Cancel Culture Is Complicated

Leah Cox

It involves personal beliefs and opinions, and factual evidence and cultural norms - and more often than not, these things clash with each other.

Cancel culture. I can bet with one hundred percent certainty that your shoulders have shuddered and you now have chills running down your spine. It seems like today, the “woke” Millennials and Gen-Zers (mostly Gen-Zers) are canceling people left and right, and understandably so. It reminds me of that one episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, when Oprah pointed and yelled out, “You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!” At this point it’s like: “You get canceled! You get canceled! Everybody gets canceled!” 

But on a less funny note, it seems like every time I open Google, or any social media platform, for that matter, I see another seemingly “good” person getting canceled. And sometimes, I find myself wanting to cancel someone for their words, actions, or behaviors that don’t at all line up with my personal beliefs. 

Cancel culture is complicated. It involves personal beliefs and opinions, and factual evidence and cultural norms - and more often than not, these things clash with each other.

But before we can even begin to discuss cancel culture, its definition must be clarified. In the words of Vox, “The rise of “cancel culture” and the idea of canceling someone coincides with a familiar pattern: A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person — that is, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from an employer.” 

To many people, the process of publicly calling for accountability, and boycotting if nothing else seems to work, is an important tool used to prompt social justice and change. It’s a way of combating, through collective action, the huge power imbalances that often exist between public figures with far-reaching platforms and audiences, and the people and communities their words and actions may harm. But of course, this is just the socially progressive view of cancel culture. 

If you are an avid viewer of Fox News, or literally anything that targets a conservative audience, then you may know that the definition above is vastly different from the one you’ve heard. Conservative politicians and pundits have embraced an argument that cancel culture is not speaking truth to power, but instead it is a senseless form of social media mob rule. For example, at the 2020 Republican National Convention, one speaker actually created a resolution to address the phenomenon: “Freedom of speech is trampled on daily with the notions of “political correctness,” the plan to eliminate so-called “hate speech,” and the promotion of a “cancel culture,” which has grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech…” If you didn’t already know, conservative politics, and media in general, thrive on outrage and amplification. So, if anything in the quoted statement sounded definitive, like an existential threat, just know that it’s not. 

In fact, ending someone’s career, or “muting” them, through public backlash is actually difficult. Few canceled people have actually, truly, been canceled, as our minds sometimes lead us to believe. “While these canceled people may have faced considerable negative criticism and calls to be held accountable for their statements and actions, very few of them have truly experienced career-ending repercussions” (Vox). 

I’ll give an example: Dave Chappelle.

In his Netflix special “The Closer,” Dave Chappelle took a detour from his normal (still controversial) jokes into an extended series of jokes about the LGBTQ+ community, which have cast a dark shadow over the special. In these jokes, Chappelle refers to being transgender as the gender equivalent of wearing blackface. He also joked that he hoped to “negotiate the release of DaBaby,” a rapper who was criticized for making homophobic comments and insulting people with HIV/AIDS during a performance in July of 2021. But as The New York Times writes, “‘The Closer’ controversy is happenstance.” Chappelle has been making stereotypical and insensitive jokes for over a decade. And from the way his jokes have been criticized in the past, it’s an indication that his career will not likely end. 

So with this in mind, there’s a discussion to be had. Do we hold people accountable for their actions (i.e. “cancel culture”), or do we give even just a glimpse of justice to those targeted by the actions of others? 

If you ask me, I don’t even believe cancel culture can exist. In my opinion, we’re living in an era of new ethical and social norms. Which means that a new generation of people have decided certain actions and words by people or organizations are in fact problematic, and they should be held accountable. The intent (at least in most cases) is not to just completely end their career. There’s an intention behind “canceling” the individual or organization. And while yes, the term is often tossed around with lack of nuance, those efforts go down the drain anyway. The campaigns to cancel often start online, and mostly on social media. If someone posted a video online informing others of the problematic behavior of someone else, they don’t automatically get “canceled.” Unbeknownst to some, these claims go through a sort of strain of discourse. There is an opportunity for everyone to give their “two cents” on the discussion, and this is what helps decide the direction of the claim. 

For those who claim that cancel culture is a progressive tactic to attack the First Amendment, that’s just untrue. The First Amendment states verbatim: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Sure, Congress can’t make laws restricting free speech, but that isn’t the case for the people. This amendment doesn’t protect citizens from being held accountable by other citizens or private organizations. Everyone has the right to speak their individual truth, but if a group of people have collectively decided that that truth is problematic, and choose to confront it, then there is no debate over free speech. The amendment doesn’t protect citizens from the repercussions of the words they say. 

Additionally, there are some cases where statements or actions do actually deserve to be “shot down” or addressed, even if it is their own opinion. When it comes to statements and actions based on a prejudice or stereotype about a marginalized community, it’s not only imperative, but vital that those actions be addressed. Even if it’s based on opinion. Our words don’t only exist in our own spaces, but also those outside. In essence, when an action or statement is made that could potentially perpetuate hate, misinformation, or wrongdoing, it should be addressed and criticized. 

But as always with these types of topics, there is a lot of gray area. I have very strong opinions about the topic of “cancel culture.” As a member of a marginalized group, I understand the effect words have on other people. But on the other hand, there are many competing factors in the world of “cancel culture.” Should people be criticized for not knowing enough about a topic, even if not knowing enough has greater (negative) implications?

In the case of comedy, how do we keep the funny element without reinforcing stereotypes, traumas, and experiences from individuals and different groups of people?

How do we address situations where people speak out of ignorance because they lack knowledge about a topic; or if they don’t have access to resources that might help them become more knowledgeable?

There could also be an issue with shutting down all things that people say or do worth “canceling” (with exceptions, for example if someone may be harmed). We can only learn more and become educated when we have conversations, even if it’s a conversation with someone on the complete opposite side of the belief spectrum.

I think we must strive for a reasonable balance between what society chooses to “cancel” and what it chooses not to “cancel” - well, at least for the moment. Times are changing so this “perfect balance” won’t always be what it was a year, or even a month, ago. People and institutions must be held accountable for their words and actions, both new and old, especially if they exist in influential spaces. There also needs to be a general consensus (although conservative pundits wouldn’t agree) on what cancel culture strives to do: which is to educate not ostracize.
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