Originally published: Newsweek by Yuri Vanetik
Cancel culture, an inspiring newcomer to the lexicon a few years back, is now the establishment’s tool of oppression. Although at its inception it appeared to serve as an aid for the marginalized, it deceived us. In fact, it is as old as the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, and as repressive.
I know a little bit about cancel culture. My family fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Refugees yearning for freedom, we escaped a tyrannical, shame-based regime.
The Soviet version of cancel culture was driven by fear and enforced by shame. If your views deviated from official precepts, you were ostracized or dragged off to some gulag never to be seen again. The regime was notorious for its show trials. In these spectacles, citizens deemed unpatriotic were shamed and forced to admit their disloyalty to the Soviet creed before execution.
Once you became a target, there was no offer of redemption. The KGB and its informants did not seek apologies for the “disloyals” they targeted. Soviets indoctrinated children and rewarded students for denouncing their parents over the slightest indiscretions—even a lack of enthusiastic support for the brutal dictatorship warranted harsh retribution. Some of my father’s coworkers at the aircraft plant where he worked suffered this brutal fate.
My parents, together with my grandmother and me, escaped the Soviet Union’s oppression. We left behind all our belongings, our tiny apartment, our relatives and our friends, migrating through Europe’s refugee camps until America took us in.
Therein lies the greatest difference with today’s cancel culture. On the internet, once you are canceled, there is no other shore.
Fast forward to the 21st century, when I unexpectedly encountered cancel culture once again. My political ties and Russian-sounding name were enough to trigger my cancelation.
I was targeted by a group of Twitter trolls, Washington operatives and journalists who fabricated stories insinuating I was somehow shady and dishonest. They harassed my friends, and even Facebook friends; they even smeared my 79-year-old father.
My cancelation failed because I fought back—but many others have been casualties in the escalating ideological war, in which today’s establishment often co-opts and directs radicals.
Cancel culture started as a grassroots social media empowerment movement that staged online boycotts to punish or “call out” public figures and institutions that transgressed the rights of disenfranchised groups. The aim was to encourage the advancement of social justice and good corporate citizenship.
Yet because the definitions of “social justice” and acceptable corporate behavior are often subjective, the movement has become a social media vigilantism that supports—rather than challenges—the establishment. It has quickly become a totalitarian enforcement movement empowered by the tech tools of the future. It no longer shares any coherent creed, often targeting innocent, vulnerable and at times random people.
One was a teacher who was outed by the social media mob—and at once fired—for inadvertently failing to address a student by his self-identified gender pronoun.
Another was a high school student who was cyberbullied and had her admission to college withdrawn after the mainstream media picked up on a social media post from another student’s old video of her using a slur not directed at anyone.
And yet another cancelation took place when a professor was investigated for the egregious offense of reading aloud the historical words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his classroom.
Cancel culture also buried a major poetry foundation because activists determined its statement in support of Black Lives Matter was not strong enough, and media outlets spread the story.
The list goes on and on. These examples are the modern version of the Soviet cancel culture that my family escaped from many years ago.
Today’s cancel-happy journalists and Twitter mob do not seek apologies from their targets. They pursue advertising dollars and social clout earned by making controversial and sensational claims regardless of the social harm, newsworthiness or veracity of their allegations. It is not about righteousness, advancing free speech or even promoting debate. Instead, it has evolved into the blunt club of an increasingly oppressive establishment that is coming to resemble Eastern Europe in the 1970s.
Today’s cancel culture, just as with the totalitarian regime in the country of my birth, ruthlessly doles out disproportionate retribution for the crime of dissent and, very often, even perceived dissent. Even progressive academic Noam Chomsky was recently canceled himself for objecting to what cancel culture has become.
What we are witnessing in America is a totalitarian movement, co-opted by the establishment and powered by technology, exclusively interested in highlighting transgressions against its version of truth for the edification of a wider audience.
To resist this destructive force, we need to legislate some recourse for those who have been ruined by what has become the establishment’s preferred tool of compliance enforcement. Big tech and other enablers and amplifiers need to be held accountable for the damage they have wreaked on our society.
Yuri Vanetik is an attorney, investor, UC Hastings Trustee, and Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute.
Originally published: Newsweek by Yuri Vanetik