What is “Cancel Culture” if not just “Consequences for Your Actions?”

I got into a really interesting conversation with some friends the other day about the extent to which our view of an individual should diminish by virtue of their association with a person who is, as we view it, morally reprehensible.

This was, believe it or not, actually borne out of a debate about whether or not we should think less of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her friendship — not just a cordial, professional working relationship — with her late colleague Justice Antonin Scalia.

Now, this is not quite an example of cancel culture — commonly understood as a reactionary orientation to call out and retreat from (by way of boycotts or the removal of some formal affiliation) businesses, artists, politicians, etc. in order to draw attention to their bigoted, damaging, and/or exclusionary actions or policies. But it is an example of the degree of latitude we are willing to afford to people whom we typically respect, even laud, when it seems like they are deviating from their typical ideological fortitude, and probes at the question of whether we should dissociate from such people.

Cancel culture is not a new concept. It dates back years, with some slang usage recorded in the 1990s, and resurgences in the 2010s with the rise of the #MeToo Movement, as allegations of sexual assault sprang up daily against popular public figures, including Matt Lauer, R. Kelly, Louis C.K., Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, and Harvey Weinstein, among many others. Moreover, cancel culture has been examined much in the same way across a variety of different platforms, such as the New York Times, NPR, Vox, and Afropunk, typically with a focus on how justified it is as a practice.

Here are the two sides:

On the one side, cancel culture is an expression of agency. It is the means by which groups who sometimes have little other power to affect change can have their voices heard — by putting wrongful individuals and entities in a social or economic hot seat. Cancel culture has a bit of a muddy history in terms of effectiveness. Many wealthy show-hosts and celebrities for instance, despite having been “cancelled,” still manage to top billboard charts or return to television in later reboots. In other cases, cancel culture is an efficient means of creating and propagating public pressure. The term “cancelling” brings to mind the cancellation of a contract — in this case, a social contract — wherein the broader public is encouraged (and any members slow to the cause are sometimes shunned or shamed) to sever their contract or affiliation with an individual or entity for having acted objectionably.

On the other side, cancel culture, as many argue, is a harsh reaction that leaves little room for growth. If you are cancelled and lose your platform, they say, how can you demonstrate that you have learned and changed? Likewise, many argue that cancel culture is sometimes too hastily applied, effectively ruining people before clear, sufficient proof of their guilt has been identified. Many argue, moreover, that while cancel culture can be effective for addressing the open, explicit instances of hateful ideology, it does little to quell quiet biases, which may then go unaddressed for longer periods because the holders of these beliefs fear being called out or stigmatized.

I would argue, however, that the focus should pivot away from “is cancel culture justified” to “does cancel culture, as it is typically received and debated, even exist?”

Part of the reason why this is a relevant question to ask is because, typically, critics of cancel culture are those who have been incriminated by it — who wield political or economic power, and seek to portray cancel culture as a sort of “inquisition” (see this CNN piece and this Twitter thread for additional thoughts). To their mind, the idea of cancelling someone is to prohibit them from expressing dissenting or oppositional views.

The problem with this perspective is that it moves the conversation away from the issue at hand — some racist policy or product, sexist attitude or even explicit assault — to one of political correctness. In much the same way that the semantic argument against the Black Lives Matter movement (that all lives matter, they say) redirects the focus from issues of Black marginalization, abuse, and systemic inequality to one of alleged attempts by the left to garner power over a so-called white subculture, the arguments against cancellation have perverted cancel culture. Cancelling someone is not about exerting political correctness, or even necessarily correcting behavior (i.e., it is not a means of policing morality, per se). It is about holding power to account and holding individuals accountable for their actions.

Keep in mind, “cancel culture,” in the sense of silencing the voices and actions of members of a community by virtue of some standard they fail to meet has been woven into the thread of American history from its inception — Black and Brown people fail to meet the standard of whiteness; LGBTQIA+ individuals may fail to meet both the standard of straightness and of cis-ness. Their contributions to the functioning of American society have been silenced, overlooked, misrepresented, belittled, abused, and erased, for centuries. People in positions of power frequently use catch-all terms such as these to delegitimize the practices or institutions that are designed to cut the powerful to size. Using “fake news” to paint mainstream media sources as inherently untrustworthy, for instance, undercuts the public’s sense of journalistic value and its place in public and political discourse.

“Cancel culture,” in its more contemporary form, was designed to serve as the platform by which minorities, the oppressed, could reclaim the public discourse and demand that the standards be shifted from the spectrum of historical power to one of human dignity and fairness.

Now, however, the issue with using the term “cancel culture” is that it legitimizes oppositional perspectives to ones of humanitarian purpose. It gives license to alternative views in the way that using the term “alternative facts” makes it sound as though it is possible for there to be some other legitimate or acceptable representation of “fact,” inconsistent with reality. Powerful people, in other words, use the term “cancel culture” to silence true victims of oppression and make it all the more challenging for them to speak out against their own subjugation.

This phenomenon may be, in part, why “cancelling” has such limited effectiveness — the public gets redirected by the recipient of a callout, and its collective attention span is only so long-lasting. Louis C.K., for example, is back on the stand-up circuit, and both Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, despite the release of documentaries detailing their assault and abuse of children, saw increases in their listenership in the months afterward.

Cancelling people still enables them to take up space in the public consciousness. In this way, cancel culture paradoxically amplifies damaging people who use it to aspire to victimhood.

So, what do we do instead?

This is an open question, I think.

The view that oppositional perspectives should be controlled in any real, meaningful way dances on a fine line. In an interesting paper published in Media Education (Friesem, 2020), the author argues that some of the critical concepts taught in an empathy engagement course, designed to instruct students to challenge controversial perspectives with empathy rather than blame, should focus on analyzing the concept of power and understanding the central role of empathy in civil discourse. Indeed, Aristotle himself is credited with saying, “it is the mark of an intelligent mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” (albeit, potentially falsely — though whether or not he actually said this does not negate the poignancy of this sentiment).

The free expression of dissenting views is a central tenet of a functioning democracy — it is unlikely that members of a diverse community with a robust and dynamic thought pool could ever come to a full consensus. I can understand why the idea of limiting that freedom, even if well-intentioned, may instead come off as muzzling it. This can be helpful when considering how expansive the boundaries of our own intellectual or ideological microcosms should be, and how welcoming we should be of this kind of oppositional discourse in our everyday lives. In this sense, I support engaging with and challenging others’ beliefs. It is a healthy exercise in introspection — an opportunity to examine our own belief structures — as much as it is in empathy.

However, this is not a question of “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The objects of cancel culture are typically magnates with significant political, social, and/or economic sway that they have long used to perpetuate existing systems of imbalanced power and access. And they are not simply promoting negative or challenging speech, they are actively creating, advocating for, and spreading damaging, sometimes threatening imagery, products, or policies. Consider the recent snafu that the fashion company SHEIN encountered upon trying to sell gold jewelry in the shape of a swastika — the symbol of the Nazi regime, responsible for the mass genocide of millions of people. This, after the company already wound up in hot water for trying to sell Islamic prayer rugs as decoration — the capitalistic bastardization of a sacred implement for preserving cleanliness during prayer. Being “cancelled” does not necessarily prohibit the targets of cancellation from continuing to espouse hateful rhetoric. What is attempts to do is remove them from positions of influence. Cancel culture is not necessarily about slimming down your ‘friends’ list on Facebook because someone you went to high school with posted something odious or bigoted; it is specifically about dismantling ancient systems of supremacy by holding the people who perpetuate those systems accountable for the actions or sentiments they express against the people denigrated by them.

Any weapon, including terminology to describe the act of expressing humanistic agency, corrupted as some attempt to attack or encroach on the rights of people to speak their minds, loses some of its inherent value. Though I do believe that we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that any such weapon will remain immune to this influence, I think it is critical to continue fighting against this rhetoric and keep central to the dialogue that cancelling people is about undercutting systems of power. Expressing hateful views, allowing them to promulgate, even continuing associations — or friendships — with powerful people who espouse them, is an act of upholding these systems, and permitting the continued oppression and marginalization of entire groups of people.



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