I’m not old enough to remember a time before cancel culture existed. In the 1950s in the US, anyone suspected of being a socialist was labeled a communist and blacklisted. Anyone who was gay or suspected of being gay (or otherwise queer) was forced to marry opposite sex partners for appearances in order to appear in any media.
Atheists kept their religious beliefs secret if they wanted to hold any kind of community leadership position or even be accepted. Muslims were simply not seen or heard in the public arena. Many Jewish people in the public eye adopted names that would conceal their Jewishness.
Non-white performers might try to “pass” as white in order to work, and those who could not were often prevented from even entering venues that would be appropriate. Many black performers watched in poverty as white performers gained wealth and fame off the art they stole.
People were less offended? Lenny Bruce, who was taken off to jail for offending community standards, would have been surprised to hear it. People could criticise the government? The Smothers Brothers were fired and blacklisted from TV for daring political satire.
Of course, cancel culture began long before the examples I gave, and it will continue long after. The difference at the moment is that people who are accustomed to censoring, and censuring, others are now finding that non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-cis people have found their voices and have a thing or two to say. People aren’t now losing their voices. People are now finding their voices.
Lately I’ve been hearing people talking about how the young people need to learn to take a joke, because, one supposes, people back in the day were never offended by anything. Of course, people back in the day were offended by quite a lot of things, and we older folks know that, because we can remember just how offended our contemporaries have always been, so it isn’t immediately obvious what these old geezers are on about.
I mean, come on, Lenny Bruce was arrested for being obscene. The Smothers Brothers were fired for being political. Comedians have been offending people for as long as comedy has been around. Except, I think I know what they’re on about. What they mean is that they used to get away with saying things they are no longer allowed to say, and they don’t like being told to stay in their lane. They used to make jokes about women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ folks without fear of any sort of reprisal.
From their explanation, you would think this is because women, racial minorities, and queers used to just laugh along with them. I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t see how anyone can possibly think that’s true. Imagine a gay kid laughing at a dad joking about killing his kids to prevent them from growing up gay. I don’t think that ever happened.
Rather, I think what happened is that these marginalized groups did not feel empowered to speak up for themselves, but now they do, and I for one think that’s a good thing. I think it is really good that gay people (and anyone who thinks gay people deserve respect) say they are offended when someone jokes about killing them. I think it is good that trans people say a man in a dress isn’t obviously the funniest damn thing in the world. I think it is good that women feel empowered enough to say they don’t think jokes about rape are part of a good time.
Comedians have every right to make any joke they want, and the audience has every right to tell them they are assholes for making them.