acceptable comedy.
Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, the only candidate to address cancel culture in any meaningful sense, said of Gillis: "I believe that our country has become excessively punitive and vindictive about remarks that people find offensive or racist and that we need to try and move beyond that, if we can. Particularly in a case where the person is—in this case—a comedian whose words should be taken in a slightly different light."
I'm with Yang: We would all be better off showing a little more mercy in 2020. But first, let's recall five of the most notable cancel culture moments of 2019.
1. The Carson King episode wins first prize. King, a 24-year-old security guard who parleyed a viral ESPN College Gameday moment into an impressive $1 million charity haul, gave an interview to Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin. Calvin's eventual article included insensitive tweets that King had sent years ago, as a 16-year-old, which prompted Anheuser-Busch to disassociate itself from King. The paper initially doubled down on the decision to mention the tweets, but then fired Calvin after social media users discovered that the reporter had also tweeted dumb, insensitive things when he was younger. The former Register reporter nonetheless denies that he was canceled, or that he canceled King, or that cancel culture is even real.
"The specter of 'cancel culture' is a concept most often invoked to protect those in power, often straight white men such as myself, from facing consequences for their actions, but I want no part in it," wrote Calvin in a bizarre and frequently contradictory piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. "I'm not going to start a YouTube channel railing against the perceived dangers of PC culture. I believe I lost my job unfairly. At the same time, I firmly believe that people, especially those in power, should be held accountable for what they say and do."
2. Trolls from the far right and the far left worked together to publicize racist comments that Parkland survivor and conservative activist Kyle Kashuv had made in a group chat. Kashuv, a teenager, had made the rude comments long before the Parkland shooting, which he said had forced him to "mature and grow in an incredible drastic way." He apologized for the remarks he had made as a "petty, flippant kid," and he practically begged Harvard University not to de-admit him. But Harvard's admissions office, which takes racism very, very seriously (except against Asians), was not in a forgiving mood, and Kashuv lost his spot.
3. J.K. Rowling confirmed the long-held suspicions of the progressive left when she tweeted in a defense of a British think tank employee who had lost her job for criticizing ideas associated with the trans rights movement. Eagle-eyed Twitter users had previously noticed the no-longer-beloved Harry Potter author favoriting tweets from noted TERFs (that's Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists). Vox lamented that Harry Potter was now basically ruined forever: Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid would have to be canceled along with their creator, it seems.
4. Rowling was hardly the only author of young adult fiction to face the proverbial guillotine in 2019. Indeed, Y.A. online culture is one of the most toxic, cancel-prone corners of the internet. Here's Jesse Signal on the crazy controversy over one book, Blood Heir, that faced absurd allegations of racism:
Amélie Wen Zhao, a woman of Chinese descent who was born in Paris and raised in Beijing, had won herself an enviable three-book deal for an Anastasia-tinged adventure: "In the Cyrilian Empire," went the publication materials, "Affinites are reviled and enslaved. Their varied abilities to control the world around them are unnatural—dangerous. And Anastacya Mikhailov, the crown princess, might be the most monstrous of them all. Her deadly Affinity to blood is her curse and the reason she has lived her life hidden behind palace walls." The adventure kicks off when Ana's father is murdered and she is framed, forcing her to flee. The first book was due out in June.
At some point in January, though, there emerged a vague Twitter-centered whisper campaign against Zhao….
It was open season from there: People picked over the limited information about the book to find something, anything, to justify being angry. L.L. McKinney, a Y.A. author who recently published her own debut novel and who tends to be an active participant in these pile-ons, noted that some of the publicity material described Blood Heir's world as one in which "oppression is blind to skin color." "….someone explain this to me. EXPLAIN IT RIGHT THE FUQ NOW," she tweeted, accusing the author of "internalized racism and anti-blackness." (The logic appears to be that because our world has racism, it's unacceptable to imagine a world that does not.)
Zhao decided not to publish Blood Heir, then announced it wouldbe published after all—pending a thorough review by sensitivity readers.
In true Carson King/Aaron Calvin style, one of Zhao's main critics, a writer named Kosoko Jackson, himself became a target of the cancelers after his novel foolishly included a Muslim villain. How dare he.
5. Not all of the canceled are people. A mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco depicted scenes of slavery and of violence against Native Americans. The artist, a 1930s leftist named Victor Arnautoff, wasn't celebrating those things. Quite the opposite: He didn't like the ways the U.S.'s flawed and often brutal founding had been whitewashed, and he wanted to expose America's complicity in those crimes. It's a progressive message, but it offended some progressives who thought high school students might be triggered by the truth, so the school decided to get rid of it.
The price tag for canceling the mural: $600,000, thanks to a mandatory environmental impact report.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.