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Top 10 Historical Examples Of Cancel Culture

by Benjamin Thomas
fact checked by Jamie Frater

You might think cancel culture is a relatively new invention. Social media, particularly Twitter, seems to be obsessed with trying to get conservative people banished from their fields of work. These social media pile-ons often have no effect. Some celebrities have successfully manipulated cancel culture for personal gain and used their online notoriety as a way to play the victim.

But cancel culture existed long before the internet was born and “progressives” took the helm. For years, people have used spurn and blacklists to attack those who dare to rock the boat of public opinion. Throughout history, people have been “canceled” because of their gender, the color of their skin, or because they disagreed with the powers that be. Often they faced much worse than an online hate mob or being dropped from Netflix. They were thrown out of their homes, firebombed, even burned at the stake. From historical rewritings to Hollywood blacklists, the trend of cancel culture has a rich and varied past. Here are ten notable examples.

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10 Ostracism in Ancient Athens

Stories from Ancient Greece – Aristides and Ostracism

Some of the earliest known examples of people being canceled date back over two thousand years. In the 5th century B.C., the Ancient Greeks used to practice ostracism, where wrongdoers were sent into exile by popular vote. Cleisthenes – the “father of Athenian democracy” – is widely regarded to have created the punishment.

Every year, the people of Athens would be asked if they wanted to ostracize anyone. If they voted in favor, they would meet in the public agora to hold an election. Under the watchful eye of the council, citizens would etch the name of the person they wanted to be thrown out of the city into a shard of broken pottery. Each fragment was known as ‘ostrakon’ – from which the word ostracism was born.

The shards were collected in an urn and counted. It took at least 6000 total votes for the process to be valid. Athenian officials would then sort the shards into piles, and whoever received the most votes was banished from the city. They were given ten days to prepare themselves and warned that they would be killed if they tried to return. The punishment would last for ten years, after which they would be allowed back into Athens.

Records suggest that around thirteen men were ostracized from Athens between 487 and 416 B.C. Some of those were pardoned and returned to the city before they had served their full decade, like Xanthippus and Aristides who were let back in to help fight the Persians in 479 B.C.

One of the most notable people to be kicked out of Athens was renowned politician Themistocles. It is said that Themistocles’ power went to his head and that he was ostracized to curb his arrogance. As the historian Plutarch explained, ostracism “was not a penalty, but a way of pacifying and alleviating that jealousy which delights to humble the eminent, breathing out its malice into this disfranchisement.”[1]

9 Michael Servetus, the Theologian burned by protestants for Heresy

Calvin and Servetus

Born in Spain, Michael Servetus was one of the most controversial religious teachers of the 16th century. He was an outspoken critic of the Church who developed his own theories about the Holy Trinity and astrology. But his ideas outraged both Catholics and Protestants and he was forced to publish them in secret.

Like people today who dare to disagree with public opinion, Servetus received a barrage of hate. But the theologian’s fate was far more severe than a digital slap on the wrist or a bike-lock to the head. When a French inquisitor discovered his letters, Servetus was accused of heresy, forcing him to flee. He escaped Catholic France and ended up in Calvinist Geneva where, in 1553, he was captured and burned at the stake for his non-protestant ideas.[2]

8 The Hollywood Blacklist

Hollywood Stars In Communist Activities (1947)

The Hollywood Blacklist was the cancel culture of the 1940s and 50s. During the Second World War, the US had teamed up with the communist Soviet Union to fight the national socialists. But after the war ended, anti-communist views began to spread across the states. People feared that pro-Soviets were infiltrating the US media to push global socialism.

It reached such a furor that Hollywood began banning workers who were rumored to have far-left political views. In 1947, the HUAC started to look into the influence of communism on the film industry. Ten workers who refused to give evidence to the committee were thrown out of their jobs and each served a short jail sentence. The HUAC continued its paranoid investigation through the 50s, blacklisting workers who they suspected of subversion.

But perhaps the HUAC had ulterior motives. In the 1940s, lawyer Wendell Willkie showed that certain US politicians were using communist paranoia as a ploy to target Jews. Although they claimed to be motivated by patriotism, Willkie proved that some investigators seemed to be far more interested in starting an anti-Semitic witch hunt in Hollywood. My how the worm has turned![3]

7 Percy Julian, the Black Chemist Scrubbed from History

S01E01 Percy Julian

For years, people tried to erase the legacy of Percy Julian. The Alabama-born chemist faced multiple setbacks throughout his life due to his skin color. Even though his pioneering work saved numerous people’s lives, Julian is still a relatively unknown figure in US history.

Educated at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, in 1923 he became the first African American to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from Harvard University. However, Harvard refused to let him study for a PhD on racial grounds, so he completed his doctorate in Vienna.

Julian then returned to the US and tried to pursue a career in academia, but again racial prejudice stopped him from progressing. So he moved to the business world where he pioneered new uses for soybean chemicals. One chemical helped produce fire-retardant foam in fire extinguishers and saved the lives of thousands of soldiers during the Second World War. He also found a way to create artificial hormones. Due to his research, ludicrously expensive drugs suddenly became affordable for millions of people.

Julian’s work meant he could move his family to a better-off suburb in Illinois, but they were despised by many of their white neighbors. They faced several attacks – including arson and someone firebombing their house – but Julian and his wife refused to move. By the time he died from liver cancer, aged 76, he was a millionaire.[4]

6 Lise Meitner, the Female Nuclear Physicist Pushed Out and Persecuted

The amazing life of Lise Meitner an inspiring scientist

Lise Meitner was a pioneer of nuclear physics. She should have made history as one of the first two people to explain the process of nuclear fission. But the Austrian trailblazer was never given the credit that people say she deserved. In 1945, when her collaborator Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize, Meitner’s contribution was sadly overlooked by the judges.

Besides her gender, it was the threat of the Nazi Party that ultimately led to Meitner being canceled. When Hitler’s regime annexed Austria in 1938, Jewish-born Meitner left Vienna and moved to Stockholm. There, one historian wrote, she was given “laboratory space but no collaborators, equipment, or technical support, not even her own set of keys.” She had to meet with Hahn in secret to continue their work exploring the behavior of uranium.[5]

5 Ignaz Semmelweis, Hand-Washing Pioneer Committed to an Asylum

The surprising history of hand-washing – BBC REEL

Ignaz Semmelweis should have been a medical hero, but his colleagues’ pride got in the way. The Hungarian doctor was the first person to advocate that people wash their hands.

During the 1840s, Semmelweis decided to explore the unusually high number of women dying from childbed fever. He studied two maternity wards at the General Hospital in Vienna. One ward was run by doctors and medical students; the other was staffed by midwives. Semmelweis quickly discovered that the death rate on the first ward was five times higher than that on the second ward. But, for a long time, he was unable to explain the disparity.

It turned out the key difference was that the doctors were carrying out autopsies. Semmelweis theorized that students were getting tiny pieces of corpses stuck to their hands, which then infected the pregnant women on the ward. Of course, we now understand that disease is spread by germs and not by pieces of dead bodies, but pathogens were barely understood at the time.

On Semmelweis’ orders, medical staff began washing their hands with chlorine and the death rate soon fell. The Hungarian scientist should have become the founding father of modern hygiene. But he did not.

You see, people at the hospital were not impressed by Semmelweis’ discovery. They thought it made them seem guilty of infecting women on the ward. Certain accounts also suggest that Semmelweis was a difficult man to work with. In the end, his colleagues hit back and he was kicked out of the hospital. By 1865, he had been sent to a mental asylum where he was beaten and, in a sad twist of irony, probably died of infection.[6]

4 The Victorians and their Wild Cancel Culture

Wilde vs. Queensberry

Cancel culture in the 1800s was brutal, far worse than the online pile-ons of today. Respected Victorians spent much of their lives locked in feuds. Some of them put an enormous amount of energy into trying to destroy each other’s reputation. Oscar Wilde often clashed with the Marquess of Queensberry, once publicly smearing him as a “foul thing” who “assailed” the world of academia.

Thomas Edison’s supporters wanted to cancel his rival George Westinghouse. They tried to make sure that his reputation would always be associated with the murder of animals. They used Westinghouse’s invention of alternating current to kill dogs, horses, even an elephant, hoping they could smear the entrepreneur.

But perhaps the worst was paleontologist Richard Owen. Owen had a long-standing rivalry with fellow dinosaur expert Gideon Mantell. When Mantell took his own life in 1852, Owen somehow got hold of his spine. He had it pickled and displayed it at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.[7]

3 Galileo Galilei, Dared to Disagree with the Church

The Galileo Myth

Galileo Galilei is an eminent figure in scientific history. Although he started out studying medicine, he soon changed fields and became an expert in maths and physics. Throughout his life, he looked into the speed of falling objects, mechanics, and pendulums.

But, apart from his iconic mention in Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Galilei is probably best remembered for his contribution to astronomy. In 1609, he created a telescope and began to study the Solar System. The Italian professor was one of the first people to suggest that the Earth orbited around the Sun.

Unfortunately, not being content to simply publish his additions to the already well-establish and Church-accepted Copernican theory, Galileo declared it proved the Church and Bible wrong. Galilei was convicted of heresy and died under house arrest in his villa near Florence.[8]

2 Cultural Imperialism, the Canceling of Entire Cultures

India-The Jewel of the British Raj

Most of the time, when people talk about cancel culture, they are referring to something that might have an impact on one person or a handful of people. But, as several historians have pointed out, there are numerous examples of entire cultures being canceled.[9]

European colonizers were notorious for destroying the cultures of the countries they took over. When Britain colonized India, they erased much of the existing heritage and imprinted their cultural dominance. The British colonizers often claimed that they were “civilizing” the natives. The same rhetoric was used by German officials who set about to “Prussify” the Slavic people of Eastern Europe. It was also mirrored by the European empires in their treatment of Native Americans.[10]

1 Alan Turing, the Computer Scientists Persecuted for being a homosexual

Alan Turing – Celebrating the life of a genius

Born in London, Alan Turing is remembered as one of the fathers of modern computing. His work at Bletchley Park played a pivotal role in Britain’s victory during the Second World War. As part of the Government Code and Cypher School, he used statistics and logic to decode secret Nazi messages sent using the Enigma machines. Historians say that his ground-breaking work saved more military lives than anyone else in the history of warfare.

But Turing had a deep secret. He was gay at a time when homosexuality was outlawed. Under Britain’s oppressive sexuality laws, the great mathematician was sentenced to a year of estrogen injections. British intelligence started to grow suspicious of his work, solely because he was gay. He died of potassium cyanide poisoning in 1954. An inquest found that he had administered the poison himself.[11]

+ German Book Burnings

Myth: The National Socialists (Nazis) burned books. Truth: it was university students and it occurred on exactly two occasions in 1933. Effectively the German Students Union which supported the principles of national Socialism organised protests against the Institute of Sex Research which was studying transgenderism and even performing transexual operations (the famous Lily Elbe was a victim of one of their early surgeries in fact). The students destroyed all of the literature of the group and other “un-German” materials in a public book burning.

Today’s book burnings are mostly (though not always, as the feminists burning anti-feminist books in the above picture illustrates) digital cancellations of “un-progressives” but the perpetrators and principles remain the same. Young angry extremist students of our time may be more discreet, but the outcome is not.

It is somewhat ironic that the institute and its leader, Magnus Hirschfeld, were supporters of cultural Marxism, the theories and principles of which are now firmly entrenched in and form the backbone of much of the education in our universities—the source of cancel culture.[12]

Interestingly book burnings had also happened 120 years earlier in the 1817 German celebrations in Wartburg for the 300th anniversary of protestant Martin Luther’s posting of his anti-Catholic “95 theses” in the 16th century.

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fact checked by Jamie Frater