Two Things ‘Cancel Culture’ Refers To

On ‘speaking first’ and the meaning of ‘engagement’

Tucker Lieberman
7 min readMar 19, 2022

Image by kalhh on Pixabay

“Cancel culture” isn’t real. This is, of course, my opinion. It is also a frame I wish to establish at the outset of these remarks.

Expressed concern over something called “cancel culture” is quite real. Such statements are frequent. I reflect on two common elements.

Who Speaks First?

Speech can be a call-and-response. One person speaks first, and another responds directly to what they said. This happens in spoken conversation. In writing, too, it’s clear which sentences belong to the original article and which are “comments” of human- or computer-enforced brevity.

Of course, we are all part of an ongoing cultural conversation. When someone initiates a spoken or written communication, in a sense they are responding to (or at least leveraging) something they heard once before, long ago, whether or not they acknowledge their predecessors. They don’t speak from a blank slate.

Regardless, when they “speak first” today, they’re framing the current interaction. They establish the terms of the micro-level conversation right now.

“Cancel culture,” as I said, is a boogeyman, and its only reality is in the minds of those who fear it. (This is similar to the War on Christmas, which doesn’t exist, and the only people who invoke it are those who express fear of it.)

But here is something important I’ve noticed.

Those who warn against “cancel culture” usually fear that the person who speaks first will be criticized or shamed, or might refrain from speaking altogether, anticipating the negative response they might receive. More rarely do these anti-cancel-culture warriors apply the same protective concern to the people who respond. When the first speaker’s words criticize or shame others, these others have reason to respond critically, or be afraid to respond altogether, given what has actually, not merely potentially, been said to them or about them. But they are deprioritized.

This is a way of accruing more power to the person who speaks first. Not only has that person framed the interaction, but they are assumed to have the right to frame it however…