When Republicans Attack 'Cancel Culture,' What Does It Mean? "Cancel culture" attacks are everywhere among Republicans: Marjorie Taylor Greene's defenders say the left is canceling her. Others claim they're being canceled for not standing by Donald Trump.

When Republicans Attack 'Cancel Culture,' What Does It Mean?

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Politics can spoil a whole lot of things, including language. Use a phrase over and over and its meaning tends to stretch beyond recognition. That happens a lot in Washington. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben brings us the latest example.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Any politician knows the right phrase can stir up voters, something snappy, something that maybe gets people emotional. And if there's alliteration, even better.


DONALD TRUMP: Cancel culture, they call it. Cancel culture - no, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: People are tired of the cancer culture. They're tired of the woke mob.

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Cancel culture is a real thing. It is very real.

KURTZLEBEN: That phrase, cancel culture, has become so ubiquitous that it's arguably been background noise in American politics for a while. But now, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and other Republicans have seized aggressively on the phrase. Ohio Republican Jim Jordan spoke in Greene's defense as she was stripped of her committee assignments following her support of conspiracy theories including Qanon as well as racist social media posts.


JIM JORDAN: Everyone has said things they wish they didn't say. Everyone has done things they wish they didn't do. So who's next? Who will the cancel culture attack next?

KURTZLEBEN: And then, there are more moderate Republicans. Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger slammed Donald Trump loyalist Matt Gaetz on NBC recently for Gaetz's attacks on Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach the former president.


ADAM KINZINGER: If you look at Matt Gaetz go into Wyoming because - what? - a tough woman has an independent view and he doesn't want to have to go out and explain why he didn't vote for impeachment, that's totally GOP cancel culture.

KURTZLEBEN: Greene and Cheney, of course, still have congressional seats and sizable social media followings. And they appear regularly on national television, all of which raises the question of what exactly it means to be canceled. In about half a decade, the term has gone from slang to being laden with partisan political baggage. As it was used years ago online, particularly among younger people, the original idea of canceling refers to a pretty unremarkable concept, says Nicole Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY: It is used to refer to a cultural boycott, right? We've had the term boycott forever and ever. It just means, I'm not going to put my attention or money or support behind this person or organization because they've done something that I don't agree with. That is not new. That's very old.

KURTZLEBEN: In other words, it just referred to the marketplace of ideas at work. But then concerns grew, particularly among media and political elites, about the threat of online mobs shutting down speech. That perceived punitive atmosphere came to be known as cancel culture. And people on the left were often accused of perpetuating it. Yascha Mounk is a political scientist and creator of the newsletter Persuasion, which has decried so-called cancel culture.

YASCHA MOUNK: If people say, hey, I personally don't like this person, so I'm not going to buy their products, that's one thing. But a lot of it is concerted efforts to force institutions to de-platform people. It's firing people for imagined or very minor offenses because of sort of online media mobs and so on.

KURTZLEBEN: The fact that even non-public figures have lost jobs as a result of online pile-ons is, to him, a clear sign that things have gone too far. The idea of cancel culture is inherently controversial, though, particularly when it comes to speech. What one person might call being canceled for controversial statements another might call being held accountable for offensive or harmful views. But now, even to some who decry cancel culture as a problem, the phrase has been overstretched to defend people like Marjorie Taylor Greene. Mona Charen is policy editor at the right-leaning magazine The Bulwark.

MONA CHAREN: Honestly, I think we should, probably, retire the phrase cancel culture at this point because it's losing its meaning when people just use it to mean I resent your drawing attention to my crazy ideas.

KURTZLEBEN: Language gets stretched like this all the time, UPenn's Holliday says. In fact, there's a term for it, semantic bleaching.

HOLLIDAY: Semantic bleaching kind of refers to the process where words don't have the meaning they had before. They kind of come to mean nothing or something that is purely pragmatic, like just functional, but not really, like, laden with meaning.

KURTZLEBEN: Semantic bleaching has happened for non-political words, like literally, and more political phrases, like woke and politically correct. As with the word cancel, both of those terms went from their original meanings to being political weapons used by people claiming concerns about free expression. Holliday explains how the phrase political correctness transformed.

HOLLIDAY: In the '70s and '80s, it was originally used by leftists kind of to make fun of themselves. By the time it entered the mainstream in the '90s, everybody was using it as sort of an attack. It wasn't any longer in the community that it had originated in. And then, I think we're seeing the same thing kind of with cancel.

KURTZLEBEN: With the constant repetition of the phrase cancel culture, the idea of cancellation has strayed from what it once stood for. And simultaneously, the GOP's cancel culture fixation may be a sign that the party is straying from what it once stood for, according to conservative author and CNN commentator Mary Katharine Ham.

MARY KATHARINE HAM: There truly were, 15 years ago, differences of policy for which people would say, hey. For instance, Arlen Specter, at one point, are you still a Republican, because you believe a lot of things that are counter to what many conservatives and many people who animate the party believe?

KURTZLEBEN: Specter was a moderate Republican senator who eventually became a Democrat. In contrast, Ham points to the Arizona GOP's recent decision to censure several of its most visible members, including conservative Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.

HAM: Now the condemnations in Arizona are for Doug Ducey and others not being sufficiently helpful to President Trump and those who support him.

KURTZLEBEN: To her, yes, liberals have a cancel culture problem, but conservatives now do, too, which also translates to a numbers problem if attacking each other means pushing away voters. Ham says it's not clear how this tone might ever change from a fixation on a cancel culture war back to tenets like limited government and lower taxes.

HAM: Would I love to get back to talking about policy? Sure. But there is, to some extent, a need to recognize that that might not be what your voters want. The way that social media is structured, you get a payout for high emotion, for clickability (ph). And your 40-point tax plan is not emotional or clickable.

KURTZLEBEN: The right shows no sign of letting go of cancel culture. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference will be held later this month. This year's theme, America Uncanceled. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.


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