Every now and then, writers will pick up a word or phrase that’s being over-used on Twitter and try to position it like some kind of cultural phenomenon, hoping it will spark (divisive) conversation on social media and drive traffic to their site. Their editors encourage them to do this — to take whatever’s trending and offer some kind of commentary on it. Usually these phrases include alliteration, because people love that shit. The latest one I’ve been hearing about recently is “cancel culture,” and whether or not it’s “good” or “bad.” And just like Lucille Bluth, I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.
The reason I know “cancel culture” isn’t real is because “to cancel someone” isn’t an actual thing you can do. You’ll never hear any self-respecting adult say, “We can’t work with that person, I’m afraid they’ve been officially and formally cancelled.” They will usually say something along the lines of, “We can’t work with that person, they’ve been known to sexually assault people” or “they’re racist.” Which! Is! Fair!
Frighteningly, Merriam Webster has “canceled” on their “words we’re watching” list. They informally define it as: “To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.”
So, “cancelling,” if I understand correctly, is choosing not to give your money to somebody who already has more money than they need because they behaved in a way that you (and presumably a lot of other people) consider unacceptable. Again, seems fair. Considering this person accumulated gross wealth because hordes of people “love” them, why shouldn’t they stop making stupid money now that nobody wants to see their pervy ass on the screen?
In most cases, the people “canceled” knew they were doing something wrong, but didn’t care because they were getting away with it. They’re generally people or organizations that have completely escaped consequences up until their “cancellation.” We’re forced to “cancel” people because the racist misogynistic society we were raised in doesn’t do anything to protect us.
Woody Allen isn’t in jail for being a pedophile, the LEAST we can do is try to shame him into not making any more movies (which he still does!) Louis CK should’ve been fired the first time he whipped his dick out on set, but he wasn’t because of the sexist system that supported him. “Canceling” is marginalized people wielding their power for the first time in a system that’s rendered us powerless and you wonder why mass media has dubbed it “cancel culture” and asks if it’s bad??
Recently, I came across a post on Instagram saying that we need to “Cancel Cancel Culture” and my eyes started to bleed. The caption reads: “Obviously we look at things on a case by case basis, but we need to look at context, intent & room for change. If we want a better society, we need to let people learn and grow and dare I say it, learn from mistakes. Humans can be dumb, but cancelling gets us no where — learning does.”
First, I’m obsessed with the vague, sweeping statement: “cancelling gets us nowhere,” because they never define “cancelling” or “us” or elaborate on how it gets us “nowhere.” (Publicly calling people out has prevented predators from making millions, re-opened investigations, forced policy changes, etc.) The post goes on to suggest that instead of “cancelling,” we should give people the “benefit of the doubt” and ask ourselves if we’re more focused on “exposing someone” than “teaching them why they’re wrong.” We should make sure the person hasn’t made “an honest effort towards change” before formally “cancelling” them.
Except, most “cancellations” happen after the person has made it clear they’re not interested in changing. Typically, before someone is “cancelled,” aka called out in a public space, they’ve been taken aside one-on-one several times. A lot of companies that were forced to share on-brand apologies for being racist had ignored complaints from individual Black employees for years. When they posted a bullshit black square in solidarity with Black people, those former employees flooded the comments to remind them they were not in fact on their side, and that’s when the company gave a shit. “Cancelling” is almost never anyone’s first attempt at justice.
When Alison Roman was called out for her inadvertently racist comments about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, instead of taking the opportunity to reflect and grow, she initially doubled down on them. It took even more people calling her out on Twitter for her to realize she wasn’t going to get out of this easily. She’d have to actually explain herself, and attempt to earn the money, visibility, and privilege that’s been freely handed to her thus far in her career.
There’s one element of “cancellation” I think we can all agree is bad, and that’s harassment, including death and rape threats. But people (particularly womxn) are harassed literally every day online and I don’t hear anybody talk about it except in the context of “cancel culture.” News outlets and social media platforms don’t want to broach the subject of online harassment because any type of meaningful regulation would mean less users and less money. So instead, we talk about shit like “cancel culture.” (They add “culture” to make it sound systemic, like people are leaving their homes and are at risk of randomly getting canceled, and it’s not a result of an individual’s actions.)
“Cancel culture” is similar to the mythical “Bernie bros.” The only people who ever brought this term up to me were Warren voters, and it was always when they were explaining to me why they wanted me to vote for Warren and not Bernie. I’d never heard these people discuss concern about harassment of women online or misogyny before. Even when I was receiving rape and death threats, they didn’t say anything. But for some reason, come election season, they’re in my face talking about “Bernie bros.”
Essentially, these buzz words creative divisive and utterly pointless conversations among people who pretty much agree on the same issues, thus distracting us from actually working toward any viable solutions. When it’s all done, the progressive party loses, the marginalized groups who are incessantly harassed online lose — but Twitter share holders win!
Talking about bullshit like “cancel culture,” and feeling sorry for celebrities who don’t get to own six compounds anymore, only diverts us from talking about real issues like systemic racism and misogyny. There are a lot of “cultures” we could be talking about: rape culture, diet/eating disorder culture, a toxic culture that allows people to be abused on the internet every day without consequence. But we will *not* waste another second talking about “cancel culture.”
Instead of railing against “cancel culture” or “Bernie bros” or other things you can’t actually define, focus on what it is you’re upset about. If you’re worried about misogyny, call out people in your life for being misogynistic. Do you not like that people are being harassed on social media? Come to their defense! Report trolls. Petition for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to actually do something about the harassment that runs rampant on their platforms. If you’re worried about someone’s mental health, reach out to them.
The question shouldn’t be “cancel” or “reform,” because as we’ve established, canceling isn’t a real thing, it just means holding somebody accountable. When you hold somebody accountable for their actions, they are forced to look at themselves, and that leads to reform and growth. Often people steeped in the most privilege need to be checked publicly and repeatedly before they actually feel the need to change. (Generally once their bank account starts to feel it.)
The people being “cancelled” on social media are often people who could never actually be “cancelled” in real life. Louis CK still performs stand up and people still go to see him. Selena Gomez and Timothée Chalamet were happy to star in Woody Allen’s next film. Our president admitted to sexual assault and he was still elected. Joe Biden has also been accused of sexual assault and we’d be LUCKY if he won the presidency. Our whole fucking culture needs to be canceled!!!
But since we can’t do that, we’ll continue to publicly call out abusers, racists, and misogynists. Because unlike the white men in power — who are profiting off these cute “Should We Cancel Cancel Culture?” think pieces — our lives actually depend on it.