Is this Cancel Culture? (Unicorn Edition)

An irregualr, ongoing series.

Cancelled stamp

As promised, an ongoing series.

Today’s entry via WaPo: An author was set to read his unicorn book to students. The school forbade it.

Jason Tharp wants to write books for weird kids — because he was one.

Growing up in Ohio, the 45-year-old children’s author, illustrator and inspirational speaker sometimes felt invisible. But as he battled feelings of loneliness, he found comfort in books.

Now, Tharp is on a mission to reach that “one kid” who needs to feel seen. So in 2017, he developed a character to remind his readers that it’s okay to be different.

“I sat down and tried to figure out what kind of character would be nonthreatening, that they will be instantly lovable and I would be able to kind of get them … to be invested in the story,” Tharp said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I was like, ‘Kids like unicorns.’ “

[…]

“I just straight up asked him, ‘Does somebody think I made a gay book?’ ” Tharp said. “And he said, ‘Yes. … The concern is that you’re coming with an agenda to recruit kids to become gay.’ “

Jeremy Froehlich, the interim superintendent, did not respond to The Post’s request for comment. In an interview with WBNS, Froehlich said one parent visited his office on April 6, expressing concern about the book.

“They just wanted to make sure that we vetted the book and our staff thought that they had vetted it,” he said.

To add to this:

Tharp offered to read a different book, “It’s Okay to Smell Good!” about a skunk who lives in a stinky world but realizes he — unlike his peers — enjoys good-smelling things. In the end, the skunk finds one friend who also likes nice smells, making him feel less alone.

“There’s no rainbows. No unicorns,” Tharp said.

But about 30 minutes after the call with the principal, he emailed Tharp, saying higher-ups didn’t want him reading that book, either. Instead, they wanted him to “continue to focus on your positive message and illustrations,” according to the email, which was reviewed by The Post. Tharp did his presentation the following day, omitting any reference to the unicorn book.

[…]

Tharp, who before the pandemic was speaking to about 40,000 to 50,000 students a year, is convinced that those who objected to the book never actually read it because it is clear there is no reference to the LGBTQ community.

“They are projecting their agenda [because] there is a rainbow … on the back of the book,” Tharp said.

As per previous conversations, I am curious as to the collective views on this subject.

Is any cancellation (and this is a literal cancelation of an event) for broadly defined political reasons “cancel culture”?

Some have argued that cancel culture is only intra-group, but in this case it is clearly driven by one ideological faction against another.

Thoughts?

And I will note: I am seriously interested in the discussion. Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone of my original post in this series, I think there is a serious issue here. I agree, to get back to an earlier post on this topic, that cancellation (broadly defined) does exist (I still think that the purest example is Justine Sacco). I am less convinced of the “culture” part and I am especially skeptical of the general deployment of the term “cancel culture” because I find it about as precise as “woke” (but I do agree that both terms do point to a general set of phenomena, but also would stridently argue that the terms are profoundly political and fundamentally imprecise). I like some level of operational precision in terms, even if I fully understand I can’t control what terms the zeitgeist deploys at a given moment in time.

Another area of consideration: if it is a governmental actor that is doing the canceling, does that determine whether it is “cancel culture” or not?

FILED UNDER: Books, Democracy, Education, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    cancellation (broadly defined) does exist (I still think that the purest example is Justine Sacco)

    I disagree. The purest example is Colin Kaepernick. Sacco actually got another job in her chosen field.

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  2. CSK says:

    Tharp should look on the bright side of this: His book sales will probably skyrocket now.

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  3. Slugger says:

    Soon we’ll ban Genesis which mentions rainbows several times.

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  4. @Mikey: Kaepernick is a great example, that for reason I keep forgetting.

    I think of Sacco as the key example because it directly involved social media mobs attacking her for insensitive speech. Hence, it involved not even a specific power player (like the NFL), but rather a mass of people.

    Regardless, Kaepernick is a clear case of job loss over political speech, yes.

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  5. @Slugger: Not to mention the incest.

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  6. And nudity.

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  7. Jon says:

    @Slugger: @Steven L. Taylor:
    Heh, for some reason I took that as reference to the band Genesis, and Dr. Taylors’ first comment really threw me till I caught up.

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  8. Kylopod says:

    This is a test.

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    The question that interests me is whether this is different than banning Huckleberry Finn from school libraries.

    In the case of HF, my understanding is that the banning was usually based on the inclusion in the text of racial slurs, one in particular. Said slur would be normative for the characters who utter it, at the place in time in history when they say it. It’s meant to be a bit shocking nevertheless.

    However, the difference between that and this is that its based on something actually in the text. Whereas, this cancellation is based entirely on someone’s opinion of the subtext. In some wise, it seems appropriate for nascent authoritarianism to reject any sort of accommodation to people who are “different” regardless of the difference.

    I dunno, maybe there are better, dumber, examples of book bannings from the past? I’m not sure author readings were enough of a thing to have them banned/cancelled. I do think those parents have always been with us.

    Perhaps though, one difference between my youth and today is that one of those parents can recruit an army, including prominent national figures, perhaps sitting Senators, to their cause with ease. Everything becomes nationalized, rather than letting the dumb slip away quietly.

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  10. drj says:

    I don’t really have a decent definition of cancel culture. But I think this example perhaps qualifies.

    Mainly because it seems that Tharp was cancelled because of an incorrect assumption (“rainbows are gay”) related to the broader culture wars.

    To me, at least, cancel culture (if there is such a thing) is more about insinuation and imputation (“You said/suggested A, therefore you/your ideas are morally suspect.”) than things stated directly.

    For instance, disinviting Nazi’s isn’t cancel culture IMO.

    (Going off on a somewhat related tangent, I thought Justine Sacco’s joke quite funny. I always understood it as calling attention to undeserved white/western privilege.)

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    The simple definition of cancel culture is: I don’t like something, therefore no one anywhere ever should see it, and if anyone disagrees they are evil and anything they create should also be canceled. And if the accused try to defend themselves then they are automatically extra guilty. Also, anyone who fails to enthusiastically endorse the canceling should be canceled. And also anyone who calls canceling canceling. Because there is absolutely no canceling going on and anyone who pretends there is should be canceled.

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  12. Jc says:

    Yes, a good example. An over reaction to an uninformed persons immediate concern, brought about by a knee jerk fear, which was aroused upon first sight/read of something they think/feel might relate to something they don’t like/believe in

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  13. @Jon: I LOLd at that.

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  14. Scott F. says:

    Is any cancellation (and this is a literal cancelation of an event) for broadly defined political reasons “cancel culture”?

    This particular case is striking for a few reasons, so my gut impression is that this instance isn’t a good representation of cancel culture.

    First, Tharp’s work as a children’s author doesn’t yet seem imperiled by this one event. It could go that way, I suppose, but it hasn’t yet. (His life hasn’t yet been ruined either.)

    Second, the expansiveness demonstrated by this example is stupefying. The opposing parent’s (or is it parents’) reaction and the school administration cave-in comes down to a rainbow. I understand that the LGBTQ community has adopted the rainbow as a symbol, but how insecure in one’s values and worldview does someone have to be to consider a multi-colored arc as a means to pervert their child? Seriously? As though the grocery industry would feel threatened by the implicit anti-overeating message of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

    And I suppose that’s the real danger of these “cancelling” times. If you are looking to be offended, threatened, or oppressed, it’s not all that hard to find an example you can exploit when there are so many political games being played. And the games only serve to diminish those instances where there truly is offense, threat, and oppression.

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  15. Dutchgirl says:

    I don’t consider this a cancel culture example because there was no pile-on, and happened off social media (as far as I know). I see those two things as defining characteristics of cancel culture. This seems more like moral panic behavior, in-line with the don’t say gay thinking, and calling democrats groomers.

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  16. Just nutha says:

    All I’ve got is FUCK! WHAT IS WRONG WITH THOSE PEOPLE!!! But I understand that outburst will not advance the conversation, so please feel free to delete my “contribution” now that I’ve vented.

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  17. Sleeping Dog says:

    Saw this, this morning and it is pertinent to the discussion. And yes Tharp is a victim of the RW version of cancel culture.

    Cancel Culture Exists
    It’s fashionable to claim there are no real consequences for online callouts. The truth is, there very often are.
    By Katha Pollitt

    Noted progressive pundit, writing in a venerable progressive journal.

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  18. Chip Daniels says:

    Cancel culture is just a new term for the most ancient of human behaviors which is to shame and shun those with views which are taboo.

    Which means that cancelling is neither good nor bad, but just a tool of enforcing social conformance to norms.

    Its the norms which need to be examined, not the tools.

    Was the book inappropriate, or not?

    In this case, it seems pretty clear that is was appropriate and harmless, and there was no legitimate reason to block it. It also seems clear that the reason for wanting it blocked was mostly just bigotry against homosexuals.

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  19. Erik says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    one of those parents can recruit an army

    This. Our social senses have not recalibrated to our new social environment. It take zero effort to add a comment or like a post so there is zero cost for a person to do so even when they don’t actually care. But we still respond to 500 comments on a Facebook post as if 500 people had cared enough to make the effort to show up in person in the rain to a town hall event.

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  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    People fear and ridicule that which is different. (me, for instance) They always have, they always will. Cancel culture has been around at least as long as humans and I suspect since the first living thing photosynthesized sunlight.

    Now all of a sudden it’s being turned against the popular kids who used to be able to say the most outrageous and inappropriate things and everybody would laugh, even tho all there knew it really wasn’t OK.

    So F’n what.

    As to this particular instance, I think he is getting attacked for basically saying, “It’s OK to be different.” Is it cancel culture?

    OF F’N COURSE IT IS!

    But you know what? It is the same sort of stuff that has been getting cancelled by the dominant culture for thousands of years. Us “different” folks are just used to being cancelled. Some of us also got used to having to stand up against it.

    Man up mfer’s.

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  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Thanks for that link.

    So, it seems that most of the points I made about cancel culture as far back as 2016 now appear in the pages of The Nation, no less. I don’t know what their comment culture is like over there but I didn’t even find pushback in the few comments that were left.

    The worm is turning, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve gone from cancel! Cancel! Cancel! To. . . what cancel culture? Why, I’ve never even heard of such a thing!

    Here’s the rest of the story: Progressive cancel culture has framed the Left as intolerant, overly-precious, humorless, obnoxious, arrogant and not really all that smart. That is now part of a picture that lives in the heads of voters. That picture will persist for many years. And it’s inserted a wedge between Left and Further Left. Anyone who doesn’t think that hurts us politically is an idiot. Anyone who doesn’t understand that this weakens our ability to fight back against right-wing cancel culture, is also an idiot.

    This train wreck was completely predictable and you know what? There are still homeless people living in tents under the freeway because rather than direct our energy to solving actual problems we spent our time debating pronouns, shouting down speakers, inventing hashtags and renaming schools. We are likely to lose Congress in less than a year so we will then be able to do nothing about homelessness, nothing about climate change, nothing about economic inequality, nothing about education or racial justice or voting rights or trans rights or women’s rights or a single useful goddamned thing. This is dereliction of duty, driven by college-educated, privileged white people making themselves feel good while accomplishing nothing. Virtuous masturbation.

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  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And for the record,

    Jesus was cancelled.
    Joan of Arc was cancelled.
    Caligula was cancelled.
    Harvey Milk was cancelled.
    Hitler was cancelled.

    Hell’s bells, John Crawford was cancelled and all he said was. “Oh fuck…”

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  23. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: And yet… once again we see rightwing politicians using government power to censor expression of speech, and you’re complaining about lefties. At this point, I just don’t understand.

    Lefty cancelling bad? Yes, sure. Right wing governments using the power of the state to harass and fire people who try to discuss real people’s lives? You just can’t be bothered. Why is that, Michael? Why is it that one idiot undergrad on Twitter frightens you more than Ron deSantis banning any discussion of race or sex from all schools?

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  24. restless says:

    @wr:

    Speaking only for myself, the frustrating thing about far-left cancel culture is that it’s focused on the less-left, rather than the authoritarian right. Friendly fire, as it were.

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  25. Chip Daniels says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    This reading of the American voting base seems overly focused on the very online, very small, and very insular Twitter battles which are IMO largely invisible to the people who matter, i.e., the average voter.

    I would wager that far more people have heard about the “Don’t Say Gay” bill than the Yale Law School speech that was not shut down.

    What’s probably more destructive is that Fox News is beamed directly into so many waiting rooms, airport lounges, hotel lobbies and such which gives an outsize advantage of both a captive audience and relentless fascist propaganda.

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  26. wr says:

    @restless: “Speaking only for myself, the frustrating thing about far-left cancel culture is that it’s focused on the less-left, rather than the authoritarian right. ”

    I agree. Far-left cancel culture is frustrating. But right-wing cancel-culture is verging on all-out Fascism.

    I would rather be annoyed by me ally than fired, bankrupted or jailed by my foe. But apparently some people in the center-left disagree…

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  27. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    What you seem determined to avoid recognizing is that Left-wing cancel culture makes it harder to fight the more pernicious right wing version. I’m not looking to shit on my prog allies, I just wish they weren’t so fucking stupid and ineffectual. I wish they’d learn to convince rather than just denounce. The fact that ‘those guys are worse’ is precisely why we cannot afford to be morons.

    Have you failed to notice that we are losing ground? Do you understand we’re getting our asses kicked in state after state? We. Are. Losing, comrade Putin, our tactics aren’t working, but God forbid we take stock and adjust in order to win, nah, let’s keep right on digging that hole because our cause is just.

    You don’t understand politics @wr, you just don’t.

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  28. @Michael Reynolds:

    Do you understand we’re getting our asses kicked in state after state?

    The degree to which cancel culture, CRT, “defund the police” or the like is the reason that Democrats are losing elections is suspect from an evidence-based perspective. Note my piece from last weekend about the House maps. The issue isn’t issues, its structure.

    And the pattern of the president’s party losing mid-terms in his first term is timeworn. It pre-dates the words “cancel” and “culture” being put together.

    I am not saying you have no point at all here, but you keep making it sound like something that it isn’t.

    If you are going to excoriate people about their knowledge of politics/extol your prescience, at least be able to deal with the clear evidence and fundamentals.

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  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    If it’s all structure then why in hell do we bother discussing issues at all? There is no right, no wrong, no better, no worse because: maps? In that case we seem to be doing better than expected at redistricting so I wonder why exactly we’re going to get our asses kicked in November.

    It is absurd to dismiss the importance of the story we tell. The maps didn’t give us civil rights or gay rights, the stories did.

    The Democratic Party is a brand, just like Starbucks is a brand. Our brand is meant to be that we help those who need help. If our brand is no longer about helping people who need help, but is rather, that we’re the smart kids showing off and lecturing everyone else on micro-aggressions and pronouns, then that makes a difference. If Starbucks stops selling coffee and starts selling curry, that matters and all the well-sited stores in the world won’t save them.

    The maps work against us when we lose state legislatures. Right? So we need more support and less opposition at the state leg level, because then we make the maps. Right? How do we get those voters? With stories about our brand. With candidates people like. Maps are effect first before they become cause.

    Brand is story and story changes minds and gives us votes which gives us power. You know what doesn’t give us power? Shrugging our shoulders and saying, ‘whaddya gonna do, it’s the maps.’

  30. @Michael Reynolds:

    Which is not what I am doing.

    First and foremost my goal is to understand, and my understanding of this process to date is that structure is more important than narrative, so what else should I say?

    Second, if that is true then the solution to our waning democracy isn’t getting Dems to stop talking about X, Y, or Z, it is to get them (and, really, anyone who will listen) where the central flaws of the system are.

    If every single Democratic politician renounced CRT, stated they were not for defunding the police, and renounced all cancel culture of all kinds, the net result would be far smaller than you are suggesting. That fact means that your diagnosis of the problem is off, especially given the vehemence you apply to assert your position.

    I am not stating that narrative doesn’t matter, I am stating it is not anywhere near as dispositive as you state that it is.

    This is what I am getting at with MarkedMan over the in other thread: we want to think that our politics is all about narrative and arguments and policy and winning the hearts and minds of voters. But the reality is that this is far less the case than we are taught and that we think is true. If we aren’t willing to truly understand that, fixes will never come (and yes, before someone else tells me, the fixes are hard and very, very difficult to achieve).

    If Dems think that the problem is solved by how they talk about CRT, then we are doomed (indeed, the utter lack of a serious pro-democracy agenda by the Dems going into 2021 underscores that they think the system is fine, and that the fight is mostly over narrative).

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  31. de stijl says:

    One day I was rushing to an appointment on campus and the protesty squad was doing a “die-in” directly in front of the building I needed to be in ASAP.

    It was a small campus. I knew almost everybody by name or sight.

    I stepped across the strewn bodies saying “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!”

    I said “Hi” to a few folks I knew pretty well.

    One exchange I remember vividly was with a young woman who was a dear, good friend. As I was stepping over her I saw it was Michelle. I just reflexively spat out “Hey, Mich! How you been?” She answered with something as banal. Like “Pretty good. How ’bout you?”

    It was bizarre. I have zero idea now what the appointment was or why it seemed important at the time.

    Silly, impudent kids thinking that nuclear war was bad in 1984.

    Because that could never, ever happen. The Soviet Union is stable. MAD makes sense. We have tanks defending the Fulda Gap.

    Those folks were smarter than I was.

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