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Christina Animashaun/Vox

How the concept has evolved to mean different things to different people.

“Cancel culture,” as a concept, feels inescapable. The phrase is all over the news, tossed around in casual social media conversation; it’s been linked to everything from free speech debates to Mr. Potato Head.

It sometimes seems all-encompassing, as if all forms of contemporary discourse must now lead, exhaustingly and endlessly, either to an attempt to “cancel” anyone whose opinions cause controversy or to accusations of cancel culture in action, however unwarranted.

In the rhetorical furor, a new phenomenon has emerged: the weaponization of cancel culture by the right.

Across the US, conservative politicians have launched legislation seeking to do the very thing they seem to be afraid of: Cancel supposedly left-wing businesses, organizations, and institutions; see, for example, national GOP figures threatening to punish Major League Baseball for standing against a Georgia voting restrictions law by removing MLB’s federal antitrust exemption.

Meanwhile, Fox News has stoked outrage and alarmism over cancel culture, including trying to incite Gen X to take action against the nebulous problem. Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s most prominent personalities, has emphatically embraced the anti-cancel culture discourse, claiming liberals are trying to cancel everything from Space Jam to the Fourth of July.

The idea of canceling began as a tool for marginalized communities to assert their values against public figures who retained power and authority even after committing wrongdoing — but in its current form, we see how warped and imbalanced the power dynamics of the conversation really are.

All along, debate about cancel culture has obscured its roots in a quest to attain some form of meaningful accountability for public figures who are typically answerable to no one. But after centuries of ideological debate turning over questions of free speech, censorship, and, in recent decades, “political correctness,” it was perhaps inevitable that the mainstreaming of cancel culture would obscure the original concerns that canceling was meant to address. Now it’s yet another hyperbolic phase of the larger culture war.

The core concern of cancel culture — accountability — remains as crucial a topic as ever. But increasingly, the cancel culture debate has become about how we communicate within a binary, right vs. wrong framework. And a central question is not whether we can hold one another accountable, but how we can ever forgive.

Cancel culture has evolved rapidly to mean very different things to different people

It’s only been about six years since the concept of “cancel culture” began trickling into the mainstream. The phrase has long circulated within Black culture, perhaps paying host to Nile Rodgers’s 1981 single “Your Love Is Cancelled.” As I wrote in my earlier explainer on the origins of cancel culture, the concept of canceling a whole person originated in the 1991 film New Jack City and percolated for years before finally emerging online among Black Twitter in 2014 thanks to an episode of Love and Hip-Hop: New York. Since then, the term has undergone massive shifts in meaning and function.

Early on, it most frequently popped up on social media, as people attempted to collectively “cancel,” or boycott, celebrities they found problematic. As a term with roots in Black culture, it has some resonance with Black empowerment movements, as far back as the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s. This original usage also promotes the idea that Black people should be empowered to reject cultural figures or works that spread harmful ideas. As Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America at the University of California Santa Barbara, told me in 2019, “When you see people canceling Kanye, canceling other people, it’s a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you in the way that we once did. … ‘I may have no power, but the power I have is to [ignore] you.’”

As the logic behind wanting to “cancel” specific messages and behaviors caught on, many members of the public, as well as the media, conflated it with adjacent trends involving public shaming, callouts, and other forms of public backlash. (The media sometimes refers to all of these ideas collectively as “outrage culture.”) But while cancel culture overlaps and aligns with many related ideas, it’s also always been inextricably linked to calls for accountability.

As a concept, cancel culture entered the mainstream alongside hashtag-oriented social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo — giant social waves that were effective both in shifting longstanding narratives about victims and criminals, and in bringing about actual prosecutions in cases like those of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. It is also frequently used interchangeably with “woke” political rhetoric, an idea that is itself tied to the 2014 rise of the Black Lives Matter protests. In similar ways, both “wokeness” and “canceling” are tied to collectivized demands for more accountability from social systems that have long failed marginalized people and communities.

But over the past few years, many right-wing conservatives, as well as liberals who object to more strident progressive rhetoric, have developed the view that “cancel culture” is a form of harassment intended to silence anyone who sets a foot out of line under the nebulous tenets of “woke” politics. So the idea now represents a vast assortment of objectives, and can hold wildly different connotations, depending on whom you’re talking to.

Taken in good faith, the concept of “canceling” a person is really about questions of accountability — about how to navigate a social and public sphere in which celebrities, politicians, and other public figures who say or do bad things continue to have significant platforms and influence. In fact, actor LeVar Burton recently suggested the entire idea should be recast as “consequence culture.”

“I think it’s misnamed,” Burton told the hosts of The View. “I think we have a consequence culture. And that consequences are finally encompassing everybody in the society, whereas they haven’t been ever in this country.”

Within the realm of good faith, the larger conversation around these questions can then expand to contain nuanced considerations of what the consequences of public misbehavior should be, how and when to rehabilitate the reputation of someone who’s been “canceled,” and who gets to decide.

Taken in bad faith, however, “cancel culture” becomes an omniscient and dangerous specter: a woke, online social justice mob that’s ready to rise up and attack anyone, even other progressives, at the merest sign of dissent. And it’s this — the fear of a nebulous mob of cancel-happy rabble-rousers — that conservatives have used to their political advantage.

Conservatives are using fear of cancel culture as a cudgel

Critics of cancel culture typically portray whoever is doing the canceling as wielding power against innocent victims of their wrath. From 2015 on, a variety of news outlets, whether through opinion articles or general reporting, have often framed cancel culture as “mob rule.”

In 2019, the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu observed just how frequently some media outlets have compared cancel culture to violent political uprisings, ranging from ethnocide to torture under dictatorial regimes. Such an exaggerated framework has allowed conservative media to depict cancel culture as an urgent societal issue. Fox News pundits, for example, have made cancel culture a focal part of their coverage. In one recent survey, people who voted Republican were more than twice as likely to know what “cancel culture” was, compared with Democrats and other voters, even though in the current dominant understanding of cancel culture, Democrats are usually the ones doing the canceling.

“The conceit that the conservative right has gotten so many people to adopt, beyond divorcing the phrases from its origins in Black queer communities, is an obfuscation of the power relations of the stakeholders involved,” journalist Shamira Ibrahim told Vox in an email. “It got transformed into a moral panic akin to being able to irrevocably ruin the powerful with just the press of a keystroke, when it in actuality doesn’t wield nearly as much power as implied by the most elite.”

You wouldn’t know that to listen to right-wing lawmakers and media figures who have latched onto an apocalyptic scenario in which the person or subject who’s being criticized is in danger of being censored, left jobless, or somehow erased from history — usually because of a perceived left-wing mob.

This is a fear that the right has weaponized. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, at least 11 GOP speakers — about a third of the those who took the stage during the high-profile event — addressed cancel culture as a concerning political phenomenon. President Donald Trump himself declared that “The goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it.” One delegate resolution at the RNC specifically targeted cancel culture, describing a trend toward “erasing history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.”

Ibrahim pointed out that in addition to re-waging the war on political correctness that dominated the 1990s by repackaging it as a war on cancel culture, right-wing conservatives have also “attempted to launch the same rhetorical battles” across numerous fronts, attempting to rebrand the same calls for accountability and consequences as “woke brigade, digital lynch mobs, outrage culture and call-out culture.” Indeed, it’s because of the collective organizational power that online spaces provide to marginalized communities, she argued, that anti-cancel culture rhetoric focuses on demonizing them.

Social media is “one of the few spaces that exists for collective feedback and where organizing movements that threaten [conservatives’] social standing have begun,” Ibrahim said, “thus compelling them to invert it into a philosophical argument that doesn’t affect just them, but potentially has destructive effects on censorship for even the working-class individual.”

This potential has nearly become reality through recent forms of Republican-driven legislation around the country. The first wave involved overt censorship, with lawmakers pushing to ban texts like the New York Times’s 1619 Project from educational usage at publicly funded schools and universities. Such censorship could seriously curtail free speech at these institutions — an ironic example of the broader kind of censorship that is seemingly a core fear about cancel culture.

A recent wave of legislation has been directed at corporations as a form of punishment for crossing Republicans. After both Delta Airlines and Major League Baseball spoke out against Georgia lawmakers’ passage of a restrictive voting rights bill, Republican lawmakers tried to target the companies, tying their public statements to cancel culture. State lawmakers tried and failed to pass a bill stripping Delta of a tax exemption. And some national GOP figures have threatened to punish MLB by removing its exemption from federal antitrust laws. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that “corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs.”

But for all the hysteria and the actual crackdown attempts lawmakers have enacted, even conservatives know that most of the hand-wringing over cancellation is performative. CNN’s A.J. Willingham pointed out how easily anti-cancel culture zeal can break down, noting that although the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was called “America Uncanceled,” the organization wound up removing a scheduled speaker who had expressed anti-Semitic viewpoints. And Fox News fired a writer last year after he was found to have a history of making racist, homophobic, and sexist comments online.

These moves suggest that though they may decry “woke” hysteria, conservatives also sometimes want consequences for extremism and other harmful behavior — at least when the shaming might fall on them as well.

“This dissonance reveals cancel culture for what it is,” Willingham wrote. “Accountability for one’s actions.”

CPAC’s swift levying of consequences in the case of a potentially anti-Semitic speaker is revealing on a number of levels, not only because it reveals the lie beneath concerns that “cancel culture” is something profoundly new and dangerous, but also because the conference actually had the power to take action and hold the speaker accountable. Typically, the apocryphal “social justice mob” has no such ability. Actually canceling a whole person is much harder to do than opponents of cancel culture might make it sound — nearly impossible, in fact.

Very few “canceled” public figures suffer significant career setbacks

It’s true that some celebrities have effectively been canceled, in the sense that their actions have resulted in major consequences, including job losses and major reputational declines, if not a complete end to their careers.

Consider Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and Kevin Spacey, who faced allegations of rape and sexual assault that became impossible to ignore, and who were charged with crimes for their offenses. They have all effectively been “canceled” — Weinstein and Cosby because they’re now convicted criminals, Kelly because he’s in prison awaiting trial, and Spacey because while all charges against him to date have been dropped, he’s too tainted to hire.

Along with Roseanne Barr, who lost her hit TV show after a racist tweet, and Louis C.K., who saw major professional setbacks after he admitted to years of sexual misconduct against female colleagues, their offenses were serious enough to irreparably damage their careers, alongside a push to lessen their cultural influence.

But usually, to effectively cancel a public figure is much more difficult. In typical cases where “cancel culture” is applied to a famous person who does something that incurs criticism, that person rarely if ever faces serious long-term consequences. During the past year alone, a number of individuals and institutions have faced public backlash for troubling behavior or statements — and a number of them thus far have either weathered the storm or else departed their jobs or restructured their operations of their own volition.

For example, beloved talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has come under fire in recent years for a number of reasons, from palling around with George W. Bush to accusing the actress Dakota Johnson of not inviting her to a party to, most seriously, allegedly fostering an abusive and toxic workplace. The toxic workplace allegations had an undeniable impact on DeGeneres’s ratings, with The Ellen DeGeneres Show losing over 40 percent of its viewership in the 2020–’21 TV season. But DeGeneres has not literally been canceled; her daytime talk show has been confirmed for a 19th season, and she continues to host other TV series like HBO Max’s Ellen’s Next Great Designer.

Another TV host recently felt similar heat but has so far retained his job: In February, The Bachelor franchise underwent a reckoning due to a long history of racial insensitivity and lack of diversity, culminating in the announcement that longtime host Chris Harrison would be “stepping aside for a period of time.” But while Harrison won’t be hosting the upcoming season of The Bachelorette, ABC still lists him as the franchise host, and some franchise alums have come forward to defend him. (It is unclear whether Harrison will return as a host in the future, though he has said he plans to do so and has been working with race educators and engaging in a personal accountability program of “counsel, not cancel.”)

In many cases, instead of costing someone their career, the allegation of having been “canceled” instead bolsters sympathy for the offender, summoning a host of support from both right-wing media and the public. In March 2021, concerns that Dr. Seuss was being “canceled” over a decision by the late author’s publisher to stop printing a small selection of works containing racist imagery led to a run on Seuss’s books that landed him on bestseller lists. And although J.K. Rowling sparked massive outrage and calls to boycott all things Harry Potter after she aired transphobic views in a 2020 manifesto, sales of the Harry Potter books increased tremendously in her home country of Great Britain.

A few months later, 58 British public figures including playwright Tom Stoppard signed an open letter supporting Rowling’s views and calling her the target of “an insidious, authoritarian and misogynistic trend in social media.” And in December, the New York Times not only reviewed the author’s latest title — a new children’s book called The Ickabog — but praised the story’s “moral rectitude,” with critic Sarah Lyall summing up, “It made me weep with joy.” It was an instant bestseller.

In light of these contradictions, it’s tempting to declare that the idea of “canceling” someone has already lost whatever meaning it once had. But for many detractors, the “real” impact of cancel culture isn’t about famous people anyway.

Rather, they worry, “cancel culture” and the polarizing rhetoric it enables really impacts the non-famous members of society who suffer its ostensible effects — and that, even more broadly, it may be threatening our ability to relate to each other at all.

The debate around cancel culture began as a search for accountability. It may ultimately be about encouraging empathy.

It’s not only right-wing conservatives who are wary of cancel culture. In 2019, former President Barack Obama decried cancel culture and “woke” politics, framing the phenomenon as people “be[ing] as judgmental as possible about other people” and adding, “That’s not activism.”

At a recent panel devoted to making a nonpartisan “Case Against Cancel Culture,” former ACLU president Nadine Strossen expressed great concern over cancel culture’s chilling effect on the non-famous. “I constantly encounter students who are so fearful of being subjected to the Twitter mob that they are engaging in self-censorship,” she said. Strossen cited as one such chilling effect the isolated instances of students whose college admissions had been rescinded on the basis of racist social media posts.

In his recent book Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture, human rights lawyer and free speech advocate Dan Kovalik argues that cancel culture is basically a giant self-own, a product of progressive semantics that causes the left to cannibalize itself.

“Unfortunately, too many on the left, wielding the cudgel of ‘cancel culture,’ have decided that certain forms of censorship and speech and idea suppression are positive things that will advance social justice,” Kovalik writes. “I fear that those who take this view are in for a rude awakening.”

Kovalik’s worries are partly grounded in a desire to preserve free speech and condemn censorship. But they’re also grounded in empathy. As America’s ideological divide widens, our patience with opposing viewpoints seems to be waning in favor of a type of society-wide “cancel and move on” approach, even though studies suggest that approach does nothing to change hearts and minds. Kovalik points to a survey published in 2020 that found that in 700 interactions, “deep listening” — including “respectful, non-judgmental conversations” — was 102 times more effective than brief interactions in a canvassing campaign for then-candidate Joe Biden.

Across the political spectrum, wariness toward the idea of “cancel culture” has increased — but outside of right-wing political spheres, that wariness isn’t so centered on the hyper-specific threat of losing one’s job or career due to public backlash. Rather, the term “cancel culture” functions as shorthand for an entire mode of polarized, aggressive social engagement.

Journalist (and Vox contributor) Zeeshan Aleem has argued that contemporary social media engenders a mode of communication he calls “disinterpretation,” in which many participants are motivated to join the conversation not because they want to promote communication, or even to engage with the original opinion, but because they seek to intentionally distort the discourse.

In this type of interaction, as Aleem observed in a recent Substack post, “Commentators are constantly being characterized as believing things they don’t believe, and entire intellectual positions are stigmatized based on vague associations with ideas that they don’t have any substantive affiliation with.” The goal of such willful misinterpretation, he argued, is conformity — to be seen as aligned with the “correct” ideological standpoint in a world where stepping out of alignment results in swift backlash, ridicule, and cancellation.

Such an antagonistic approach “effectively treats public debate as a battlefield,” he wrote. He continued:

It’s illustrative of a climate in which nothing is untouched by polarization, in which everything is a proxy for some broader orientation which must be sorted into the bin of good/bad, socially aware/problematic, savvy/out of touch, my team/the enemy. … We’re tilting toward a universe in which all discourse is subordinate to activism; everything is a narrative, and if you don’t stay on message then you’re contributing to the other team on any given issue. What this does is eliminate the possibility of public ambiguity, ambivalence, idiosyncrasy, self-interrogation.

The problem with this style of communication is that in a world where every argument gets flattened into a binary under which every opinion and every person who publicly shares their thoughts must be either praised or canceled, few people are morally righteous enough to challenge that binary without their own motives and biases then being called into question. The question becomes, as Aleem reframed it for me: “How does someone avoid the reality that their claims of being disinterpreted will be disinterpreted?”

“When people demand good-faith engagement, it can often be dismissed as a distraction tactic or whining about being called out,” he explained, noting that some responses to his original Twitter thread on the subject assumed he must be complaining about just such a callout.

Other complications can arise, such as when the people who are protesting against this type of bad-faith discourse are also criticized for problematic statements or behavior, or perceived as having too much privilege to wholly understand the situation. Remember, the origins of cancel culture are rooted in giving marginalized members of society the ability to seek accountability and change, especially from people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, power, and privilege.

“[W]hat people do when they invoke dog whistles like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘culture wars,’” Danielle Butler wrote for the Root in 2018, “is illustrate their discomfort with the kinds of people who now have a voice and their audacity to direct it towards figures with more visibility and power.”

But far too often, people who call for accountability on social media seem to slide quickly into wanting to administer punishment instead. In some cases, this process really does play out with a mob mentality, one that seems bent on inflicting pain and hurt while allowing no room for growth and change, showing no mercy, and offering no real forgiveness — let alone allowing for the possibility that the mob itself might be entirely unjustified.

See, for example, trans writer Isabel Fall, who wrote a short story in 2020 that angered many readers with its depiction of gender dysphoria through the lens of militaristic warfare. (The story has since become a finalist for a Hugo Award.) Because Fall published under a pseudonym, people who disliked the story assumed she must be transphobic rather than a trans woman wrestling with her own dysphoria. Fall was harassed, doxed, forcibly outed, and driven offline. These types of “cancellations” can happen without consideration for the person being canceled, even when that person apologizes — or, as in Fall’s case, even when they had little if anything to be sorry about.

The conflation of antagonized social media debates with the more serious aims to make powerful people face consequences is part of the problem. “I think the messy and turbulent evolution of speech norms online influences people’s perception of what’s called cancel culture,” Aleem said. He added that he’s grown “resistant to using the term [cancel culture] because it’s become so hard to pin down.”

“People connect boycotts with de-platforming speakers on college campuses,” he observed, “with social media harassment, with people being fired abruptly for breaching a taboo in a viral video.” The result is an environment where social media is a double-edged sword: “One could argue,” Aleem said, “that there’s now public input on issues [that wasn’t available] before, and that’s good for civil society, but that the vehicle through which that input comes produces some civically unhealthy ways of expression.”

Prevailing confusion about cancel culture hasn’t stopped it from becoming culturally and politically entrenched

If the conversation around cancel culture is unhealthy, then one can argue that the social systems cancel culture is trying to target are even more unhealthy — and that, for many people, is the bottom line.

The concept of canceling someone was created by communities of people who’ve never had much power to begin with. When people in those communities attempt to demand accountability by canceling someone, the odds are still stacked against them. They’re still the ones without the social, political, or professional power to compel someone into meaningful atonement, but they can at least be vocal by calling for a collective boycott.

The push by right-wing lawmakers and pundits to use the concept as a tool to vilify the left, liberals, and the powerless upends the original logic of cancel culture, Ibrahim told me. “It is being used to obscure marginalized voices by inverting the victim and the offender, and disingenuously affording disproportionate impact to the reach of a single voice — which has historically long been silenced — to now being the silencer of cis, male, and wealthy individuals,” she said.

And that approach is both expanding and growing more visible. What’s more, it is a divide not just between ideologies, but also between tactical approaches in navigating those ideological differences and dealing with wrongdoing.

“It effectuates a slippery-slope argument by taking a rhetorical scenario and pushing it to really absurdist levels, and furthermore asking people to suspend their implicit understanding of social constructs of power and class,” Ibrahim said. “It mutates into, ‘If I get canceled, then anyone can get canceled.’” She pointed out that usually, the supposedly “canceled” individual suffers no real long-term harm — “particularly when you give additional time for a person to regroup from a scandal. The media cycle iterates quicker than ever in present day.”

She suggested that perhaps the best approach to combating the escalation of cancel culture hysteria into a political weapon is to refuse to let those with power shape the way the conversation plays out.

“I think our remit, if anything, is to challenge that reframing and ask people to define the stakes of what material quality of life and liberty was actually lost,” she said.

In other words, the way cancel culture is discussed in the media might make it seem like something to fear and avoid at all costs, an apocalyptic event that will destroy countless lives and livelihoods, but in most cases, it’s probably not. That’s not to suggest that no one will ever be held accountable, or that powerful people won’t continue to be asked to answer for their transgressions. But the greater worry is still that people with too much power might use it for bad ends.

At its best, cancel culture has been about rectifying power imbalances and redistributing power to those who have little of it. Instead, it now seems that the concept may have become a weapon for people in power to use against those it was intended to help.

Author: Aja Romano

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