At February's Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida, figures railed at the supposed creeping influence of "cancel culture" in American society. Former US president Donald Trump declared, "we reject left-wing lunacy, and in particular, we reject cancel culture", declaring America “uncancelled” at the conference. The alarm against "cancel culture" has been sounded by prominent figures on the right wing of American and western politics for some time now; but is this about free speech, or is something else at play?
This past fortnight, an academic at Yale University, Bandy Lee, filed a complaint against the university, alleging "unlawful termination". Her claim is that the university fired her for a tweet last January in which she characterised "just about all" of Mr Trump's supporters as suffering from a "shared psychosis", including prominent Trump supporter and right-wing lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Mr Dershowitz wrote to Yale administrators, who then fired Ms Lee. The irony is that Mr Dershowitz is the author of a book called Cancel Culture: The Latest Attack on Free Speech and Due Process, in which he bemoans an ongoing attack on free speech.
A typical narrative of "cancel culture" among the right wing goes like this: conservative values are under attack, at risk of being marginalised forever, and "cancel culture" is a front in the war to displace those values. But such a narrative misrepresents where the power to "cancel" lies – which is not with the left wing of American politics. The conflict between Ms Lee and Mr Dershowitz is just one case.
Powerful figures on the right are annoyed that the hegemony they have enjoyed for so long is now being questioned so vigorously and publicly on social media. But they maintain that hegemony, nonetheless. Mr Dershowitz, for example, railed against cancel culture but was happy to engage successfully in it himself. While the left is often the side with the loudest voices, power at the most prominent institutions in the West continues to be held by conservatives.
Mr Trump, for example, may have been banned from Twitter but he has not been silenced. He simply uses other media platforms to promote his message. And he was not banned from Twitter for his conservative views in any case, but because of tweets that Twitter deemed to be incitement, amid fears that the tech giant might be held liable following the storming of the US Capitol.
The uncomfortable reality around "cancel culture" for figures on the right is that it is often less about some kind of conspiratorial "attack" on existing conservative views and rather, simply market forces at work. What's popular is often profitable, and it has become less profitable to deny accountability in certain contexts. And indeed, it is only in certain contexts. The MeToo movement didn't eradicate sexual harassment, despite bringing to light several high-profile cases.
But because there is less impunity, right-wing conservatives are seeing that the proverbial market of ideas, which they have championed as part of capitalism, has decided that with the new generation, there is simply more profit to be made by at least feigning support for certain progressive values. It is one reason why, for example, more brands in their advertisements today include different ethnicities and minorities – because anti-racism, anti-sexism, and so forth, sells. It is also why publishers are ceasing their publishing of some Dr Seuss books because of the adverse portrayals the books have of minorities.
But instead of recognising this natural progression, right-wing forces have developed alternative narratives as to why their hegemony is being questioned, such as how Mr Trump did at the convention. Conservative writers like Bari Weiss did the same. Weiss explained her departure from the more liberal New York Times as the result of a poisonous working environment for conservatives like herself, arising from the influence of the "illiberal left" within the paper. But Weiss was never a victim forced to leave the newspaper; she left on her own accord, and multiple sources at the paper contradicted her description of an adversarial atmosphere. Other conservative writers remain.
This is precisely what invigorates so many concerns around "cancel culture". They are about developing a narrative where right-wing figures garner populist support, particularly among audiences that fear progressive forces that challenge the status quo. The irony is that the right wing remains at a tremendous advantage in terms of power, but it is still terrified.
People getting fired for harassment is not "cancel culture". It is upholding a company’s duty under the law to protect its employees from unwanted aggravation. Companies choosing to discontinue certain products as a result of loss of popularity is not "cancel culture". It is the market at work. And that disturbs a large swathe of the right wing, because it shows that the power dynamics in their societies are changing, even if minutely. That fear about power shifting, even if the shift is so small, is far more relevant than “cancel culture”.
Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University