Why 'Cancel Culture' Is Just Today's 'Politically Correct' : Consider This from NPR 'Cancelling' is a term that originated in young and progressive circles, where it was used to mean 'boycott,' University of Pennsylvania linguist Nicole Holliday tells NPR. Now the term 'cancel' has been co-opted and weaponized by some conservative media and politicians.

Something similar happened in the 1990s with the term 'politically correct.' John K. Wilson wrote about that time in a book called The Myth Of Political Correctness.

And — just like 'politically correct' — 'cancelling' and 'cancel culture' have been co-opted and weaponized to attack the left today. Social media has made that easier, says Jon Ronson, author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Co-Opted And Weaponized, 'Cancel Culture' Is Just Today's 'Politically Correct'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When former President Donald Trump announced his lawsuit against social media companies this week, he described his grievance using a word that's become a very familiar catchphrase.

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DONALD TRUMP: We're demanding an end to the shadow banning, blacklisting, banishing and cancelling that you know so well.

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SHAPIRO: Canceling - there is a national debate right now over the consequences of speech and who gets to exact them. And it looks a lot like a debate we've seen before.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY: I think the panic over cancel culture is pretty much exactly the same as the panic over political correctness, just dialed up to 11 because of the influence of social media.

SHAPIRO: Nicole Holliday, who teaches linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says young people more or less invented the term cancel as another way to say boycott.

HOLLIDAY: Right? It means do not support this thing. So conservatives have picked it up not to just mean boycott but rather to say our value system is under threat by these people who want to deplatform us because we have unpopular opinions. That's the way that I think they frame it a lot these days.

SHAPIRO: But like we said, this has happened before, where conservatives pick up a term from the left and weaponize it against the folks who'd been using it amongst themselves. In 1984, Ruth Perry founded the women's studies department at MIT. She is now the Ann Friedlander Professor of Humanities at MIT - emeritus. She just retired. Back in her early career. She ran with a crowd of lefty idealists.

RUTH PERRY: We cared about the Earth. We cared about sexism. We cared about white supremacy - all these things.

SHAPIRO: But they didn't take themselves too seriously. In fact, they had a term they would use to tease each other about the purity of their own activism.

PERRY: So, you know, somebody would say, would it be politically correct if we had a hamburger? Somebody who was a vegetarian would say that. Or somebody who was a feminist might say, it may not be politically correct, but I think he's really hot - some sexist movie star or something.

SHAPIRO: Politically correct was an in-joke.

PERRY: It was ironic. It was arch. It was in group and so on.

SHAPIRO: Of course, it didn't stay that way. Today you might think of politically correct as a sneering term used to criticize the left. That's because it was co-opted by some politicians and members of the right-wing media...

PERRY: They can't even invent their own epithet.

SHAPIRO: ...And deployed in the culture wars of the '90s.

PERRY: So it felt like, oh, my God. They're using this against us as a way of making progressive forces seem unfair or dictatorial.

SHAPIRO: To jump ahead to the present day, how do you feel when you hear today's debates over cancel culture?

PERRY: I feel like the same thing is happening all over again.

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SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - today's debates over cancel culture mirror an older clash over who gets to speak and who gets silenced. From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Friday July 9.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR.

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SHAPIRO: If you use the archive Nexis to search newspapers and magazines from the year 1989, you'll find the phrase politically correct in print fewer than 250 times. And then it's like someone flips a switch. In 1994, the same search for politically correct turns up more than 10,000 hits. It was everywhere, from comedy shows...

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BILL MAHER: Well, thank you. And hi, I'm Bill Maher, and this is "Politically Incorrect."

SHAPIRO: ...To cartoons like "Beavis And Butt-Head"...

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MIKE JUDGE: (As David Van Driessen) I think it's about time you guys became politically correct.

SHAPIRO: ...To current events shows like "Firing Line."

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MICHAEL KINSLEY: Resolved - political correctness is a menace and a bore.

SHAPIRO: And this national obsession didn't just bubble up organically.

JOHN WILSON: It is an industry. There are all of these right-wing foundations and books that were published that made a lot of money promoting this idea. And so...

SHAPIRO: John Wilson wrote a book in 1995 called "The Myth Of Political Correctness." And he says that word, myth, is important.

WILSON: A myth is not a falsehood. It doesn't mean it's a lie. It doesn't mean everything is fabricated. It means that it's a story. And so what happened in the '90s is people with political correctness, they took certain, sometimes true anecdotes, and they created a web, a story, out of them, a myth that there was this vast repression of conservative voices.

SHAPIRO: He says there were grains of truth, isolated examples of conflicts and protests often on college campuses.

WILSON: Real cases of people getting punished, people getting fired for doing what were not things that should be punished. And I don't want to deny that fact.

SHAPIRO: But he says those isolated cases got magnified into a sweeping national narrative that the right used to claim conservatives were being silenced. And Wilson says by claiming victimization, conservatives were able to use the term political correctness as a bludgeon to hammer the left - a lot like the phrase cancel culture today. So local debates that might have stayed largely unknown beyond college newspapers suddenly became national news.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There there's no fight like a good academic fight, and the Stanford campus has been embroiled in a dandy one for the past two years.

SHAPIRO: In 1988, NPR and lots of other news organizations reported on a fight over the classes Stanford freshmen were required to take. The name of the course at the center of the controversy was Western culture. So when students protested, chanting, hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture has got to go, people like education secretary William Bennett, a Republican, interpreted it as a broader attack on society.

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WILLIAM BENNETT: Right from the beginning, this was an assault on Western culture and Western civilization. And if you look at the Stanford newspaper...

SHAPIRO: By 1991, this panic had reached all the way to the president of the United States.

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GEORGE H W BUSH: We find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land.

SHAPIRO: President George H.W. Bush gave this commencement address at the University of Michigan.

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BUSH: Disputants treat sheer force - getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance - as a substitute for the power of ideas.

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TRUMP: The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know.

SHAPIRO: And that was another Republican president making the same argument almost 30 years later at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

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TRUMP: The far left wants to coerce you into saying what you know to be false and scare you out of saying what you know to be true.

MEREDITH CLARK: Honestly, I did my best to avoid doing research on cancel culture.

SHAPIRO: Meredith Clark teaches media studies at the University of Virginia.

CLARK: But there are only so many times that you can hear a phenomenon described in incorrect terms and just sit with it.

SHAPIRO: She says what's incorrect is not the idea of canceling; it's defining this as some sort of broader culture.

CLARK: Canceling is what comes out of Black discourse. It's what comes out of Black queer discourse. But the assignment of culture to that makes it a label that's big enough to be slapped on anyone and anything. And that is where the weaponization of what is otherwise accountability really takes off.

SHAPIRO: How much of this is about disenfranchised groups that sometimes don't have a voice finding and using that voice in a way that makes the people with power uncomfortable?

CLARK: That's what it's all about. If this had remained something that just stuck within Black communities, within Latinx communities, then this wouldn't really be a story. But because it has crossed over and because people in powerful positions who are not used to having to answer to marginalized folks find that they are not beyond their reach now have a problem. And so now this becomes newsworthy, and it becomes something that is positioned as something that every everyday person should fear.

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SHAPIRO: Of course, the big difference now is the existence of social media. And for some perspective on that, I talked with an expert named Jon Ronson. He wrote a book in 2015 called "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." It tells us stories of everyday people who weren't in the public eye until a tweet or something like it brought societal condemnation crashing down on their heads.

JON RONSON: I think it's absolutely wrong to say, oh, this is just a moral panic and there's nothing going on. You know, we're living in this very binary world. And in this world, people on the right are saying, you know, we are being silenced by a woke mob. And people on the left are saying, it's not happening; we're just holding people accountable. Now, clearly, those are two polemical positions and the truth is somewhere in the middle.

SHAPIRO: So if, as you say, there is a real concern and also there is a right-wing conspiracy to blow that concern out of proportion to score political points, what do we do with the coexistence of those two realities?

RONSON: Well, I just think it's up to every individual on social media to be curious and patient. And to...

SHAPIRO: You are asking people on social media to be patient. Have you been on social media?

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RONSON: Patient and curious. But I tell you what - I've been on Twitter for a little while, and I went back on the other day, and it was like a party at 6 o'clock in the morning where people are - when something terrible happened hours before, and everyone is still screaming at each other. They're hoarse, and they've maybe even forgotten what it was that made them so angry. And...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And you're the only one who's sober.

RONSON: Yeah. Yeah. And I wouldn't have been if I hadn't left Twitter for a few weeks.

SHAPIRO: I asked Meredith Clark of the University of Virginia about this. We heard her earlier in the piece. And she said, when you look at the vanishingly small percentage of the U.S. population that is on Twitter, you understand how out of proportion this narrative of cancer culture actually is.

RONSON: You know, this is a new - this is a very new weapon that we have. You know, on Twitter, we're like, you know, children crawling towards guns. You can't say that this whole new way of treating other human beings is just going to fit into it all with ease when it's this entirely new weapon. You know, of course, there's going to be people destroyed, and people are destroyed.

SHAPIRO: What do you think of the argument that maybe the pendulum has swung too far but the pendulum had to swing? That people who were getting away with things they should not have gotten away with are now being held to account, and, yes, there may be innocent victims, but ultimately, that'll sort itself out.

RONSON: Well, I'm not - I do agree. Yes, the pendulum has swung too far. But at the same time, I wouldn't sort of just toss off the idea of there being some innocent victims. Like, that's bad and important.

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SHAPIRO: In the last few weeks, it does seem like some of the furor over cancer culture has started to die down. That could be because the pendulum is swinging back towards the center on this issue. Or it could just be that the national moral panic has moved on to another target - critical race theory.

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SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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