The term “cancel culture,” like “political correctness,” is hated by progressives, ostensibly because it is vague but actually for the opposite reason: because it gives a name to a real phenomenon, and naming a thing is the first step to organizing resistance to it. The best way to kill an idea is to prevent the language in which it can be expressed. While those of us horrified by cancel culture should be rigorous and fair in how we apply the term, we should not shy away from calling it out by name. The campaign against Dr. Seuss is cancel culture of the worst kind.
Cancel culture is not simply the act of pointing out offensive words, deeds, and images and holding people to account for them. It has five hallmarks. One, it starts by defining “offensive” to include a vast array of things that the political Left disapproves of (some legitimately offensive, others obviously sane and true), while normalizing and defending things that genuinely offend others. Two, its list of offenses is constantly growing and changing, such that even the most politically attuned people can never know what will be grounds for cancellation next. Three, it lacks a sense of proportion or context: everything is judged not only as if it just happened in the present time, but as if it is the only thing the offender ever did. Four, it treats the reader or listener as mentally fragile and incapable of learning or nuance, such that he or she must be protected from exposure to uncomfortable things — an unreasonable way of treating children, let alone adults. And five, it lacks mercy: The living must be made to issue groveling apologies and Maoist self-flagellations and sacked from jobs having nothing to do with their offenses, and the dead are beyond redemption.