Cancel culture is a way to apply social penalties to individuals whose misdeeds or social faux pas (depending on what they actually did) have come to light. These social penalties include shaming tactics as well as unfollowing and other social media actions (viral posts that reveal whatever is problematic about their target). The purpose of canceling is to reduce or eliminate that person’s (or company’s) influence by highlighting their mistakes. It requires a response by the canceled party, and then evaluates that response in terms of sincerity and effectiveness to determine if they will in future remain inside the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
The term came to prominence in 2015, and many celebrities and other “influencers” have been canceled since then. You’ve doubtless heard of many of them.
On the upside, cancel culture points out behaviors that are socially unacceptable or hypocritical. For example, when Lea Michelle (Rachel Berry on Glee) posted in support of Black Lives Matter, her prior outrageous diva-like behavior as the star of her own show, particularly in targeting, belittling, berating, and excluding fellow actors who often happened to be people of color was immediately made public to point out her hypocrisy in supporting the BLM movement while herself being the opposite of an ally. She was quickly, and perhaps rightly, smeared on Twitter. She gave a semi-apology, but dismissed her behavior as that of a newly famous teen who was immature and lacking in empathy for others, like many teens. #notalldivas
Cancel culture can also introduce nuance into a black and white / heroes and villains narrative that is unrealistic and harmful when believed. For example, rather than seeing Christopher Columbus as a chosen-and-directed-by-God heroic adventurer, we can see that he also committed genocide and laid the groundwork for exploitation and slavery for centuries to come. We can question the history we’ve been taught to have a more accurate understanding of the world which can increase empathy and lead to better societies in the future.
Does It Work?
Does “canceling” actually work? Is cancel culture a net positive or negative? These are questions that depend on what the aims of canceling someone are. Is it enough to reduce the influence of a bad actor or does it give that canceled person increased influence through notoriety? Does outlawing offensive speech and actions result in a more civil or better society or does it just drive those motives deeper where they are invisible but as present as ever? (For evidence of this theory, see the 2016 election).
Here are a few of the downsides of “cancel culture”:
- We claim to believe in free speech, but this muzzles speech identified as “objectionable” based on moving goal posts.
- For the canceled party, it can be hard to recover due to the level of scrutiny involved. Their previous actions and statements can be evaluated with a presentee lens that may ignore context and changed views. Their current statements need to be perfect, beyond criticism, to undo the cancellation, and even so, some folks will simply disagree that their contrition was sufficient.
- Their response may simply be performative anyway. If you are a public figure, trying to regain your lost relevance, you have strong social motivation to pretend you are “woke,” even if you aren’t. This can devolve into a subjective public voting on whether you were sincere or not, and then an endless evaluation of what was lacking in your newfound wokeness.
- We encourage people to hide problems instead of dealing with them. If we make it impossible to express even slightly wrong or misinformed views, we shut down any dialogue that would educate or increase awareness.
- Outlawing certain speech through social disapproval can create a sense that what’s unspoken is actually worse than it was. It casts it all in a black & white light (unacceptable) rather than understanding the context of the remarks or actions. For example, we no longer say “colored” or “negro” as terms to describe African Americans. Younger people may not realize that these were mainstream terms that were not considered insensitive slurs when they were in vogue, even though they fell out of favor and were replaced by “better” terms. Those who used these terms weren’t necessarily using them with negative intentions.
In his book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Idea are Setting up a Generation for Failure, author Johnathan Haidt discussed the suppression of ideas that has become an increasing trend on college campus:
“Throughout Greg’s career, the calls for campus censorship had generally come from administrators. Students, on the other hand, had always been the one group that consistently supported free speech—in fact, demanded it. But now something was changing; on some campuses, words were increasingly seen as sources of danger. In the fall of 2013, Greg began hearing about students asking for “triggering” material to be removed….Greg also noticed an intensified push from students for school administrators to disinvite speakers whose ideas the students found offensive.”
“In years past, administrators were motivated to create campus speech codes in order to curtail what they deemed to be racist or sexist speech. Increasingly, however, the rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations was becoming medicalized: Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function. They wanted protection from material that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by “triggering” them, or making them “feel unsafe.””
“What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering. . . . Students were beginning to demand protection from speech because they had unwittingly learned to employ the very cognitive distortions that CBT tries to correct. Stated simply: Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”
Haidt’s view is that our intolerance for offensive ideas (such as challenges to progressive ideas about racial injustice or sexual discrimination) is packaged with the idea that such speech is actually harmful which is a self-fulfilling prophecy wrapped up in anxiety-producing thought processes like catastrophizing, envisioning worst case scenarios rather than separating speech and ideas from actions and outcomes.
While I don’t fully agree with Haidt, you can’t arrive at middle age as I have without realizing that what is considered offensive in society has changed from the mid-80s to now. For example, I use the term “Asian” rather than “Oriental” (a term my mother still uses). Even the Ramen noodle package that used to say Oriental Flavor now says Soy Flavor. When I moved to Singapore in 2011, I noticed my assistant used the term “Oriental” in reference to herself. I asked why she said that rather than “Asian,” and she said, “Oriental, Asian, it’s all the same!” I still didn’t change the word I used because I know that it’s considered a loaded term in the US and was officially banned from government documents during the Obama administration. Like my assistant, though, many Asian Americans disagree that this term is offensive or problematic:
“I don’t see it that way; I see self-righteous, fragile egos eager to find offense where none is intended. A wave of anti-Oriental discrimination is not sweeping the country. Besides, the term has been steadily falling out of circulation since the 1950s, and it’s mainly used today by older Asians and the proprietors of hundreds if not thousands of restaurants, hotels, shops and organizations with Oriental in their name. The well-intentioned meddlers will create trouble for exactly the population they want to defend.” Jayne Tsuchiyama
So, in this example at least, considering the term offensive is a form of virtue signalling primarily for the benefit of younger generations who may not even know why the term is being shelved or what it meant originally. (It literally means “from the East” as opposed to “from the West”; maybe we should just call Americans Occidentals to even the score.)
The Time’s They are A Changing
Here’s another example. We bought a lot of collectible Walt Disney hardback children’s books when our kids were little, and now it’s time to clear out some space. I found four Brer Rabbit books among the collection, which brought back my memories as a child in the 70s of my mom reading me one of my favorite stories, The Tar Baby . When my adult kids saw that I had Brer Rabbit books, they were scandalized, assuming the worst kind of racism possible was contained therein. The thing is, we bought these books in the mid-90s over twenty years ago, and they were already cleaned up then.
As I explained the story to my daughter to see if she’d recognize the pivotal scene from the Disneyland ride, she struggled to see why the story was racist. Was the tar baby offensive because black people were tarred and feathered? No, the stories were just written by a white person, using black vernacular, and Uncle Remus was a freed slave, telling fables that illustrated how important it was to live by your wits. It’s a little disturbing that a rabbit punches and kicks a baby. The original stories, the ones my mom read to me, were written in a strong southern black vernacular that was almost comic in its extremity. Here’s a sample passage:
“`Mawnin’!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee – `nice wedder dis mawnin’,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox he lay low.
“`How duz yo’ sym’tums seem ter segashuate?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
“Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain’t
“‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you
is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,’ says Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘en I;m
gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do,’ sezee.
“Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t
“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’
ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me
howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.”
These are the stories my mom read to me, literally when I was still learning to read. I’ll be honest; 5 year old me could not make head nor tail out of these words. It was like a foreign language. Here’s the 1990s version of the same story in Brer Rabbit and His Friends (are Brer Fox and Brer Bear actually his “friends”? They are trying to kill him!):
Brer Rabbit came by and saw the stuffed rabbit.
“Howdy!” said Brer Rabbit.
But the stuffed rabbit did not say howdy.
“Can’t you talk?” asked Brer Rabbit. “Where are your manners?”
The stuffed rabbit just sat there.
Brer Rabbit was mad.
“If you don’t say howdy by the time I count to three, I am going to punch you in the nose. One, two, three!” Brer Rabbit punched him in the nose.
Anyway, you get the gist. We no longer have a tar baby, for one. It’s a fake rabbit made of glue and twigs. Rabbit-on-rabbit violence is more palatable than rabbit-on-baby, but the tar baby has been literally white-washed. The pictures in the book show a white rabbit, not a black tar baby. We also don’t have the dialect that some critics have said was exaggerated from the get go. I suppose it’s going to be easier for parents who are teaching their kids to read.
A few politicians have gotten in Dutch (is that a racial slur?) by referring to the Tar Baby metaphor, which is that the more you get entangled in a problem, the harder it can be to extricate yourself. John Kerry, John McCain, Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney have all been criticized for referring to the story. An article in the New Republic argued that many are “unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur . . . those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur.”
Are Comedians a special case?
The role of jester was traditionally an important and protected one within royal courts. Courtiers were consummate politicians whose sole job was to avoid pissing off the person in power who could literally have them killed on a whim. Court jesters were immune from the consequences of telling the truth. They might have to be clever, witty and funny in telling the truth, but they could say things that others would never get away with. In such a politically charged environment, allowing one person to say the uncomfortable truths is valuable to keep things realistic.
Many of those who’ve been cancelled are comedians. Sometimes this has been for their disgusting behavior, such as masturbating in front of others or sexual assault, things that are criminal or at least harassing acts. But sometimes it’s for speech–a comedian makes offensive remarks and or uses racial or misogynist slurs in their act. Comedians often explain their mistakes by saying that they pushed a boundary “too far,” but they are also making it clear that their role in society is to push boundaries, to say what others will not, to speak the unspeakable truth. Of course, whether they are really doing that or are just full of themselves is another matter. A lot of this type of humor isn’t funny, but some is. If it’s truly clever or uniquely insightful, it may be valuable speech about reality and society. If it’s just ranting offensively, it’s not. Yet these are subjective values, and everyone will have a different opinion on them.
In 2019, Shane Gillis, a stand up comedian, was hired, then fired by SNL. He reputedly had an amazing audition and a strong career as a stand up comedian, but he was fired due to anti-Asian slurs, anti-LGBT and misogynist slurs in his act. Andrew Yang, erstwhile presidential candidate who wanted to give everyone $1000 a month, disagreed that Gillis should have been fired for calling Chinese people “chinks,” mimicking their language, and saying that they should all move to Chinatown which was a terrible place nobody else would want to live. Yang said:
“I’ve experienced a lot of anti-Asian racism throughout my upbringing, and it hurts. It’s something that is very real, and I do think anti-Asian racial epithets are not taken as seriously as slurs against other groups. But at the same time, bigger picture, I believe that our country has become excessively punitive and vindictive about remarks that people find offensive or racist and that we need to try and move beyond that, if we can, particularly in a case where the person is, in this case, to me, like a comedian whose words should be taken in a slightly different light.”
- Does it lead to better outcomes in society (e.g. less racism or homophobia, more sensitivity and empathy)?
- Is it empty virtue signalling that just hides problems like racism or misogyny?
- Does cancel culture go too far? If so, when and how do you know?
- Is the Tar Baby a racist story? Why or why not?
- Whose influence would you cancel for their actions or speech?
 Not to mention bizarre. Telling a fellow actor you are going to “s**t in her wig” is crazypants in my book. Who does that??
 Which is also the basis for the Splash Mountain ride, or was because it’s now being changed to the Princess and the Frog which I’m totally cool with; it’s better known and more relevant to today’s kids and young adults.
 The older you are, the more you may be unaware or your habits may be harder to break. This is one reason that so many temple sealers make crazy sexist comments (and other weird rants) when they are performing the ceremony, one of the last things you’ll hear about in a temple prep class, but maybe you should be warned.