Watch CBS News

Cancel culture, a new wedge issue

Cancel culture, a new wedge issue
Cancel culture, a new wedge issue 11:11

In 1987, Al Campanis, a vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, appeared on ABC News' "Nightline," and made some deeply offensive remarks about why there weren't more Black managers in baseball. "No, I don't believe it's prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the, uh, necessities," Campanis said.

Two days later, he was fired. We might say he was "canceled."

"Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel says "cancel culture," as it's called these days, is a social weapon that has served the outrage of both the left ("When you cross that kind of societal norm, you must pay the consequences"), and the right ("Don't support Major League Baseball, whose players actually kneel for the National Anthem").

In 2016, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police violence against blacks. He told a press conference, "I'll going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. This is something that has to change."

He expressed his sentiment in a 2018 Nike commercial: Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneels for the National Anthem before their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Levi's Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Canceled? Kaepernick never played professional football again.

Nowadays, the term, "cancel culture" has become the Swiss army knife of political warfare. While MSNBC's Ali Velshi described cancel culture as "the two stupidest words ever put together," Bill Maher said on HBO's "Real Time," "Cancel culture is real, it's insane, and it's growing exponentially."

Fox News' Sean Hannity offered his viewers a handy reference guide: "They want to cancel, let's see, Dr. Seuss, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Pepe le Pew..."

"They?" You know, the left, the Squad, the "woke crowd." Laura Ingraham described adherents of cancel culture as "liberals successfully [purging] almost all conservatives from academia, the entertainment industry, and journalism."

… like those members of the San Francisco Board of Education, who approved a plan to change the names of 44 schools linked to historical racism or oppression? Among those schools (until public outrage caused the board to suspend its plan) was one named after President Abraham Lincoln.

Comedian Jimmy Kimmel said, "This is how Trump gets reelected: cancel Dr. Seuss, cancel Abe Lincoln, melt down Mr. Potato Head's private parts … this is his path to victory the next time around."

Controversial? You bet! But according to Perry Bacon Jr., a senior writer for the website FiveThirtyEight, "We're undergoing an incredibly important re-examination of who our heroes are and should be. And I think that is not a fake issue at all. I can't think of anything more important."

Koppel asked, "You realize, of course, that that leaves you wide open to the argument that we are applying 21st century values to 18th century people?"

"I'm a Black person in America. I'm pretty happy with some of the things that Lincoln did," said Bacon. "So, I'm not opposed to that. But I do think, yes, we are seeing some of the most fundamental values to our society questioned. Capitalism? Is America an exceptional country? Is America a great country? Is America a model for other countries? Have we treated Native Americans and Black people so egregiously bad that we've never been a true democracy?

"So, when you see schools in San Francisco being renamed, I don't think this is minor. I think we're sort of really seeing that yes, yes, there are people on the left who absolutely want to re-evaluate the entire American history based on 2021 values.

"And hell, yes, that's controversial," said Bacon.

YouTuber Carlos Maza wields his social influence with pride: "I would hope that for as long as I live racists and transphobes think of me as a bad guy!" he said.

Those who lose their jobs or reputations to the quick judgment of cancel culture see a national retribution campaign spinning out of control. According to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, "Cancel culture comes for us all. Everyone will be canceled, unless you are full-on left, in which case you can say anything."

Maza said, "If you organized your politics or your ethics around 'How can we avoid Fox News horror stories?' you'll never do anything, because there is no way to enact change in a multi-racial democracy without there being some horror stories."

Thirty years ago, a strikingly similar issue carried a different label: political correctness, which "Sunday Morning" correspondent Bill Geist defined as, "Be sensitive, or else!"

In 1991, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, joined Koppel on "Nightline" to explain why so many teachers on campus were frightened by the phenomenon: "They're scared because this is a populist intimidation, if it happens at all, within groups of faculty and groups of students, where people simply don't want to risk either being vilified or unpopularity, or themselves are unwilling to have their own prejudices examined.

"It's ironic that all this call for diversity has created within the university a kind of silence about a real exchange of points of view."

Thirty years on, Botstein remains president of Bard College, and he recognizes the old symptoms. Today, he said of cancel culture, "this is not a new problem. What is new is the medium.

"Cancel culture is much more focused on punishment. Social media is like an accelerant to an arson. Everything moves rapidly and out of control. So, the slightest spark creates an avalanche, if you will, of retribution. There's no room for error. And the response is not to start a conversation or a dialogue, but to shut the person out in some way."

That may be true, said Carlos Maza; but social media simply levels the playing field for the outliers – those like himself a few years back.

"So, if I were at a school, like when I was in high school and had teachers calling kids 'faggots' in classroom, there was really nothing I could do," he said. "And if the alternative to that is that teachers are afraid of offending the gay kid in class, I'm OK with it. What you're really describing is a power struggle between the marginalized and those who are not."

Columnist Andrew Sullivan told Koppel, "I've been canceled a million times. I'll probably be canceled this afternoon by somebody, somewhere. And in the end, you go through that process and, if you have something worthwhile to say, people will find you and listen to you."

Sullivan reports recently experiencing just that when some of his colleagues at New York magazine declared themselves sufficiently uncomfortable with him that he was, well, canceled:

"America has always had these spasms of bullying, of social intimidation, of trying to suppress, from Salem [witch trials] through the blacklist," he said. "It goes way back, and this is just another bout of this puritanism, which I hope at some point will end.

"This country is an amazing experiment in openness and diversity generating more mutual understanding."

"Used to be," said Koppel.

"No, it's more than it's ever been," Sullivan reiterated. "You go anywhere in the world, anywhere else in the world and find a country as diverse and as tolerant as this one. You try. You think China doesn't have unbelievable levels of unspeakable racism and sexism in it?"

What's at issue – and this is very much going to be a factor in our political process – is a changing power structure, reflecting a change in our national profile.

"The left is moving towards a deliberate reengineering of our society along identity-based lines," said Sullivan. "You're not all White supremacists. These narratives that are being propelled, that this society has basically not even advanced since slavery? These are extremist views. That idea there is no difference between men and women? That biological sex does not exist? I mean, this stuff is insane."

Koppel said, "But to those who say, 'Andrew, look, for all the generations that we women, we trans, we Blacks have been oppressed in this country, we finally have the wherewithal – '"

"To oppress others?"

"'…we finally have the wherewithal to administer some leverage of our own.' What's your answer?"

"I think some of it is motivated by a kind of inverse racism and sexism that wants some kind of payback, yes," he replied. "I do think that some of that is part of the psychology."

"And what's the natural evolution of that, then? Where does it go?"

"I hope people can understand that you don't make a right by just repeating the wrong," Sullivan said.

"Look, Andrew, you've always been a voice in the wilderness, but I think yours is A particularly lonely voice right now."

"I know," he said. "I'm aware of it. So what?"

"To put it bluntly," said FiveThirtyEight's Bacon, "it looks like White heterosexual men have a little less power to control the discourse, and people who are not those have a little more power just to control the discourse."

Texas Senator Ted Cruz claims to have raised more than $125,000 in 24 hours, signing and selling copies of "Green Eggs and Ham," the Dr. Seuss classic (which, incidentally, has not been canceled) at $60 a crack. The senator says he's campaigning against the cancel culture mob ("Go woke, go broke!).

And there's a huge, receptive audience out there. More than half (64%) of registered voters surveyed in a recent Harvard-Harris poll saw their freedom threatened by a "growing cancel culture."

And then there is this: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in less than 25 years, White Americans will be a minority. The political future of the nation is undergoing a seismic shift.

While the national conversation seems focused on cultural icons, and the randomness and often silliness of who and what gets "canceled," the issues at stake are about real political power – who gains, and who loses.

For more info:

Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

See also: 

Canceled culture: Reconsidering the art of controversial artists 08:08
View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.