Some on the right have decided to make Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head battles in their manufactured culture war. More recently, Pepe Le Pew was removed from the upcoming Space Jam 2 movie, leading to cries that the boundary ignoring skunk had been cancelled. As I have noted in previous essays, these are all cases in which companies decided to change their products or brand. While it might be due to the moral values of those making the decisions, it is also reasonable to consider that these companies are making changes based on an assessment of what will be best for their bottom line. That is, they are being smart capitalists.
If the state or individuals with great power were unjustly coercing these companies into making changes, then this could be morally wrong. If it was the state, then it would be reasonable to raise the 1st Amendment—the state would be forcing companies to change their products and brands against their will (something that certainly does occur—such as the bleeping and blurring that occurs in the media). But if the state is not involved, then this Amendment does not enter into consideration—private individuals cannot violate this amendment when acting in their private capacity.
If a powerful individual was coercing these companies against their will, then this could be immoral—after all, using such power to violate rights is often wrong. For example, if an employer used their coercive advantage over their employees to interfere with their freedom of expression, this would generally be legal but would seem to be wrong on the grounds that coercive power is being used to silence a person. However, this does not seem to be the case—although one could argue that there are influential people who have argued for these sorts of changes. But what would be needed is evidence of wrongful use of coercion to force these companies to make changes. If threats were made, this could even become a legal matter—but surely these companies would have brought such threats to the attention of law enforcement.
It could also be argued that the companies are being coerced by popular opinion—that the growing influence of “the left” is causing them to shift and change to match the values professed by “the left.” But this does not seem morally problematic as long as “the left” is not unjustly coercing these companies to make changes. After all, consumers seem to have the right to express their values to companies and smart companies shift their products and brands to meet consumer demand. If shifting based on changing moral values is the result of coercion, then companies would also be coerced into changing as popular tastes and styles change. But we do not thing that the decision to stop making Tab was the result of coercion nor do we think that changes in the style of pants is the result of coercion: styles and tastes change over times and sensible companies change along with them.
One interesting matter that does not seem to be discussed is the sort of remedy the right would want for these alleged harms of cancelling. That is, what should the state do in response to these changes? As noted above, if there is adequate evidence of illegal coercion, then the state should step in. But there seems to be no evidence of that—these companies seem fine with the changes they decided to make. It is the right that is outraged. Should folks on the right be able to use the coercive power of the state to force these companies to change things back to how they were? In these cases, should laws be passed requiring that the books be kept in print, that the “Mr. Potato Head” brand be kept and that Le Pew be returned to the movie, and so on for all that the right claims is cancelled? This would, ironically, seem to be compelled speech and a violation of the first Amendment. If the right thinks the companies should decide; well, they already have. They just did not decide the way some of the right wanted.
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