The phenomenon of “cancel culture” is trending, with its effects on the current structure of our society becoming a point of debate and a popular topic of news coverage. But while the term itself may be new and catchy, in reality cancel culture has been around for years.
It is actually ironic that cancel culture has become such a topic of political contention, given that a closer look reveals that in many ways politics itself gave birth to cancel culture.
For the uninitiated, cancel culture is a term used to describe attacking someone and attempting to “cancel” them — the goal being to strip them of their power and platform because their beliefs, actions or politics do not align with your own.
Within the political realm, the ultimate way to “cancel” a politician has always been clear: vote him or her out of office, either by inserting a primary challenger from the same party or a general election opponent from the opposite side of the aisle. When long-term incumbent Members of Congress — Republican or Democrat — are unseated by louder, more aggressive and extreme challengers from within their own party, it is also a form of cancel culture in action, spearheaded by the party faithful.
Back in the good old days, cancel culture took a form that is still going strong today — the negative political attack ad.
With examples tracing back to at least the early 1800s, negative ads aim to tear down political opponents and force them out of office, zeroing in on something they have said or done that illustrates why they must go. Fixating upon a dramatic example illustrating how the target is unfit for office and using a campaign to demand that person be defeated — in modern parlance, cancelled — is as old as politics itself.
Modern-day cancel culture typically relies upon the internet as the gathering ground upon which organizers work to attract, recruit and mobilize an army of detractors. Once incited, these relentless groups of outraged activists spring into action by urging boycotts and other tangible efforts against those whom they have perceived as having committed an unforgivable sin that warrants punishment.
Again, at its core, cancel culture is nothing new. The mechanics of how it is executed have evolved, but the philosophy is the same as negative political advertising.
Through the decades, advertising has become more potent in the era of video. Political observers often point to a campaign ad from 30 years ago against Michael Dukakis highlighting his decision to release convicted murderer Willie Horton from prison as a classic example that going negative works as a campaign advertising strategy.
Today, thanks to advances in technology and the internet, limitless numbers of ads can be produced cheaply, rapidly and widely circulated online. One of the most fascinating examples in the upcoming presidential election are withering ads a group of Republicans calling themselves The Lincoln Project are producing that encourage the public to vote against a sitting president from their own party.
But while cancel culture may entail ever broadening applications of the same negative methods that have been used in politics for decades, there is one major difference. People seeking public office willingly offer themselves up for scrutiny, and in so doing become public figures.
But today’s cancel culture increasingly targets private organizations and private citizens who suddenly find themselves under assault when they have not necessarily sought to live in the public eye. Political aspirants understand what they are signing up for and that character attacks come with the turf. In most cases, they have weighed the pros and cons with loved ones before announcing their candidacy, having prepared themselves to roll with the punches and perhaps throw some of their own.
Many rough and tumble tactics have seeped from the political realm into day-to-day life, including gathering signatures for petitions, attempting to hack people’s emails and voicemails, doxing, sending out images and videos designed to portray people in a bad light and mobilizing people online to join the fight. Unlike candidates, with staff members to insulate them and campaign coffers that can finance counter-efforts, many private citizens are wholly unprepared for the sudden onslaught of bullying they face.
Perhaps Americans should not be surprised to see the dark side of politics entering the daily lives of all, given the increasing polarization and partisanship of our citizenry.
For the foreseeable future, individuals targeted by cancel culture will need to draw upon the same strategies used by politicians: take stock of the situation, formulate consistent messages and powerful talking points, rally their supporters, and try to defend themselves.
And like elections, victory is never guaranteed — in the end, the public will decide.
Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm.