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What Are We Really Achieving Here? How Cancel Culture Can Reinforce Privilege

Image via Australian Business Journal

Each story follows a similar arc. Someone, often a public figure, makes a controversial statement that goes viral. People get mad online. Internet sleuths dig up that person’s old posts and comments, adding fuel to the fire. Ultimately, the offender is often fired or otherwise removed from the public gaze. Other offenders choose to fight back, betting that short term backlash will quickly fade. 

There has been much ink spilled over the morality of cancel culture over the last few years. Less examined is the cost incurred by institutions that stand by their associated members in the midst of scandal. Cancel culture represents a mass effort to publicly shame and financially harm a person or company due to controversy. Opponents of these movements, often conservatives, claim that cancel culture stifles free speech and suppresses popular points of view in the name of political correctness. Proponents reply that they merely wish to make the virtual public square more inclusive for minorities and historically marginalized groups. In reality, cancel culture can target anyone but can only hurt some—typically, the less privileged. Few of the canceled rich and famous have faced meaningful consequences for their actions, with the exception of those accused of serious crimes. Meanwhile, ordinary people face financial ruin and social ostracism. For example, a janitor at Smith College was forced to go on paid leave and had his reputation destroyed because he reported that a Black student was eating in a lounge in which they were not allowed. The impacts of this situation continued even after a report by the school found that the janitor committed no wrongdoing and there was no evidence of bias. The injustice of these outcomes undermines the righteousness of the movement that causes them.

The case of Joe Rogan, the most popular podcaster in the world, demonstrates this reality. His podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” features almost 1800 podcasts and averages 11 million listeners per episode. Rogan’s guests are massively influential public figures ranging from Mike Tyson to Neil deGrasse Tyson. His guests’ popularity coupled with Rogan’s willingness to platform their unfiltered views drives the podcast’s popularity. However, this openness has been a cause of significant public relations pain for him and Spotify, which paid Rogan over $200 million to exclusively host his podcast on their platform. In recent weeks, Rogan has come under fire for hosting guests that spread Covid-19 misinformation, particularly regarding vaccines. One guest, Robert Malone, compared vaccination efforts in the United States to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Rogan himself has faced accusations of similar misinformation. In April of 2021, Rogan said, “If you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, ‘Should I get vaccinated?’ I’ll go no.” As the controversy continued, several artists including Neil Young asked Spotify to remove their content from the platform, wiping $4 billion from Spotify’s market cap. Soon, old clips of Rogan saying the n-word resurfaced, forcing Spotify to remove at least 70 episodes of the podcast and prompting CEO Daniel Ek to issue a company-wide apology. Nevertheless, Spotify’s stock continues to fall, losing 23.29 percent in value during February. Despite Spotify’s pre-existing stock issues—as the company struggles with profitability and its financial relationship with artists—the company believes Rogan is a good investment for the future and continues to stand by him publicly and financially. In other words, the cancellation did not work.

A similar situation played out last year after comedian Dave Chappelle faced backlash after making jokes about transgender individuals in his most recent Netflix special, The Closer. At one point, hundreds of Netflix employees walked out to protest the company’s involvement in platforming the comic. While co-CEO Ted Serandos admitted to botching internal communication, Netflix has doubled down by hiring Chappelle for four new specials. Surprisingly, they did so even though their internal metrics rated The Closer as slightly below average. Rewarding Chappelle following the controversy suggests that Netflix executives were either unbothered by public anger or found the free publicity from the outcry attractive. 

Outside of the mainstream entertainment industry, influencer James Charles once lost 3 million YouTube subscribers in a single weekend after another influencer accused him of betrayal and predatory behavior. Within a year, Charles won back the lost subscribers and has gained millions since. It is difficult to say whether he benefited from the scandal, but he seems to have lost little renown as a result of his actions. In the corporate world, Goya faced condemnation and boycotts for CEO Robert Unanue’s continued support of President Donald Trump since 2020. When the boycotts first began, the chief executive of rival company Penzey’s Spices proclaimed that a “change of leadership” and “public apology” would be forthcoming. Instead, the brand earned $92 million in free publicity, and Unanue remains CEO. Unanue faced no personal consequences until 2021, when Goya’s board barred him from unauthorized public appearances after he called the 2020 election “unverified.”

In a stark contrast to the unscathed celebrities, less known figures suffer massive consequences to their reputations and livelihoods. In 2013, Justine Sacco, the senior director of communications at IAC, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” while en route to visit family in South Africa. The internet correctly pointed out that her joke was racist and tone deaf. The ensuing firestorm saw Sacco lose her job and privacy. Upon arriving in South Africa, her aunt told her, “by association, you’ve almost tarnished the family.” Countless internet posts examined her personal life, including a Buzzfeed article titled “16 Tweets Justine Sacco Regrets.” In academia, University of Southern California professor Greg Patton faced outrage for using a Chinese word in class that sounds like the n-word. Students complained and the university suspended the professor. Though a subsequent investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, the story of his suspension is still the top Google result for his name.

The success of these figures and brands portrays a troubling picture of cancel culture’s efficacy. Despite the appearance of fighting against the bigoted, privileged, and famous, the phenomenon seems to serve the exact opposite in many cases. Sacco had 170 Twitter followers—there was no reason for her to expect the comments to be seen by a wider audience less forgiving to sarcasm. The USC professor was just teaching his class. 

There is indeed a legitimate case for calling out poor behavior to make marginalized people feel more comfortable in public. Joe Rogan should face consequences for vaccine misinformation and racist behavior, but he has done worse than Sacco and Patton combined. The unfortunate reality is that he likely will not. Cancel culture is supposed to be about justice, but it can never be just until this disparity ends.