It seems you can’t go anywhere on the internet these days without encountering the term ‘cancel culture’. And the conversation seems to be reaching a fever pitch. Within the last month there have been notable op-eds covering the topic with the New York Times decrying a free speech problem and the Telegraph aligning itself with a notable fantasy author. And if somehow you missed all of that, you probably saw how talk of cancellation came up in the wake of a recent slap incident at an awards show which I will not at all discuss here (because what more could be said that hasn’t already been). Even today I saw chatter on Twitter of how the ‘woke mob’ and ‘cancel culture’ were coming for the delicious chocolatey veins on Snickers candy bars (P.S. it’s not true).
With so much airtime given to the topic, I thought it was worth addressing especially as a subtopic of finding reliable information on the internet. If you go by the bevy of think pieces about it, the rants on social media, or the vehement opinions of a handful of my coworkers (who are barely on the internet), cancel culture is amongst the worst issues America and western society are facing. Is it really that dangerous? Is it even a problem at all? Given all the things that have been referred to as cancel culture, I will take it a piece at a time.
While we can feel safe that the classic Snickers will be available to cure our hanger (at least for now, dun dun dun!), many other products have changed in the face of pressure. You have examples like Land O Lakes, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth syrup, or Uncle Ben’s rice which marketed in the stereotypes of different people of color. They’ve chosen to change their names or logos. The teams formerly known as the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, and a number of college teams felt a push to change their names for similar reasons. That was all referred to as cancel culture ruining things people enjoyed.
But should people have continued to enjoy that, when the people it represented felt defamed by it? Well, people are going to want what they want whether it is righteous or not. But isn’t it a company’s job to try to appeal to their audience? And when they don’t, doesn’t that often reflect in a loss of funds for the company? Haven’t companies been making those adjustments since the earliest days of advertising? That’s why companies take boycotts or threats of boycotts seriously, because some have been successful. And some were clearly on the right side of history like the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
To me that sounds more like consumer culture than cancel culture. People buy the things they like and need. Sometimes their feelings about the ethics or politics of a company change their shopping calculations like when a company premieres a racially insensitive soap ad. And sometimes those thoughts don’t factor in, like when they ponder the convenience of Amazon or their love of the new iPhone regardless of their thoughts about the practices or leaders of those businesses.
So when I hear stories about changes to a some M&M outfits, a cartoon mouse, a toy that involves sticking body parts into an anthropomorphic potato, or alterations to the Seuss catalogue by his estate, it seems like a horrible misuse of the term to call any of that cancel culture. It’s corporate culture trying to market as best it can to appeal to buyers. So if Hasbro is making the decision that a sort of more gender neutral Potato Head lets it draw in more customers, that’s their prerogative. The market will determine if they are correct.
Maybe more inclusive LEGOs or Monopoly will improve sales or improve retention of younger employees. Or maybe it will lead to kinder players. Or maybe a company’s occasional overtures at allyship (think a rainbow logo for Pride month) will be seen as the performative acts especially when taken into context with their corporate actions that are contradictory. Or maybe it will go the the route of New Coke and Crystal Pepsi and be one of many forgotten and discarded marketing campaigns.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, most companies will make their decisions from a completely profit-oriented perspective until pressured to do otherwise. And sometimes that pressure works when it may also affect that profit, and sometimes it doesn’t if the profit is still too powerful. And all of that is the prerogative of the company and the consumer deciding on what they like and decrying what they do not.
In the cases of company and customer decisions, ‘cancel culture’ is not a real thing. It’s just changing market pressures.
Celebrities Get Cut
The other examples people often bring up is celebrities that lose the ability to remain as employable due to something they did or said. One instigator for this was the Me Too Movement which brought openness from women (and others) about assault and harassment. Some prominent examples of those facing accusations have included Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, or Harvey Weinstein, all of whom have either been charged or convicted of sexual assault. There are many talented performers or industry folks to make content theses days. Do we really need more from the likes of those folks? As to what to do with their past content, I’ll address that later.
Then there’s a secondary category of folks like Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Chris Noth, Woody Allen, or Donald Trump who have all had multiple allegations of inappropriate sexual contact, often in the workplace. They all claimed they were being cancelled. Some like Lauer or Noth have lost a job and laid low while dealing with the personal challenges. Others like Louis C.K. had some career challenges after being outed, but he continues to tour and even recently won a Grammy. So he’s clearly not fully cancelled as much as some would want him to be. And then there are still others who may face some consequences like temporary bans from social media for violating various terms of service but continue to deny all allegations and seem to revel in their ability to continue to profit in the face of all criticism.
There are also those who have claimed to face the wrath of ‘cancel culture’ for other actions or words that were culturally insensitive to one group or another. DaBaby has struggled to remain relevant after homophobic remarks. Chrissy Teigen seems to have taken a break by choice after ‘facing cancellation’ from past cybebullying. Aaron Rodgers ranted about ‘cancel culture’ in the wake of criticism for lying to his teammates about being vaccinated. Roseanne Barr had her show literally cancelled after some racist tweets. And Joe Rogan was pushed to apologize for his frequent use of racist language, but his show continues. Joe and Aaron seem to still be doing quite well for themselves financially as do most of the other celebrities.
And then there’s likes of Ricky Schroeder, claiming to be attacked with cancellation after hateful words online and harassing Costco employees, but for the life of me I can’t remember him having much of career since well before that. I suppose we could argue about their mental fitness after the negative reactions for these celebs, but, given their actions, we might have presumed a possible need for counseling long before the public outcry.
Beyond that even some very popular artists have not escaped the withering eye of ‘cancel culture’ according to some. Adele was called out for cultural appropriation, T Swift faced backlash after a beef with Kanye and the Kardashians, and the very young Billie Eilish has faced a range of critiques. J.K. Rowling has been called transphobic for some of her online commentary. She responded with an open letter signed by many other notable figures decrying cancel culture as stemming free and open debate. I’ll speak of that claim later too.
Are any of these actions worthy of cancellation? Whether or not they are, all of them continue to thrive as artists. And as major celebrities, shouldn’t some form of criticism earned or unearned be expected? And all of them continue to have their voices amplified and don’t seem to have been silenced.
“I don’t think there are that many people who can actually understand what it’s like to have millions of people hate you very loudly.”Taylor Swift
But then comes the question where does the line between criticism that may be sometimes cruel vs. cancellation exist? And if there is a clear delineation for us regular folks, would that still exist for those who’ve chosen to be in the public eye? I can’t imagine what it’s like, as Swift says, “to have millions of people hate you very loudly.” It has to be heart-wrenching, isolating, and miserable. But does a cruel culture = cancel culture?
While those guilty of assault or hate speech may deserve that level of vitriol. I’m not sure many others do. But wishing the world were kinder does not make it so, but neither does unkindness equal cancellation. We could argue someone like a president is deserving of respect, but most Americans have felt inclined to curse about at least one or more of the last four we’ve had. And I don’t think doing so equates to cancellation or curtailing of conversations. And as for the cruelty, it is why some celebrities like Selena Gomez (who I really enjoy in Only Murders in the Building) have chosen to extricate themselves from social media. It seems like a positive mental health step some of the rest of us could take too.
In most cases this seems to be more consequence culture for poor choices rather than cancel culture. With some men of very questionable character remaining in prominence, this is either not cancel culture or cancel culture is pretty limited in its impact. Apparently you have to have already been struggling with your career (or personal life) for it to really have much effect. In other cases it is celebrity criticism culture which will always exist for someone who choses to put themselves in the public eye.
comedy Called Off
There are some celebrities, especially comedians, like Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, and Bill Mar who have expounded at length railing against cancel culture and political correctness. They argue comedy is about pushing boundaries. Some comedy is at least. And some of their boundary pushing is less funny or poignant than others.
Some have said things in skits that have been considered homophobic, transphobic, islamaphobic, or otherwise offensive. There is famously the Aristocrats joke which is called the dirtiest joke in the world. Comedy is no stranger to offense. Jimmy Carr is a British comedian known for stepping back and forth over the line of decorum. He has famously made rape, pedophilia, and Holocaust jokes which are about as boundary pushing as it gets. His audience expects it, and his detractors denounce it. And there is sometimes an audience that laughs, and sometimes an audience that groans, and sometimes an audience that sees you as a jerk for even thinking about it. The comedian can choose their jokes, but they can’t choose how people react.
Now you may love a good dirty joke. But even then you’d get that some people may laugh with you at bar telling it while others may call you disgusting for saying it to your 12 year-old niece at her Bat Mitzvah. Context and audience matters as much as content. Kevin Hart lost an Oscars gig but continues to be the currently highest-paid comedian. Jerry doesn’t want to play colleges anymore that he feels can’t take a joke, but as the richest comedian, I’m sure he’ll be okay. Mar and Chappelle happily swim in the controversy and now regularly banter with their fellow ‘cancel culture’ cousin Joe Rogan. So any talk of silencing or cancellation seems to fuel their careers more than damage it.
Now I would argue that when some of these men with massive audiences and even larger bank accounts decry those who criticize them, it feels akin to a cranky old man shouting get off my lawn to any young people passing by. Now you may think that’s a bad take. But I have put it out into the public world (albeit to a much smaller audience), and I can’t be surprised when someone else disagrees with me and regards it as such.
You are free to say any offensive jokes you want, but the audience is free to respond how they want. So maybe don’t act surprised when sometimes that reaction is offended. And maybe also don’t be surprised when some people think your act is unfunny because it only seems to be performative boundary pushing without substance. Your speech isn’t being curtailed, only reacted to. And if that reaction is companies no longer working with you, see the section above about companies curtailed.
Cancelling Your convictions
There are other celebrities who’ve faced a harsh spotlight for beliefs they hold. Colin Kaepernick, a top-rated former Super-Bowl quarterback, was released from his team in 2017 following some injuries and new coaching. Despite his prior success, he was not picked up as a free agent, likely due to protests on the field (specifically kneeling during the anthem in recognition of racial injustice and police brutality). He has continued to be kept from playing and endured scorn from the then president and others for his stance. He eventually received a settlement in a lawsuit with the NFL over being blacklisted. Even Aaron Rodgers, (mentioned above) who lost in matchups with Kaepernick, expressed that the effort to keep him out was purely political.
But in his time away from football, Kaepernick has not been static. He has been moving forward as an activist and advocate. He founded the Know Your Rights Camp which has many other NFL players and others involved and has partnered with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. Between that organization, his philanthropy, his writing, and his partnerships with companies like Nike (see Companies Curtailed above), he continues to have a major impact in conversations off the field. One could argue that the attention may be more focused due to his cancellation as a player which has allowed him to put the focus almost fully on issues of oppression.
The Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, lost much of their country music fanbase and most radio play when they criticized George W. bush over the Iraq War. Interestingly enough, the next president would be elected on the strength of his own opposition to that war. And it seems nowadays both Republican and Democratic leaders think the Iraq War was a bad idea. I am glad The Chicks continued to make great music like the jam Not Ready to Make Nice. They recently released the album Gaslighter. They’ve won 13 Grammy Awards and are the best-selling female band in the U.S. So cancellation looks just fine on them.
Some celebrities who’ve stood by their beliefs have suffered consequences for it. And while, perhaps they wish it weren’t so, that is the nature of a principled stand. And their remaining fans, and perhaps history, will hold them in higher esteem for it. So it’s hardly being ‘cancelled’.
And other Folks Too
Clearly not all ‘cancellation’ is the same as some still thrive. Meanwhile Christine Blasey Ford, heard death threats and had to flee her home from people seeking to cancel her very life following accusations of sexual assault at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings. There are others who didn’t choose the spotlight and were thrust into it, like Monica Lewinsky in the midst of the Bill Clinton impeachment trial. She was a young woman who held no power who was cruelly mocked and ridiculed by media even while Mr. Clinton was reelected. That was long before we spoke of cancel culture, but she could be argued to be amongst its first victims in the age of the internet. I’m personally glad to see she has returned to some prominence after being silenced for so long. She has an impactful Ted Talk on The Price of Shame.
There was also the time Elon Musk, angry about criticism for his plan to use a submersible to rescue 12 boys from a Thai cave in 2018, called a British diver involved in the rescue a “pedo guy” online. And, of course, Musk’s many ardent followers attacked the man mercilessly taking the statement as gospel truth. That incident led to a defamation suit, possibly the only legal ramification for these kind of ‘cancelling’ sentiments. Musk prevailed in the case though.
There have been a range of lesser celebrities who’ve fallen prey to overwhelming online critique for one reason or another. About a decade ago, a woman by the name of Justine Sacco famously hopped on a plane to Africa and tweeted a ridiculously insensitive joke about AIDS. By the time she landed she was fired from her job.
Did she deserve to be fired? I suppose that’s a decision for the employer (see Companies Curtailed above). Did she deserve the vitriol? Obviously she didn’t intend for the audience response she got. But even if we can remember days when social media felt like a small secret community, she shared it publicly online, on Twitter. Shout something horrible in your kitchen, you probably won’t get push back. Shout it on a crowded plane and you might get smacked. Context matters. And given that she worked as the communications/ PR director for a large company, there’s a good argument to be made that her actions clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding about public relations and communicating effectively which would make her unsuitable for that job.
There are other examples of ordinary folks embroiled in ‘cancellation-level’ scandals. Arizonan Adam Smith protested what he saw as a culture of homophobia at Chik-fil-A, but his method of doing so was to record himself berating an employee working the drive-thru who I imagine has little say in the corporate decisions of her company. Following that his company received bomb and death threats and fired Smith. So in his effort to crtique or ‘cancel’ that company, he faced an effort to ‘cancel’ him. He ordered a free water that ended up costing him his job, his stock options, his home, and a lot of future employment. It’s worth noting that now he has a job and he expresses that the experience has made him a better person even if he despises the ‘cancel culture’ he experienced.
I will say that I have experienced something similar albeit on a much smaller scale. I posted a tweet when I realized a popular education consultant blocked me for calling out a behavior of theirs (without using their name) as problematic. Ironically I used a GIF in that tweet that another person said they viewed as problematic (see my post on inclusive social media for tips). My response was to ask whether context mattered as I felt mine was above board.
The other person apparently didn’t receive that question well as they suddenly messaged a bevy of their friends to come and scold me for my seeming lack of ignominy. And that piled on and grew pretty quickly over the course of a day (with callbacks even months later). I was deeply morose and pondered leaving social media completely while it was happening. I reached out to trusted friends who would have diverse perspectives on the matter to ask whether I was genuinely oblivious to some great wrong I had seemingly committed. Now it happened in a corner of the internet and in so small a space that there was relatively no real worry that it would affect my job, livelihood, or relationships.
The only thing truly damaged was my pride, and I clearly have enough of that to spare. It wasn’t my first argument on social media, and unlike some others, I wasn’t threatened with bodily harm that time. So I guess that’s a small victory. And it did serve both to make me more aware of the views of others, and it made become more careful about sharing any casual thought online. I am less active on social media than in the past for a variety of reasons though I do enjoy occasionally scrolling through my TikTok feed. I think I am truly better or at least more mentally stable because of it. But I worry about teenage cancel culture somewhat when that kind of backlash, deserved or not, could easily lead to suicidal ideation in formative minds.
We make a range of choices in our lives that all have consequences. Some may be deserved and some may be thrust upon us. If it’s on the internet, we can expect the possibility that it will become public. And if we want to offer our takes as some unpaid pundit, we should anticipate that someone or perhaps many someones may disagree. But knowing that the internet can sometimes be a dark and cruel place, we need to do what we can to protect ourselves. So even still this often seems more like a matter of practicing good digital citizenship rather than cancellation. And hopefully, even in the harder moments and ones undeserved (like with Lewinsky), we can grow and become better people because of it.
The examples above may cause one to think people are being silenced. In some nations that is genuinely so where Russia is silencing dissidents following their invasion of Ukraine and China restricting internet communication. But these are the examples of repressive regimes and not the mob of cancel culture even if Putin himself calls that the enemy as he tries to side with Rowling.
As I stated earlier, Rowling’s open letter spoke of how we are silencing dissent, but given what I see being produced online about almost every pop culture moment there seems to be more dissent about anything and everything. And again the Times too spoke of us “right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” And while I understand their fears as a journalistic entity, even being de-platformed isn’t being silenced. The right they speak of was never one guaranteed in our Constitution.
I spoke at length previously about what the 1st Amendment actually protects. And it’s broad in America. Even hate speech and horrible racism is protected speech. But freedom from government interference is not freedom from consequences for what you say. You have no guarantee for a platform to magnify your voice. Just as NBC doesn’t have to air an ad promoting white supremacy, neither does a social media site. You also have no freedom from being shunned if you say something worthy of scorn. And I’ll even say that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
No Guarantee of Comfort
Being risqué almost by definition means you’re taking a risk of being thought rude, vulgar, or worse. But there’s data that worries some people showing that over 80% of college students have felt the need to self-censor even amongst the open hallowed halls of academia. How can we ever have open discussions in such a space with that level of self-imposed silence (cue my pearl clutching)?
First, there have been groups of people who have long had to censor their feelings that weren’t normative in the past. That included outspoken people of color, people with disabilities, and anyone else forced to conform in a manner often described as code switching. So, now that those in power have to regard in advance their thoughts rather than letting them spill forth without repercussions we regard that as a problem.
Sometimes though self-censorship is good. Because sometimes, people young and old think some stupid and terrible things. My brain is always flooded with a range of weird thoughts I know are not generally welcomed in ‘polite society’. And there may be neurodivergent pals who get but usually few others. Sometimes it’s contextual. My wife may be fine if I call her honey, but she’d be less chill if I said that to another woman. It’s not always about the word. But there are times it is the word, as demonstrated by Delroy Lindo in this scene from The Good Fight. And behind that word is often sentiment that is just as if not more horrible.
Equality of Voices
As Ta-Nahisi Coates has so eloquently shared the issue is not with cancellation as we have long silenced dissent in this country whether through police crackdowns on protests or the internment camps for Japanese Americans. It’s that the “banishment has been ostensibly democratized”. He claims there is now more accountability for the powerful and more voice for those who were often silenced in ‘cancel culture’.
Sarah Hagi makes a similar point with opposite language when she says “cancel culture isn’t real.” In so many of the cases above you see that is corporate culture for meeting public demand or consequences at long last for powerful people who previously rarely faced any. These people who are so often adored now face criticism, sometimes for objectively wrongheaded sentiments. And they’re not used to being corrected with wealth and power shielding them from much scrutiny.
The fact that so many voices that in the past were marginalized are now able to loudly and proudly call out the racism, misogyny, and hate where they see it is a net positive. Does it sometimes go a little farther than it ought to? Possibly. But after many of those voices going long unheard, I think it’s that’s the better problem of the two.
It is interesting that we find cancel culture being used as phrase by powerful people to silence dissent against folks who are perhaps deserving of it, but we’re not using that phrase for others who are fighting to be present. We have book bans, especially of a LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color across America. And while those bans may be increasing sales of those books in some places, those stories will go unheard by others who need the mirror it would provide.
Similarly teachers are, in a sense, being silenced as they are unable to share historical or social content that could cause students any discomfort. There is a bevy of legislation across many states preventing talk of slavery, socialism, social-emotional learning, and more. I’m not going to dive so deeply into that here apart from the recognition that silencing or cancellation does seem to be happening again by some in power while the outlet of social media remains to give voice to the rest.
Free speech seems to be in solid shape even if some of that speech is wrongheaded and hurtful. In fact the democratization of voices may mean that free speech is in better shape than it has long been. Doesn’t look to be cancelled any time doon.
So does cancel culture even exist? I guess, like many things, it depends how you define it. The phrase seems to be so watered-down now that it is devoid of meaning. Corporate decisions and consequences for genuine wrongs are not cancellation. “But, Sean” you say, “who decides what is wrong?” Well, intrepid reader, society decides what is inappropriate behavior in society. That makes sense, right?
But is it the death knell for free speech and dissenting voices? It doesn’t seem to be so. Just because people peddling theories of flat earths are laughed at or people with more harmful counter-culture thoughts may not get a social media push to their rage-fueled online rants, it doesn’t stop them from expressing them. But nowhere were you promised clicks or virality.
“Yeah, but some people are being silenced”, you say. Perhaps, but none of them are the celebrities or public officials you might name. The real silencing that is dangerous is generally done by those with genuine power and through a system to keep them in authority. It is the women at companies who’ve been harassed and mistreated being made to sign non-disclosure agreements so the abuse can continue. But that’s not called cancel culture. But those aren’t being called out online on social media and those laws aren’t being changed while some shout that the real issue is libel laws because they don’t like it when people say mean things about their big brains.
It seems that often ‘cancel culture’ is about improving culture. Sometimes it’s companies becoming more inclusive to broaden their market. And sometimes it’s about people who go rant about how you can’t say anything anymore, but they really just want to say more inappropriate things without consequences. They want to be able to sexually harass women without being called out for it. They want to make a racist or otherwise offensive joke without having to hear someone was offended. So while silencing the masses is not new as there is a long history of ‘cancel culture’, the ability of the masses to call out the wrongs of the powerful is a new dynamic.
This new structure though should be used carefully. Don’t treat people as irredeemable. It can be a death sentence for some young people. There are stories even of former Klansman who now help others to turn it around. And it’s too easy for so many from afar to, sometimes anonymously, act as they are somehow ‘better than’ because they are verbally flogging the right people or despising the proper content. How easy it is to feel superior hating the work of others by people who’ve never produced any of their own. As Barack Obama recently expressed, those who are only casting stones are doing little good.
But also let’s not be so quick to halt those opinions of the masses. There can be truths held there. And while it’s usually a matter of people taking hardened sides on an issue where nuance is often more appropriate, we can find that nuance amidst the animosity if we look carefully. More often than seeking that nuance and a true discussion, the people who most often push the idea of ‘cancel culture’ are those who are just seeking to silence their critics. And often that criticism is valid.
Did I dive into the debate over the cancellation of historical figures? No, not really. And that’s because that’s often an even more nuanced conversation, and this is already quite long. Is it possible to admire the art of Picasso or Michael Jackson recognizing simultaneously that they were both broken and abusive men in their specific ways? Is the sign of adulthood the complex ability to hold two competing ideas in your mind at once? Is it right or wrong for victims of child abuse to want no part of an abuser’s songs reminding them of their trauma? But do they get to make that decision for society as a whole?
I will say this. I won’t miss hearing R. Kelly songs being played at almost every young kid’s stepping up ceremony. But that’s a nod to overuse and personal tastes as much as anything. I think it was Tiffany Haddish who said “No one can cancel me but God and myself.” And I like that idea. We’re only truly cancelled when we give up growing and learning and decide for ourselves we have nothing left of value to share.
And maybe my only other advice is maybe spend a little more time offline and go for walk outside. It’s Spring here and the flowers are blooming.