*Disclaimer #1: I’m not an expert. I’ve spent ~19 hours doing intensive google searching, 3 hours debating with friends, and most of my life thinking about what does and doesn’t sit right with me. I value experts and their opinions and so I’ve tried to include as many resources and quotes that I thought were relevant to give you the opportunity to investigate on your own (though I of course did curate the list so there’s some bias there I can’t do much about). I encourage you to disagree with me, educate me, question me, change my mind, and help me to grow. PLEASE write your thoughts in the comment section and I’ll do my best to engage with all of your ideas. I genuinely think this a deeply complex topic and I’m not done exploring it, but I have a deadline so this is what I have, please come on this journey with me!
*Disclaimer #2: I am aware of the precedent where people hide racist and hateful rhetoric behind the guise of critiquing “cancel culture” and advocating for free speech. I personally think that’s deplorable, and this is not that (I would love to be able to reclaim free speech as a less polarized topic, but that’s another post for another day).
*Disclaimer #3: I’m also aware that the internet is all about condensing context and finding sound bites and quotes that are inflammatory and controversial. I realize that I have no control over how people quote or condense this post, and that talking about any controversial issues increases the opportunity for nuance to be lost in favor of sensationalism. This is a post about nuance so to be quite honest I’m terrified of being misquoted but I think that this conversation needs to be had so I’m trusting you all to step into the abyss with me (Can you tell that I’m a performance major? The drama right?).
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one day my college career was forever changed when my friends and I discovered Joanne the Scammer. For those who haven’t seen Caucasian Living, this will be a much-needed brain break from your regularly programmed lives.
In this viral video, Joanne the Scammer sneaks into someone’s mansion, the epitome of “Caucasian Living” and gives a tour pretending that she lives there. This hilarious video had some of the most iconic quotes of my college experience. Shakespeare, Goethe, Adiche, couldn’t compete with the literary prowess that went into “welcome to my Caucasian household.” But the quote that we latched onto above all the rest was the infamous “It’s over, it’s done, it’s canceled.”
You see, when Joanne flippantly “canceled” a fancy espresso machine that refused to work, she inadvertently gave me and my friends the power to cancel anything we set our minds to. Thus commenced months of our college career where you could find us huddled together at a table, cackling loudly, as we canceled– our homework, any teachers who assigned too much reading, racism, ableism, stubbing our toes, being ghosted on dating apps (I mean who in their right minds would ghost us, their phones must have spontaneously combusted… only possibility), the word moist. Literally, any and everything was up for canceling, and we would laugh ourselves into fits finding the most ridiculous and mundane parts of life to cancel.
Short History of Canceling
Like many good things that start off on black twitter, it was only a matter of time until it got ruined…
…sigh (is there a term for twitter terminology gentrification? If not there should be).
While “canceling” was only intended to be a flippant and humorous phrase without any associated behavior or moral code, it quickly spread from black twitter to the internet at large and merged with “call-out culture”. Once the two were melded together “cancel culture” was supposedly born– where people on the internet, publicly shame, ostracize, and distance themselves from an individual who has done something deemed as socially or morally reprehensible.1
Cancel Culture. What does it even mean?
Between now and then “Cancel Culture” has become an incredibly politicized term with arguments ranging from it endangers democracy to “it doesn’t exist.”2
The Daily tackled cancel culture and described it as “a suitcase term, people will end up packing a whole variety of completely disparate terms and ideas into this one phrase,”3 this makes discussions about cancel culture incredibly frustrating at best and impossible at worst. How can one possibly know what elements are being referenced when cancel culture has been used to refer to calling people out online, boycotting celebrities, cyber bullying, the “very definition of totalitarianism”4, mob rule, the powerless seeking accountability from the powerful, doxing, swatting, seeking long-overdue accountability, educating people on places for growth interchangeably, and more. If a term can mean so many vastly different things and there’s no way to deduce someone’s intentions or an audience’s associated connotations, then from a practical perspective the word is rendered meaningless.5
So I find myself faced with a problem of trying to discuss a topic that’s riddled with confusing and charged language.
- Option 1: Follow in the footsteps of famous writers and simply make up a new word to fit my own selfish purposes( I’m not saying I’m of the same caliber of Dickens or Carroll but there is a precedent).
- Option 2: Stand in solidarity with my black twitter ancestors and demand reparations for this verbal gentrification. Use this platform, foolishly entrusted to me, to set out to do what no man has done before– reclaim the term “canceling.”
Needless to say I’m choosing Option 2.
So from here on out I’m talking about canceling the negative association with “cancel culture.” Any association with doxing, swatting, or the end of democracy– is over, it’s done, it’s cancelled, forget her name. I’m optimistic we can all agree that that’s less than ideal behavior and should not be condoned. The ends simply do not justify the means.
I’m interested in looking at what responsibility we have to respond to artists, living and dead, that have created art that we enjoy and have also committed acts that go against our moral codes and values. I’m interested in looking at what that response would look like in an intentional and responsible world. I’m interested in exploring how we might use “canceling,” hereby and henceforth defined as public awareness, public pressure, boycotts, shaming, and or fundraising, for good.
Benefits of Canceling
While at first glance promoting my newly reclaimed term “canceling” may seem like a shoddy euphemism for internet vigilante justice, the distinctions are important and noteworthy. First, canceling artists in terms of raising public awareness, building public pressure, establishing boycotts, and shaming has been present in human society since humans had two pennies to rub together and spend on art.
While the internet and particularly social media have acted as a catalyst for the speed and reach of canceling movements, using the power of public opinion to shape society is timeless, and not inherently bad.
1. Community Growth
In a truly incredible article by Chi Luu, a computational linguist who investigates cancel culture, she writes of the societal benefits of canceling (It’s really taking all of my self-control not to copy and paste the entire article here so please, please, PLEASE check it out for yourself if you have a minute, she’s amazing!). She argues that groups calling out unacceptable behavior and publicly discussing what will and won’t be allowed is critical to community building and growth. “Public call outs may not be always what a community wants to hear. It’s certainly not nice, but it’s what needs to be said for the same values to be debated, formed, shared, and upheld by everyone who belongs to the group.”6 She even goes on to discuss how dangerous using language like “mobs, witch hunts, and vigilante justice” for groups that seek to call out or change the status quo can be.
Coded language like mobs, sends connotations that the group’s beliefs are irrational, criminal, or anti-democratic, often justifying the use of government force to suppress them. And while “no one could argue that it’s pleasant to be the bottom of a pile on, virtual or not. It’s true that people can band together for the wrong reasons, but, funnily enough, they can also band together for very good reasons.”7 Case in point: The March on Washington, The Boston Tea Party, The Women’s Suffrage Movement. All examples of rational, logical, pro-democratic groups of people banding together to use the power of public opinion to reshape society, who could easily have been labeled mobs and vigilantes.
2. A Platform for Marginalized Voices
One of the strongest arguments in its defense highlights how canceling gives power to the otherwise powerless — people from marginalized communities. Social media has allowed individuals from marginalized communities to influence societal norms and to directly address problematic behaviors from people whose privilege previously protected them from public critique.8 Social media undercuts gatekeeping tactics from traditional outlets of power and allows for BIPOC people to have a seat at the proverbial table. And while some argue that “canceling” has a puritanical silencing effect on public figures,9 others argue that–
I think it is applaudable that many in our society seek to denounce racist, transphobic, ableist, sexist, and bigoted behavior, and I don’t think that would be the case if it wasn’t for canceling and social media’s ability to highlight the voices of marginalized identities.
So if canceling has such incredible potential, why does it so often go wrong? What pitfalls have given it such a bad reputation? Is there a way to learn from them so we can keep the good effects and lose the bad?
The Dangers of Canceling
Natalie Wynn is a social commentator with degrees in philosophy from Georgetown and Northwestern, who created the youtube channel ContraPoints. In ContraPoints, Natalie uses philosophy, her own life experiences, and witty humor to produce extremely nuanced, critical, and darkly humorous video essays on race, politics, gender, ethics, and other controversial topics. Wynn, a trans woman, was canceled in 2019 for a twitter controversy where she was accused of being a transmedicalist10 and made an EPIC (I use that in the literal meaning of the world), GROUNDBREAKING video on canceling in response.
It’s almost 2 hours long so while you should definitely watch it, maybe save it for date night this weekend, it will spice up your relationship and definitely give you all something to talk about beyond how your day was (I mean we’re in quarantine all of our days are the same, I know you’re desperate for something new to talk to each other about. You’re welcome).
In this sundance worthy film, which you are so going to watch later, Natalie talks about how as someone who is committed to anti-racism and anti-transphobia she is deeply concerned and increasingly disillusioned with the way canceling on social media is used to “escalate conflict instead of promote understanding,” and by how it’s “weaponized to destroy people who have made mistakes, but maybe don’t deserve to be destroyed.” She meticulously researches various examples of canceling that went wrong. Where individuals who may have made a mistake were demonized, ostracized, punished, and denied an opportunity for rehabilitation. There’s a difference between criticism and condemnation.
Natalie goes on to note that the impact of canceling, rarely has long-term effects on celebrities’ lives. Assuming that this is an example where the individual didn’t break the law but rather broke socially acceptable actions, people with privilege usually have a short period of discomfort and then their careers survive to be canceled another day. However, canceling in actuality has the most damning effects on individuals from marginalized communities who may not have any other resources when they’re canceled from their community. Natalie shares stories of sex workers and BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people who relied on internet communities for support, whether emotional or material, and were canceled to tragic effect.
The feeling of being canceled as a vulnerable identity is described as–
Luckily, Natalie is a goddess come to earth in human form to show us the way (join the fan club yes we have T-shirts), so she deduces the 7 traits that define toxic and counterproductive canceling. I, as a hopeless romantic and eternal optimist, hope that if we can be aware of and avoid these problematic pitfalls, we can through intention and awareness of our actions, maximize canceling’s societal benefits and minimize the negative effects.
The 7 Destructive Tropes of Canceling
1. Presumption of Guilt
–When canceling weaponizes the progressive slogan “believe victims,” it abuses a well intentioned model that can allow the dichotomy of victim and abuser to be placed on situations that don’t warrant it. Additionally because canceling isn’t a legal proceeding, accusations can be equated to truth with little to no proof, and in the world of twitter, often zero context.
-“Abstraction replaces the specific, concrete details of a claim with a more generic statement.”-Natalie Wynn
–Social media and internet culture lend themselves to a constant collapse of context as information is shared so that the original specifics and intention are often lost as information is shared. Thus one line of a tweet, pulled from a larger thread, can be abstracted from what it literally says, into someone’s interpretation of that line’s intention.
–Essentialism is when we go from criticizing a person’s actions to criticizing the person themselves. We’re not just saying they did bad things. We’re saying they’re a bad person.” – Natalie Wynn
4. Pseudo-Moralism or Pseudo-Intellectualism
–Providing a phony pretext for the call–out designed to make people feel justified in their harmful actions, and less guilty.
–The point is Pseudo-moralism is that it often disguises an intent of unflattering motivations, behind the guise of righteous indignation to be more palatable to a wider audience, a dangerous combination.
5. No Forgiveness
–What is the point of canceling again? To hold people accountable? To educate people with privilege on how their ignorance is “dehumanizing” to others’ existence? So then the ultimate goal would logically be an apology and changed behavior in the future.
–However Natalie describes dangerous trope number 5 where apologies are dismissed as insincere, whether convincingly written or delivered, and past mistakes are compounded together while ignoring any growth or apologies.
6. Transitive Property of Cancellation
–“Cancellation is infectious. If you associate with a canceled person, the cancellation rubs off. It’s like gonorrhea, except doxycycline won’t save you this time sweetie.” – Natalie Wynn
–Binary thinking means people are either good or bad. We should “interpret that [any mistake made] as the mask slipping, as a momentary glimpse of their essential wickedness.”
–“All bad people are equally bad.” so associating with someone who was cancelled is as bad as having done the action yourself.
If you disagree, have questions with, or want to discuss any of these tropes. WATCH THE VIDEO. This post is already way too long and my fingers are tired so I can’t get anymore into it but here is the link again (wink, wink, hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Watch it for yourself)!
But What Does It All Mean?
So maybe the frivolous canceling of my teachers, my homework, my hinge dates, has to give way to a more responsible model. But what does that look like concretely? I have questions! Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? Is there a line that an artist can cross that justifies demonization of the person, and not just the act (I’m looking at you R Kelly)? Do I have to stop listening to Michael Jackson and boycott any Met productions of Wagner’s ring cycle even though they’re dead? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will answer all these questions or die trying (cue nervous laughter, good thing I never bite off more than I can chew. As a grad student and a supposed adult I’m really glad I learned how to stop overpromising, otherwise these next two weeks could be really stressful for me).
If somehow you made it to the end of this incredibly long post and still want more (you go glen coco), here are all the articles I referenced and a bunch of articles I wasn’t able to fit into this post but had really interesting points to add to this discussion. Check them out!
Resources for further exploration
Videos and Podcasts
- Canceling by ContraPoints
- NYT The Daily Cancel Culture Pt1 and Pt2
Extra credit for the super nerds like me
- https://www.persuasion.community/ (I just subscribed and am interested to see what it’s like)