I did a blog about a month ago talking about “cancel culture” and comedy. The question posed was whether the tendency to shun comedians who express unpopular views is a new thing (it’s not) and whether it tends to chill expression (it might).
So I was interested in this piece from MarketWatch which talked about Louis C. K.’s comeback efforts in the wake of his troubling past, which involves credible allegations of sexual harassment. After taking a step back in the immediate aftermath of the allegations, the comedian has continued to tour and record albums. He recently was nominated for a Grammy for his “Sincerely Louis C.K.” album. So he hasn’t disappeared. But whether we see him in more mainstream settings – like hosting Saturday Night Live – remains an open question.
But the MarketWatch piece makes an interesting point about “cancel culture.” There are really two forms of cancellation. On the one hand is cancellation for conduct. Louis C. K. falls into that category. His career wasn’t derailed based on his edgy material. The wheels came off rather because of his conduct with women. Dave Chappelle, however, along with any number of comics before him (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin) is facing cancellation not for anything he did, but rather for what he said in his act.
Is this a distinction without a difference? I’m not so sure. The results are the same – both Louis and Chappelle’s voices get muzzled – but the road to rehabilitation differs. For Louis, it doesn’t seem anyone is asking him to change his material. Rather, his path to redemption would seem to require him to be accountable for his actions and change his ways going forward. He seems to be on that path.
Not that Chappelle seems to care much about his critics’ feelings, but if he wanted to win back the population upset with him, he’s likely have to change his act and watch what he says on stage. So this type of “cancellation” seems like a more direct threat to expression. I think that’s actually a big difference.