Cancel culture, Q-Anon and the 21st Century condition: Random reaction

Cancel culture, Q-Anon and the 21st Century condition: Random reaction
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Paul Revere is safe.

So are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and even Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.).

They were all targets of an effort by San Francisco’s board of education to remove the names of insufficiently progressive figures from school buildings. That push was rescinded this past week after a storm of criticism both from right-wing media and within the left-leaning Bay Area itself.


One school parent called it “embarrassing” and “a caricature of what people think liberals in San Francisco do.”

It was a story that also fully displayed the power of “cancel culture” to dominate the national conversation. Incident after incident — from Dr. Seuss to Mr. Potato Head — now sprints its way to front pages and prime time cable news.

Everyone seems to have an opinion as to why this phenomenon has such a grip on us. But most explanations underestimate a deep-seated truth about human nature. Cancel culture — from its targets to its punishments — can feel random. And nothing rattles humans at their core the way randomness does.

Progressive critics of the obsession with cancel culture fault white Americans and their fear of losing dominance in a more diverse country. That demographic trend certainly helps explain the staying power of our “culture war,” which began as a reaction to the massive societal shifts of the 1960s. It remains a staple tenet for the GOP coalition.

Cancel culture is definitely part of that — but also seems different. Many people, no matter their politics, find a troubling randomness in some of these stories: Who winds up in the hot seat? Why? What’s the appropriate penalty? And who gets to decide? Answers to these questions appear to be a shifting line in the sand.


Studies show fear of life’s randomness has been hard-wired into our brains since the beginning of human experience. More unpredictability leads to more anxiety and frustration. It’s one reason why humans formed societies in the first place — and why even the earliest civilizations developed laws and criminal justice systems. These tools brought order to randomness.

Most of us today have had our fill of uncertainty and insecurity. From 9/11 through disasters like Katrina, right up to the 2008 economic collapse, digital disruption, the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest, the 21st century has not been easy to live with.

And the problem-solving track record of government — that thing humans created to mitigate the effects of major random events — has been less than impressive.

It’s no wonder that — 20 years into this shaken century — something like Q-Anon took hold.  Like any good conspiracy theory, Q-Anon explained everything. It wrapped seemingly random tragedies, failures and hardships into a neat package that gave it all meaning. There was, Q insisted, nothing random about the last two decades — every bit of it was part of secret plan by shadowy elites who control nearly every aspect of our lives.

For an astounding amount of people, this made sense and was — in its own way — comforting. That’s how much human nature is rattled by the haphazard.

Most cancel culture stories play into similar anxieties, as perfect parables for an erratic era thick with unpredictability and distrust. After all, no cancel rule book exists, no court of appeals. Instead, an amorphous, Q-like “them” seems to be in charge — on both the left and the right.

Cable commentators are adept at harping on these fears in order to hold viewers. Fox News opinion shows, Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonOvernight Health Care: Biden announces 1M have enrolled in special ObamaCare sign-up period | Rand Paul clashes with Fauci over coronavirus origins | Biden vows to get 'more aggressive' on lifestyle benefits of vaccines McCarthy rental from Luntz violated condo rules: Washington Post Tucker Carlson's show does dramatic reading of Stacey Abrams romance novel MORE in particular, have made cancel culture one of their central talking points. As Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic, those commentaries are part of a  cynicism that’s developed over two decades about the ineffectiveness of established authorities in the face of this century’s traumas.

That makes the next two years, while we have a unified White House and Congress, crucial. Cancel culture and the reaction against it will only fade as pessimism about society and government fades.

Joe BidenJoe BidenFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart MORE is a man overly familiar with life’s randomness. In that respect, he may be the perfect president for our times. He wants to do big things — and if he can deliver effectively, people may start to feel that some guardrails against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are actually working again.

But there’s a flip side. If Biden, for whatever reason, can’t deliver, Mr. Potato Head’s gender or the names of San Francisco schools will clearly be the least of his worries.

Or Tucker Carlson’s. Or ours.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.