I’m going to take a break this week from the sci-fi talk, because this is a topic that keeps being in the news and the whole thing keeps circling round and round in my head. The nice thing about being your own boss is that you can take a detour on planned work. So here goes.
I promise I won’t go on at length here – at least not compared to some of my other stuff – mainly because my feelings on this are straightforward. “Cancel culture” – I’m sure you’ve read or heard that phrase plenty and that you already have an opinion on it. I know I do. Everyone from JK Rowling to Ted Cruz has been complaining about it. If you had a dinner party with all the people who have gripes over “being cancelled” I imagine it would be an epically awkward affair. You don’t have to be a liberal or a conservative. The only thing you have to have done is voiced, in a rather public way, opinions that are somewhat unpopular, then you’re automatically invited to this self-pity party about cancel culture.
By and large, the other thing most people who gripe the loudest about being cancelled have in common is that they are people who have an outsized voice – meaning, they’re all people who command press in one way or another. Either they are people whose complaints will literally be reported on in all the major newspapers, or they are people who have large followings on a media platform (or, more likely, several).
If you’re like me, you don’t get your letters published in Harper’s, not even if you bribe them (trust me on this one). Thus the title of this piece. You can’t possibly be “cancelled” if you didn’t have a platform with which to speak to tens or even hundreds of thousands to at a time. The term is even closely related to big media – we think of television series when we hear the world cancelled; at least, we used to. I use the term celebrity broadly to describe anyone who has a large enough fanbase and following to make news, be it in the NYT or on some site dedicated to influencer gossip or even a posting dedicated to them on Buzzfeed. In any case, people like us will never make headlines of these types except by fluke. I’m also specifically referring to the opinions celebrities voice, rather than things they’ve been accused of doing. People “cancelling” James Franco because he’s been accused of sexual misconduct are not the same as people “cancelling” Bill Maher because he said something they don’t like. One is more about believing those who speak out about sexual violence, and the other is people not liking certain opinions. They are simply not the same thing. I will be generous here and say most of the celebrity voices who complain about cancel culture would be appalled to be lumped into the same category as those accused of sexual misconduct.
Let’s just dig into the main complaints celebrities have about being cancelled. Don’t worry; it won’t take long.
“Free speech doesn’t exist anymore! We’re being silenced! I’m being cancelled by the mob!”
First, it’s pointless for me to argue against the “being silenced” thing. It’s objectively false. If you honestly feel someone has been silenced whilst they are simultaneously making their statements on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the NYT, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, etc, etc, etc., then there is nothing I can say that will make you feel otherwise. The problem with people who believe you can be silenced when you can put out a press release that will be broadly reported on is that they have a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the term “silenced.” I can’t argue against a factually incorrect premise other than to state the facts. Which I’ve done. Next.
“Free speech” is an odd choice of words when there is so much money bound up in literally everything these people say. Their speech has never been free(1). We pay each and every time we listen to or read their words, either through cable TV costs if it’s on something like CNN, having to be advertised to, cough up subscription fees, having to be advertised to, being a patron, having to be advertised to… I think you get my point. And this brings me to my main issue with the complaint of cancel culture.
It’s not about free speech. It’s about the free market.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
I’m well aware that the money I make off my books is, in essence, me selling the brand of me. If I say something that pisses you off, you won’t buy “me” anymore. In fact, this post may piss you off. Okay! It may piss you off that I write a gay character in a book. Okay! It may piss you off that I don’t use ray guns. Okay! There are a million ways I could turn off potential readers. When you sell your words/thoughts/ideas, it’s something you’ll have to come to terms with. Either you do your best to make the most vanilla, “no one can read anything negative into this” kind of art, or you just accept that it’s impossible to make something that everyone will like all the time.
I also know that if I make something that buyers perceive as not having enough value to buy it, they won’t give me their money. It’s a fairly straightforward concept.
If GE were to make a refrigerator that leaked water everywhere, didn’t freeze things in the freezer, and smelled like old onions, people would stop buying GE. GE would be “cancelled”. Their rights haven’t been infringed. Mobs aren’t bullying them. It isn’t a cabal of unknown people trying to change the message. They put out a crappy product.
If you’re a celebrity that says something your fans don’t like, they won’t buy your product anymore. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. You made, in their eyes, a crappy product. Maybe they felt you as a product were misleading. Maybe they thought you were politically X, Y or Z, but your words solidly align with A, B or C. Maybe the quality of what you’ve said has changed. I too would be annoyed if I subscribed to the dark chocolate truffle of the month club and after two delicious years got celery. I didn’t buy celery. I bought dark chocolate. What’s this celery crap?! Subscription cancelled!
“But they were fired from a movie set! That’s not them selling them! That’s (insert studio here) censoring them! And they don’t censor (insert another celebrity you think talks too much about their opinions here). It’s an agenda!”
Nope. Still the free market.
Let’s say you work for an Apple store. You insist on using all natural sulfur to repel the evil spirits of the ghosts of iPods past and no one comes in to buy anything anymore because you smell like a volcano fart. That hurts the bottom line of Apple. The free market will prevail, and you’ll be fired. You can argue all you want about fairness at your exit interview, that your co-worker refuses to wear the color green because “it’s a mind control color” and they haven’t been fired yet. If the customers aren’t bothered by it, if they still spend money, the company won’t care either. Movie studios and the like are only bowing to those same free market forces.
Your words can hurt a business you work for if people associate the two. That’s really all there is to it. While I do think there are a few businesses that want to push some sort of agenda, for the most part they don’t want to tie that agenda up in the product they sell. Fox News or MSNBC isn’t as profitable, hour per hour, as Grey’s Anatomy or The Big Bang Theory. Too strong an agenda automatically cuts off a large portion of the paying public if they don’t agree with the agenda. Most celebrities are involved in projects marketed to a huge cross section of people that include a variety of political leanings in order to maximize profits. Selling to all Americans is always going to net you more money that selling only to right/left leaning Americans; just look at how afraid the gaming industry is to claim any of their games are in any way political.
If the things celebrities say make a corporation think they’ll lose money because it tilts the political focus of the project too much away from a sizeable chunk of their core audience, they won’t keep that celebrity around and risk the sales. That’s the free market. That’s how it works. Demand for that celebrity has dropped. The company will find a supply that’s in more demand. It’s always about the bottom line. That’s not cynicism – it’s capitalism. If you study capitalism, you will find the textbooks are generally mum on the topic of social justice. It’s irrelevant unless it’s important to the customers. It’s not about fairness, or free speech, or agendas. It’s about money.
There are times having strong opinions will, in fact, get you hired. If Apple opened up a store for volcano fart aficionados, our poor iPod ghost repelling employee would likely be hired again. But these companies never really climb out of the niche market. They aren’t GE, Apple, or Disney. Big companies aren’t interested in wooing niche audiences. That’s small potatoes to them, and not worth the effort. And maybe that’s really why celebrities are so pissed. Their thoughts aren’t mainstream. They’re outdated, or just uninteresting to the buying audience. And I’m sure that sucks for them.
So, to the celebrities who’ve been cancelled – I’m sorry you’ve been cancelled because you’re bellbottoms, and the world only wants to buy stretch pants. But that’s really all it is. You (the celebrities) hoped we’d keep buying you. But we (the consumers) aren’t interested anymore. That’s the free market and since we love our capitalism, that’s about as American as it gets.
(1) For those reading that literally, yes, I know the term “free speech” doesn’t refer to not having a monetary cost. It’s wordplay. The fact that I have to put this here is aggravating, but I’ve had enough people misread my words to “dunk” on my arguments, and I honestly can’t tell if the misreading is purposeful or not, so it has to be here.
n.b. You may have noticed I didn’t link to anything in this post. To add to my point about how “un-silenced” some of these supposedly cancelled people are, google them and see how fast you can find their complaints about being silenced. One of the best examples for me is “Harper’s Letter.” Google those two words. Not even in quotes. It’s like the top link. That generic search yields the letter complaining about how being cancelled hurts voices. In the top spot. And then in all the twenty spots beneath it. I’m a librarian and my job is to help people search for things when all they have are generic terms like this, “I remember it was a letter posted to the Times…. can you help?” It’s hard to describe how amazing it is that this is the top 20 results without knowing literally anything else than it was a letter published by Harper’s. Who’s voice, exactly, is being suppressed here?