Comics are divided about the modern practice that’s been dubbed “cancel culture.” Much of the older guard is against it, arguing that singling out older material for scorn — even punishing them in some form for what they once said — is a form of censorship. Others, like Seth Rogen and Katt Williams, think it’s necessary. As the former, whose past has plenty of gags now considered problematic, has said, sometimes joke “age terribly.” But count Conan O’Brien — and decided non-comic Sean Penn — as those who are against it.
Penn was the guest on a recent episode of the podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, and the two came out against the idea of punishing people for past behavior.
“Empathy is a very important word and also forgiveness,” said O’Brien, who usually refrains from wading into political territory. “This whole concept of cancel culture is… We found that someone did something in 1979 that is now not appropriate. They’re dead to us.”
Penn deemed the practice “ludicrous,” prompting O’Brien to elaborate. “People can also be forgiven. If they even need forgiving. What happened to that?” he said, adding, “It feels very Soviet, kind of, sometimes.”
Penn then addressed the case of Alexi McCammond, the Teen Vogue editor who was fired over anti-Asian tweets she made when she was a teenager.
“When we’re destroying careers like that, what are we really achieving? What are we doing?” the two-time Oscar-winner asked. “Or you look at politicians. I give a big nod to anybody who’s willing to enter the public arena who is doing so because they give a damn.”
Granted, O’Brien and Penn were addressing a specific part of cancel culture, in which people lose jobs over material that may no longer be reflective of who they’ve become. It’s a little different from what Rogen and Williams have discussed, which involves accepting that times change.
You can listen to the full episode in the video above. The discussion about cancel culture begins around the 30-minute mark.