2021 was truly an Orwellian year, 12 months where up meant down, “doing your research” was code for believing in the wackiest of conspiracy theories without evidence, and farmers and doctors took turns being celebrated as heroes and then lathi-charged by Delhi Police. It’s a sign of the times that the year also saw the richest, most popular and most powerful comedians in the world work themselves into a frenzy over the flimsiest of moral panics: yes, the one about so-called “cancel culture.”
Dave Chappelle has become the poster-boy of this group, who fancifully imagine themselves as patriots fighting a desperate rear-guard action to “save comedy”, even as they sell out stadiums and get invited on talk shows to elaborate on their persecution complex. But the comedian is in august—if often problematic—company. There’s John Cleese, who has moaned and whinged his way into hosting a Channel 4 documentary about “cancel culture”, though he has no problem trying to preemptively cancel a young journalist for an interview before it even goes on air.
Then you have Dame Maureen Lipman—who refuses to work with actors supporting the Palestinian cause and once protested the London premiere of a Palestinian play—declaring that cancel culture was on the cusp of “wiping out comedy.” Chris Rock, a comedian so inspired that his latest special is just an extended cut of his 2018 offering, blames cancel culture for boring TV. Jon Lovitz—who put a “hex” on and physically attacked Andy Dick over the death of a mutual friend—compared it to McCarthyism. Kevin Hart, David Spade. That’s without mentioning the scores of comics who take umbrage anytime someone wonders if Louis CK has really repented or been held accountable for his actions. It’s almost as if “being cancelled” is a branding thing, everyone jumping on the bandwagon so that they can keep their “edgy comedian” card in play.
This isn’t unique to comedy, of course. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of prominent personalities moan about “wokeism” and “cancel culture” as a way to ward off criticism (and position themselves to cash in on the anti-woke dollar). Kanye West made millions off an elaborately choreographed, long-drawn out album reveal process, parading alleged rapist Marylin Manson and homophobe DaBaby on stage like a “cancelled” boy-band. More worryingly, our cultural elite’s anxiety about a challenge from below has led them to give legitimacy to a moral panic whipped up by a right-wing addicted to manufacturing culture wars as a distraction from legitimate critique of racist and majoritarian policies.
It’s tragic enough to watch comedians you admire let the fear of criticism turn them into useful idiots for reactionary fear-mongers. But what really gets my goat is how these supposedly brilliant observers of the human condition have let themselves be taken in by an ahistorical con. Despite over a century of doom-saying about the “death of comedy” due to protest—the LA Times’ Kliph Nesteroff uncovered a newspaper editorial from 1903 with the same complaint—comedians have never been as free as they are now. All it takes to recognise that fact is a cursory reading of history, and the ability to pull your head out of your arse.
Jokes about sex, religion and politics were taboo for most of the 20th century, transgressions punished not by mean tweets but by the real-world mob and the might of the state.
As Nesteroff points out, jokes about sex, religion and politics were taboo for most of the 20th century, transgressions punished not by mean tweets but by the real-world mob and the might of the state. Mae West and Lenny Bruce fought numerous obscenity charges, Richard Pryor and George Carlin faced arrests and bans, and practically all comedians—including some of the loudest voices against politically correct tyranny—happily self-censored for decades to appear on television. And that’s not counting the less visible forms of erasure and censorship—the historical silencing of marginal voices and perspectives from standup comedy, the long list of artists blackballed for left-wing or anti-racist political views.
Even the brief euphoric post-Cold War era—which seems to be the “gold standard” of free comedy for many of these comedians—was much more censorship-happy than today (anyone remember the Dixie Chicks?). And yet, these self-described risk-takers and envelope-pushers are moaning about online criticism and calls for boycott (a tradition older than democracy) from historically marginalised communities as if they were being persecuted by the East German Stasi.
Incidentally, it’s almost always criticism from the Left and liberals that gets called “cancel culture,” despite the reality that much of the real political violence, censorship and coercion that comics face is backed by majoritarian power and right-leaning establishments. The reasons for this are many, but largely boil down to the fact that “cancel culture” is now more a right-wing dog-whistle than a descriptor for an actual phenomenon—as Aja Romano details in her fantastic genealogy of the term for Vox. The term has come to mean so many different things, according to the prejudices of the user, that it really means nothing at all.
This is not to say that online criticism from the Left or from marginalised groups is always legitimate and proportionate. Social media boycott campaigns are prone to mob dynamics, and a death threat does not become less horrific if it comes from a minority. And calls for empathy are important as our public discourse becomes increasingly aggressive and polarised. But it’s hard to make an argument for good faith discourse by reinforcing a term and narrative now largely driven by bad-faith dog-whistling.
It is characteristic of the power dynamics at play that even Indian comics rail about “cancel culture” even as they churn out apology after apology after apology to the Right. Now whether they are just ignorant of the term’s weaponisation by the American right-wing (totally believable), or these are ham-handed declarations of political neutrality (“Look I make fun of your enemies too”), this reluctance to name certain actors indicates a tacit acknowledgement of where the real threat lies.
In October, Ricky Gervais gleefully said that he hoped to “live long enough to see the younger generation not be woke enough for the next generation.” Gervais meant it as a gotcha—the comedic version of the tired “no atheists in foxholes” argument—but his comment accidentally reveals the real anxiety behind this whole cancel-culture paranoia. The anxiety of being left behind, of realising that your self-image of “progressive rebel” no longer corresponds to reality. The horrifying admission that you’re just as prone to being on the wrong side of history as the generation you so righteously replaced.
Which is fine, it’s a perfectly human response. It’s also something that the vast majority of people deal with without public self-martyrdom and providing cover for the harassment and silencing of voices from the margins. Just get a therapist, you guys can afford one. And no, Joe Rogan doesn’t count.
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