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In Praise of Cancel Culture

How the drive to censor everything and everyone is bringing about a new renaissance

Liel Leibovitz
September 12, 2019
Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes

The podcast I co-host, Unorthodox, usually feels like one big, raucous family, with listeners writing in to opine on everything from the proper way to store leftovers to their favorite mezuzahs. Last month, however, things grew a shade darker in the mishpacha when several listeners expressed their dismay with my decision to appear on a syndicated conservative radio talk show.

The show in question is hosted by Sebastian Gorka, who had served as a national security adviser to President Donald Trump. Talking to him, some listeners argued, was reason enough to consider whether or not I should be “deplatformed.” To hear a handful of our listeners tell it, Gorka was a cheerleader for white supremacy, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and a host of other sinister ideologies, and regardless of anything I did or said or ever stood for, by breathing the same air as this person I was giving credence and support to these noxious ideas.

“The main issue isn’t what Liel said,” one wrote, “The problem is that his presence on Gorka’s podcast granted it a level of legitimacy.”

For starters, it’s important to realize that those who took issue with my appearance on the show belong to two disparate groups. The first is made up of people who are both well intentioned and genuinely rattled. Once upon a time, they, like so many of us, used to form opinions via a vast network of authoritative, challenging, and useful resources—parents and grandparents and siblings, thoughtful communal leaders, teachers rooted in historical knowledge, legendary newspapers and magazines, good books. But for many of us, these sources—and the networks they formed—simply no longer exist. These days, many of us in search of understanding and meaning are grasping at social media: Facebook posts and tweets that we hope will help us see where we are supposed to stand in the world, but which are often just funhouse mirrors of the same two or three opinions simple and unnuanced enough to just not get us in trouble for sharing them.

When these people see their peers proclaiming, on a Facebook group that feels like a safe space for like-minded people, that the host of a show they like—someone they welcome into their ears each week—is legitimizing evil, it is perfectly normal to feel confused and scared.

I want to talk to these people first. I want you to know that I understand what is upsetting you. But I truly believe that what sets us apart from the beasts and the brutes is our ability to talk, frankly and freely, always, with everyone, and about everything. If democracy has any one cornerstone, it’s dialogue, and once we start restricting it we run the risk of loosening the bonds that tie disparate people into one nation. For anyone, but for Jews especially, the decision to isolate ourselves from people or ideas that are different—or even that scare us—is not just damaging but dangerous. Real change doesn’t come by wagging fingers and casting aspersions; it comes by being grown-ups and building coalitions with people who are willing to listen, or at least trying to.

Moreover, let’s take my critics’ argument even further. Let’s say for a minute that you believe Gorka is indeed a magnet for and a leader of white supremacists swimming in growing and increasingly violent suspicion of Jews. That it’s not just internet chatter, but actual physical Jewish lives that are at stake here, and that this man is sitting on a tinderbox that could be lit by one random match. If that’s the case, wouldn’t you want his audience to hear him chatting respectfully with a Jewish writer and showing his allegedly bigoted listeners that their hero doesn’t share their feelings about Jews? Isn’t it at least possible to imagine that this could deflate some of the allegedly dangerous air being circulated about Jews? Such an on-air exchange could blow the haters’ minds, and might even lead to a transcendent moment of awakening. Just ask Derek Black, a former white supremacist leader and past guest of Unorthodox who accepted an invitation to a Shabbat dinner and soon found himself cured of his prejudice and devoted to working for tolerance and understanding.

I’m not asking anyone to believe this would happen. I’m asking you to accept that we live in a world where other people make decisions different from the ones you might make, and that their intentions may be just as good as yours.

Our good faith listeners, I’m certain, get all this. They may not like the fact that I’ve engaged with someone they consider politically revolting, but they understand that big tents are the only kind worth erecting, even though, or maybe precisely because, they’re home to conversations and opinions that are challenging at best and infuriating at worst.

There is, however, a second, much smaller group—the ones who first send out the smears that then go on to scare the daylights out of everyone else. They are the fast and the furious who take to Twitter with absolute conviction and no nuance, who care little for who or what or why, whose real purpose and pleasure here is in scanning the crowd each morning for who might make a good stoning target today and who might be the one it would be most fun for everyone to collectively hate.

These people are absolutely right to shun me. In fact, I hope they do it more—because the grim-faced commissars of cancel culture are bringing about a renaissance, one that no one ever saw coming.

To the innocent observer, the censorious drive that now animates vast swaths of our writers, intellectuals, activists, and other cadres formerly committed to ideas might seem irritating at best and, at worst, ruinous. After all, defining the borders of the acceptable in ever-narrowing circles and applying rigid ideological purity tests are hardly the hallmarks of a renaissance, and societies that had committed themselves to such pursuits were historically more adept at churning out vast complexes of mass incarceration than, say, great novels or good music. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that cancel culture, like every truly fascinating phenomenon, is not just a destroyer of worlds—in it, crackling quietly, are the seeds of something much brighter and hopeful.

If you want to experience this viscerally, just make your way to the nearest couch and put on Sticks and Stones, the latest comedy special by the transcendent Dave Chappelle. There are few tasks as hopeless as trying to capture a comedian’s brilliance by reducing him to the sum of his jokes, and so I’ll spare you a summary of the set, but if you wonder in what sort of mood 2019 finds the comic you should consider two things. First, Chappelle kicks things off by offering an impression of a drooling dullard. “Uh, duh. Hey! Durr! If you do anything wrong in your life—duh!—and I find out about it, I’m gonna try to take everything away from you!” He carries on like this for a bit longer, and then looks at the audience and declares gleefully “That’s you! That’s what the audience sounds like to me.”

It’s all uphill from there, with Chappelle going on to sort of defend Michael Jackson and Louis C.K., eviscerate Jussie Smollett, and offer many of the sorts of observation that would bring any Upper West Side dinner party to an abrupt end, like quipping that if women have the right to choose to have an abortion, men, too, should have the right to refuse to pay for any unwanted children they had accidentally fathered. “It’s my money, my choice,” he said, a line that had since launched a thousand angry tweets.

How was the comedy special received? Professional critics, the sort of cats who’d majored in film studies at Oberlin and then gone on to write long tomes on, say, the gender politics of Spider-Man, disliked Sticks and Stones immensely. The Atlantic called it “a temper tantrum.” Slate likened Chappelle to “a rascally uncle who doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, how much he’s disappointing you.” And Vice summed up the consensus among our more enlightened souls by adjudicating that Chappelle “doubles down on misogyny and transphobia.” For these sins, the critics, collectively, had awarded the comedy special a 27% Fresh rating on the popular review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, just a touch better than comedy classics like Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.

But the site’s Audience Score—the one that measures the ratings of normal Americans, folks who, approaching a comedy special, ask not whether it successfully captured the appropriate nuances of intersectional postcolonialism but rather whether or not it was, you know, funny—is 99% Fresh.

Call it cancel culture’s finest hour. As Chappelle’s set proves, the frenzy toward judging certain works verboten actually achieves three important goals.

First, it inspires great artists to create great art. As Orson Welles observed so poignantly in the improvised speech that became the pinnacle of The Third Man, Italy, under the Borgias, suffered 30 years of warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed and produced Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, while Switzerland enjoyed five centuries of brotherly love, democracy, and peace and gave the world nothing grander than the cuckoo clock. Told that being funny was in and of itself insensitive and sinful—the creed, more or less, of Hannah Gadsby, a comedian who became a critical darling by arguing that “if the only thing you have to do is make people laugh, then you stop thinking about what it is you’re saying”—Chappelle responded with a roar. The pressures of constant criticism, on social media and in the pages of self-important publications, have turned Chappelle’s usually brilliant observations even sharper and more sparkling, and Sticks and Stones will continue to resonate long after the tweets that had eviscerated it are forgotten.

But cancel culture’s benefits do not end there. Independent-minded viewers are free not only to enjoy Chappelle’s jokes, but also to peruse the heaps of scorn piled on him by his critics and determine who among them is still in possession of his or her faculties and who has become a puttering politruk dedicated to nothing but the party line. Free and fair humans wondering how to sort through the torrents of content competing for our attention can be grateful for having a useful shibboleth when trying to figure out who is worthy of our time, attention, and grace. Those critics who savaged Chappelle aren’t, not because they’re not entitled to their studious opinions—the whole point, of course, of criticism—but because what they chose to offer wasn’t an engagement with the work of art but rather a demand that it be subdued to the political pieties of their class.

Which brings us to cancel culture’s third blessing: It’s a great matchmaker. Anyone furious at a comedian for failing to deliver jokes that conform neatly to the dogmas of identity politics, after all, is not likely to be the sort of person interested in, or even capable of, unfettered thinking. Which means they’re not really the sort of person worth engaging—there’s no point talking to people who see talking as potentially harmful rather than transformative and joyous. This is in no way an invitation to sever social ties en masse; rather, it’s a giddy reminder that the overwhelming majority of people—the 99% on Rotten Tomatoes—are still soulfully engaged and still view conversation as a cure, not a transgression.

As we gear up for the High Holidays, then, a time of introspection and reflection, we’ve one more thing for which to be thankful. Cancel culture may not feel soulful, but it may prove, despite the best intentions of its fanatical adherents, a great force for good.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.