Pop quiz: Which of the following is an example of cancel culture?

The Boston Marathon banning Russian runners? Utah Sen. Mike Lee and others seeking punishment for Yale students who protested a conservative speaker? U.S. sanctions on Russia because of its war in Ukraine? Or fallout from Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars?

It’s a trick question because each example has been labeled some form of cancel culture, despite vastly different circumstances and settings. And they have occurred at roughly the same time that some people have said Louis C.K.’s recent win at the Grammys proves that cancel culture doesn’t exist.

But cancel culture exists; it’s just often mislabeled or trivialized by politicians who use it as a crowd-pleasing talking point. And we’ve learned a few things about what it’s not recently, starting with Louis C.K.

The comedian, whose real name is Louis Székely, won a Grammy for best comedy album at the April 3 ceremony, less than five years after admitting gross sexual misconduct with multiple women. The win didn’t mark his return to the public eye; he’d returned to touring before pandemic set in.

But in truth, Louis C.K. wasn’t canceled so much as he was punished — for egregious things he did, not words that he said. That’s an important distinction, even if the rolling wave of outrage seems similar.

Comedian Bill Maher cleverly said that Will Smith’s slap was “cancel culture encapsulated.” “At first: ‘Oh, it’s funny.’ And then you look around: ‘Oh wait, I’m supposed to be offended.’ And then there’s the (subsequent) overreaction. He was like the Twitter mob come alive.”

Yet the impact on Smith’s career, including the reported pausing of projects in development, isn’t cancel culture and is also likely to pass within five years or less, if the actor appears genuinely remorseful, keeps a low profile and does good work with humility.

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That’s not to say that there won’t always be people who don’t forgive serious transgressions. But Mel Gibson is currently starring in “Father Stu” with Mark Wahlberg and is rumored to be planning another installment of “The Passion of the Christ,” despite long-term fallout from anti-Semitic and racist comments and allegations of domestic abuse. Last fall the U.K.’s Guardian announced, “In Hollywood, nothing gets resurrected more often than Mel Gibson.”

It’s “Pet Sematary” kind of resurrection, though, in which people come back changed, as in the Stephen King book. And the ability to work again doesn’t mean anyone forgets. Louis C.K. got his Grammy, sure, but every article about the win mentioned his past.

Meanwhile, the ordinary people who are “canceled” for expressing unpopular beliefs lose jobs, family members and friends, without the healing balm of celebrity. A 2019 study found that 4 in 10 Americans self-censor because they’re worried about repercussions of speaking their mind, with the most educated the most likely to be concerned.

Writing for Politico recently, founding editor John Harris said that the issues raised by cancel culture are serious, but “that doesn’t mean every episode in this debate is serious, or needs to be treated with solemnity.” He concluded: “People sometimes say stupid things. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.”

That may address the occasional ill-advised tweet, but leaves us with the bigger problem, which is the real cancel culture — the deplatforming and demonetization of people because of deeply held beliefs (J.K. Rowling, for example) or jokes that mock prevailing sensibilities (The Babylon Bee).

Louis C.K., Will Smith and a long line of other once disgraced celebrities (to include Tiger Woods and Jeffrey Toobin) can recover professionally because they can profusely apologize for their reprehensible acts. But people caught up in real cancel culture can’t apologize for their beliefs and values. Nor should they.

The writer Rod Dreher has said that religious conservatives need to accept that the culture war is over and they lost. “Traditional Christians have been very slow to understand how hostile cultural conditions are for us,” he wrote to me recently. “Far too many of us are under the false impression that if we are nice and kind, people will treat us fairly. That’s simply no longer true. Following on that, we have to learn how to suffer for our faith — suffer the loss of status, professional opportunity, and freedoms that we have taken for granted — without falling into despair.”

That — not losing a gig because you hit someone on a stage, or exposed yourself to coworkers — is what cancel culture really is: the loss of status and professional opportunity because of values and (often religious) beliefs. You can call it cancel culture if religious persecution seems too dramatic. But oftentimes, the two things look disturbingly the same.