Symposium: Cancel Culture Doesn't Work

Content Warning: Mentions of suicide, sexual harassment and assault; discussion of racism and sexism.

Language is shifting all around us, every day, whether we notice it or not. Just last year, Merriam-Webster added “petrichor,” “swole” and “stan” to its dictionary. So it should be no surprise that, even in just four years, new terminology has come to dominate our political discourse.

Cancel culture, a term that acquired its contemporary sense only in 2017, has become the most fraught term in politics. The term usually denotes an act of public shaming and attempted deplatforming by an online vigilante mob against a figure who might otherwise not be held accountable for their bigoted or criminal actions. But the phrase has evolved to now regularly reference any progressive action whatsoever. However, the defense against conservative misrepresentation of the term has blinded many on the left to its pernicious elements, providing ammunition for bad-faith conservative actors to smear the entire concept. Moreover, the possible benefits of even well-justified online shaming are limited when they do not energize a broader movement. To combat both the bad-faith attacks and the potential unhelpfulness of cancel culture, we need to completely change the way we talk about cancellation, and we can’t let Twitter-shaming be the sum total of our advocacy.

Cancel culture can be traced back to the #MeToo movement, initiated by Black activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to give women, especially women of color, a place to come together to heal from sexual abuse and assault. When prominent white actress Alyssa Milano boosted the campaign in 2017, it evolved into an effort to hold powerful abusers accountable, and cancel culture grew from that. High-profile cancelees from the following year include Logan Paul and Roseanne Barr, the former for filming a victim of suicide in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest and the latter for making racist tweets. Both figures were harshly criticized for their actions on social media, especially Twitter, with the object of deplatforming their views and harming their careers, to varying success. Barr was dropped from her ABC show, while Paul remains a well-known creator. This is the general pattern of canceling, and while it seems a nice idea, even just these examples illustrate the uncertainty inherent in canceling. It doesn’t always work.

Contrary to what conservative pundits may say about it, most elements of cancel culture are not new. Public shaming, which is essentially what cancel culture is, has been a practice throughout human history, and public backlash against figures and ideas by various interest groups has been a longtime part of American culture (see the Satanic Panic or the backlash to the Beatles claiming to be “more popular than Jesus”). What is demonstrably new about cancel culture is its use of the internet. 

The internet has given a more powerful voice to marginalized communities that almost never had sufficient power to make these kinds of demands before (particularly when privileged people with large platforms speak as well). This is the common defense of cancel culture by many on the left, and this deep connection to earlier public shaming is what several think-pieces mean when they say “cancel culture doesn’t exist.” This defense works well when considering the actions of the #MeToo movement or the canceling of powerful public figures.

It even applies to the cases of private figures such as Amy Cooper. In July 2020, while walking her dog in Central Park, she was caught on video by Christian Cooper, a Black man there to birdwatch, as she threatened to call the police on him with false accusations that he was threatening her life, and then actually did so. The backlash that this post received on Twitter led to her losing her job and custody of her dog, and arguably sent a powerful message that white people can’t just inflict state violence on Black people in a world of smartphones and viral videos. Her privacy and her well-being were sacrificed on the altar of progress, and hey, that might just be necessary.

Of course, in response to this societal trend, conservative commentators began having a field day that has now gone on almost three years and is only becoming more ridiculous. Initially, they merely conveniently disregarded the systemic violence perpetrated against Black people to focus entirely on the comfort of individual white people like Amy Cooper or Roseanne Barr. As time has gone on, however, they’ve made a thought-terminating cliché out of cancel culture, decrying incidents from the cessation of publication of six Dr. Seuss books that had racist imagery to the cancellation of J.K. Rowling last year for her transphobic comments by saying “the left had to destroy her,” and it’s all “cancel culture run amok.”

The problem with this is that Republicans have now made “cancel culture” into an almost meaningless phrase in this effort to smear every progressive action. And indeed, “cancel culture” makes a great boogeyman. It sounds pretty scary all by itself. And then it gets tied up with everything else the right wing bashes on and on about with the left, until it becomes part of the same vaguely hateful soup, and Fox News can put out multiple articles a day about the evils of the wokeist leftist cancel culture mob that’s taking away your free speech. Such misrepresentation makes arguing for cancel culture, even just the aspects that brought powerful predators to justice, much more difficult, because acknowledging that there are problematic aspects can be immediately weaponized against one.

One of the places where cancel culture does as yet mostly unseen damage is in the online left. Major YouTubers with histories of deradicalizing far-right extremists, such as Natalie Wynn and Abigail Thorne, have been through multiple periods of intense backlash from their own associated communities on Twitter, in large part because they are the largest figures in those communities, and thus the most highly scrutinized for any evidence of being “secret bigots.” Repeated cycles of backlash may eventually succeed in bullying these creators off of their platforms, and discourage others from trying to make similar content, harming the left’s ability to advocate for progressive causes.

Additionally, there is the issue when such unwarranted canceling occurs against private figures who hold marginalized identities, where it can do immeasurable harm. August Ames, a porn star and woman of color who made a homophobic tweet in December 2017, died from suicide after the backlash to that tweet. Even though she made a cultural faux pas and potentially hurt some people, the response she received was more harmful. A similar, though less online, instance occurred at Smith College in 2018, a case of mistaken race-based intent that caused real harm to a low-income staff member at the college, and which good ol’ Fox News has already integrated into their fallacious attacks against cancel culture. 

As it stands, the good and the bad, the mistakes and harm and the successes are all tangled together in this term.

There is one final issue with cancel culture. The taking down of bad individuals does not offer the fundamental change we need to ensure such people don’t get the power to perpetuate hate and abuse in the first place. In fact, burning an effigy of hate might distract progressives from such real change. Christian Cooper himself made this argument when he explained why he wasn’t going to cooperate in prosecuting Amy Cooper. Moreover, it’s quite difficult to take down powerful people. J.K. Rowling is still on Twitter, and most celebrities who get canceled keep their power (Logan Paul still makes millions of dollars, too). There’s even evidence that such anonymous shaming is only contingently effective at changing individuals’ behavior. At the very least, these kinds of social media campaigns should be coupled with broader real-world organizing, like the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter.

So, what should we do about cancel culture? First, I think we should stop using the word “canceled” to refer to this umbrella-practice of public shaming. The semantics are too tangled. We need a new term to refer to justified cancellations and to ensure that it does not get similarly misappropriated. Secondly, we need to consider the object and potential good we can do by participating in public shaming more carefully. Just because someone says something questionable on Twitter does not necessarily mean there’s much or any good to be gained from shaming or deplatforming them, especially when they primarily make good contributions. Thirdly, for private individuals especially, we should provide a space for them to learn and grow. This does not need to be anyone’s sole mission, and educating people is hard work, but punitive cancellation is more likely to breed resentment than growth. Finally, our activism needs to go beyond Twitter. We can’t lose sight of the systems that instill bigoted attitudes and uphold bigoted outcomes — they are our ultimate target.