BLUF: The origins of cancel culture vary as wildly as the opinions about its role in society and outcomes of impact. Though many ultimately believe the trend pushes society in unique and unilateral ways, others worry the mob mentality can be too quick and harsh to react, leaving little room for mistakes or growth. A concept pervasive on both sides of the US political aisle and seen in totalitarian regimes and democracies alike, some worry the concept may push America down a path from which we cannot return. To cancel, cancel culture? There may not be a good answer.
Every time you turn on the news or scroll through social media, someone is being cancelled. I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve wasted discussing The Bachelor franchise/Chris Harrison cancellation. It’s divisive and it’s addicting. The topic of cancel culture has been written about and debated ad nauseum, though many still withhold publicly from the dialogue out of fear of, ironically, being cancelled. THE BABES BLUF, however, doesn’t shy away from tough topics nor do we do partisanship, so tackle cancel culture we shall.
Chris Harrison, Ellen Degeneres, J.K. Rowling, Liz Cheney, Southwest Airlines, the state of Georgia and Major League Baseball: What do they all have in common?
Cancel culture. (But they weren’t all cancelled.)
But what really is cancel culture? It is the idea that a person or entity can be culturally blocked.
K, when did it start? Well, it depends on who you ask.
A New York Times article traces “cancel culture” back to 1991 when Chinese slang entered the chat: Renrou sousuo, literally translated as “human flesh search.” It began as using online search engines by wangmin (web citizens) or wangyou (web friends, internet users sharing a common passion or cause) to do internet sleuthing on “objects and figures of interest.” Later, fandom switched to scouring and sharing information online on wrongdoers:
“Those thought to exhibit moral deficiency, from a low-level government official spotted flashing a designer watch far above his pay grade, hinting at corruption, to, more horrifically, a woman in a “crush video” — a fringe genre of erotica that traffics in animal cruelty — wielding stilettos to stomp a kitten to death.”
The online web citizens would identify offenders, expose their personal details, to essentially cancel them.
Cancel culture also has roots in Black culture, including Black empowerment movements dating as far back as the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s. According to Anne Charity Hudley, chair of linguistics of African America for the University of California Santa Barbara: “While the terminology of cancel culture may be new and most applicable to social media through Black Twitter, in particular, the concept of being canceled is not new to Black culture… a survival skill as old as the Southern black use of the boycott.”
Another tracing of the phenomena goes back to the very thing one could be cancelled for today: Misogyny. According to Vox, the 1991 film New Jack City has a scene where a gangster dumps his girlfriend after her breakdown caused by his violence, saying, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.” An apparently infamous phrase leading to a Lil Wayne 2010 song referencing the film with, “Yeah, I’m single / n***a had to cancel that bitch like Nino.”
There are smatterings of the phrase being used humorously with friends because of their choice in men, clothing, or color preferences, and various uses in pop culture like romantic disagreements in VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop: New York. As the term became more commonplace, the humorous callouts turned into real callouts, and the vernacular expanded to calling out and cancelling celebrities, corporations, and politicians alike.
Which brings us to 2021, where according to a Pew study (and much to my surprise) only 44% of Americans say they have heard at least a fair amount about the phrase, including 22% who have heard a great deal. Yet, 56% say they’ve heard nothing or not too much about it, including 38% who have heard nothing at all!
WHO IS CANCELLING WHO?
Today, public outrage is usually sought by progressive social media and is most often recognized in the mainstream as cancelling celebrities. The act of cancelling, however, spreads beyond the liberal elite to conservatives, corporate entities, and even states cancelling people, companies, trends, places, and things.
- Chris: Stepped down from hosting The Bachelor and defending a contestant’s (who won) social media posts and photos that showed her participating in an antebellum-themed party in 2018. The contestant is back with The Bachelor after a brief breakup.
- Ellen: Cancelled after allegations that the superstar, known for being kind, fostered a toxic culture at her workplace.
- J.K.: Cancelled after supporting transphobic messages, research, and groups.
- Liz: House Republicans ousted Liz Cheney (R-WY) as the #3 party leader over her unwillingness to support Donald Trump’s stolen election allegations.
- Southwest Airlines: Republicans called for Southwest Airlines to be shut down after an apparent “sickout” protesting COVID-19 mandates grounded flights one weekend.
- Georgia: Major League Baseball moved its infamous All Star Game from Atlanta over a voter suppression law.
THE POLITICS OF CANCEL CULTURE
Guess what! Cancel culture is no longer just for liberal snowflakes. Nope, Republicans have jumped on board too both cancelling and taking advantage of progressive cancellations. But, let’s back up.
Democrats or progressives, more often than not, use cancel culture as a way to push or advocate for accountability. For example, Black Twitter and marginalized communities continue to use cancellation as a tool “to assert their values against public figures who retained power and authority even after committing wrongdoing.” Famously, the internet was able to call out Harvey Weinstein for his disgusting assault, harassment, and rape of women by cancelling him online and kickstarting the #MeToo Movement. But even the best of intentions don’t always go as planned because as the idea of cancel culture became mainstream, dissent inevitably turned into ideological debate over questions of free speech, censorship, and “political correctness.”
Democrats or progressives, more often than not, use cancel culture as a way to push or advocate for accountability.
For a while conservatives pushed back entirely on the entire idea of cancel culture before eventually joining in and using it to their advantage, realizing that as liberals focused on political correctness, they could turn the concept into good ole fashioned politics. Earlier this year, conservative politicians in Iowa proposed legislation to ban the New York Times’s 1619 Project from being taught at community colleges and other schools. While the MLB kicked the All Star Game out of Atlanta over voting suppression, national GOP figures fired back by removing MLB’s federal antitrust exemption. And conservatives aren’t just cancelling their own liberal orgs/people/causes. The concept also helps them when it comes to $$$. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson regularly uses the topic headline on his show to spark outrage over the alleged cancellation of things like Space Jam to the Fourth of July. There are still conservatives who do feel as though Facebook and other social media platforms are engaging in an all out battle against their views, going so far as building their own Facebook. Shockingly, Facebook is actually dominated by conservative news.
CANCEL CULTURE GOES GLOBAL
Yes, cancel culture is deeply ingrained in the fibers of American social media, but it is not unique to the US alone.
China and the US have been sprinkling forms of cancel culture back and forth for ages. Whether it’s about punishing fast fashion business ethics and rallying sanctions against the slave labor of Uyghurs, or suspending cooperation with the NBA Rockets team over player support for Hong Kong, foreign policy is not immune to cancel culture — particularly when it comes to business. As Machiavelli once wrote, “A leader doesn’t have to possess all the virtuous qualities…, but it’s absolutely imperative that he seems to possess them.” Turns out, same goes for countries.
Whether it’s about punishing fast fashion business ethics and rallying sanctions against the slave labor of Uyghurs, or suspending cooperation with the NBA Rockets team over player support for Hong Kong, foreign policy is not immune to cancel culture — particularly when it comes to business.
China isn’t just experiencing cancel culture via US sanctions or in its own cancellation of one NBA star, it’s using the tactic to dominate Hong Kong. Without getting into a thorough history of China/Hong Kong, because we don’t currently have time for that, here is the BLUF: Hong Kong was a British colony until it was handed back to China in 1997 with its own judiciary and a separate legal system to include many democratic principles. No surprise, China isn’t a huge fan. So recently, in an effort to make Hong Kong a bit more like China, the Chinese Communist Party has created systems of security and censorship. Some examples include: Removing Western-inspired “liberal studies” from curricula, dismantling pro-democracy opposition in elections, and overhauling culture and media. The last of which has included things like: Cancelling a screening of the award-winning documentary, “Inside the Red Brick Wall,” about a violent November 2019 standoff between police and protesters at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University; cancelling several programs of the independent broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong; and refusing to air the 2021 Academy Awards ceremony for the first time since 1969 over the short documentary nomination “Do Not Split,” about the 2019 protest movement. Back in China, the country has banned Winnie the Pooh because “online activists likened the beloved cartoon bear to portly President Xi Jinping.” Films depicting US military dominance, gay themes or ghost stories are also rarely accepted by Chinese censors.
One might think, “Well, that’s censorship not cancel culture and obviously dictators are doing it.” But interestingly enough, just last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against cancel culture at a Moscow-based think tank (this is not a joke). “The fight against racism is a necessary and noble cause, but in the modern ‘cancel culture’ it turns into reverse discrimination, reverse racism.” He continued:
“We see with bemusement the process unfolding in countries that have grown accustomed to viewing themselves as flagships of progress… The proponents of so-called social progress believe they are bringing a new consciousness to humanity…but the recipes they come up with are nothing new.”
The irony in watching a dictator call-out cancel culture over “progressive intolerance” while simultaneously jailing all his critics and political opponents is almost too much to bear.
Last year, a Harper’s Magazine letter signed by more than 150 people, appealed to readers about America’s current impasse and what it ultimately means for democracy. It stated that our “cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial” because speech and the free flow of information has become limited to the exponential growth of our cancel culture. The intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a “blinding moral certainty” are hindering our ability to think critically. In other words, the letter eloquently explains how hasty and disproportionate punishments have become for saying the wrong thing and woes over the price already being paid in “risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists.” And, it ends with an warning: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation;” followed by a proposal: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
The letter is signed by authors, educators, editors, and more including a good friend of mine, Karim Sadjadpour (Carnegie Endowment for Peace) and a long-time favorite author of mine who has since been cancelled, J.K. Rowling. Read the letter for yourself. I beg you.
WHAT’S ALL THE HULLABALOO ABOUT?
If you take as truth that cancel culture arose from the need for public citizens to, either unilaterally or by group, hold public figures accountable for their actions, then the act at face value is pure. The biggest concern and heart of the cancel culture debate in the US is two-fold: Who gets to determine what’s right and what’s wrong; and is there a sliding scale for mistakes and forgiveness?
On the one hand, cancel culture usually pushes society out of its comfort zone by publicly demanding a shift in behavior or holding accountable those unwilling or unable to progress. Lisa Nakamura, professor at the University of Michigan studying the intersection of digital media and race, gender, and sexuality, argues that cancel culture is “a cultural boycott…. It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to.” And cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse or harmful wrongdoing to others like he-who-really-shouldn’t-be-named going to prison or boycotting the #OscarsSoWhite resulted in a record number of black nominees the following year.
The flip side of cancel culture is an argument about a lack of grey space for mistakes and growth. In 2019, former President Barack Obama alleged that cancel culture was not activism, stating, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” He cautioned youth to remember that the world was “messy” and full of “ambiguities.” Jameela Jamil, an outspoken feminist, refers to herself as a “feminist-in-progress” given her belief in having more to learn. In an interview she openly expressed:
“I think feminist-in-progress is a term I use that rallies against cancel culture, which I don’t think is helpful because then you never give someone a chance to evolve — and fair enough, I understand that not everyone deserves a chance necessarily — but I think if someone genuinely wants to learn and grow, you shouldn’t always hold their old mistakes against them… I think we could try, at least, to rehabilitate people and give them a chance to go away and learn and read and watch things that will illuminate them.”
She recently tweeted “Nobody is born perfectly ‘woke.’”
When it comes to how cancel culture outcomes are ultimately perceived in America, 58% of adults believe “calling out others on social media is more likely to hold people accountable, while 38% say it is more likely to punish people who don’t deserve it.” But the breakdown by party affiliation is stark. “Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say that, in general, calling people out on social media for posting offensive content holds them accountable (75% vs. 39%). Conversely, 56% of Republicans — but just 22% of Democrats — believe this type of action generally punishes people who don’t deserve it.”
The jury will likely always be out on “cancel culture.” And while the progressives of Bachelor Nation are happy to see Chris Harrison go (and happier to have Tayshia and Kaitlyn stay!), his settlement with ABC was reportedly seven figures. The young white woman he defended for not being a racist? Well, she ultimately got back with the black Bachelor after an absurdly short breakup. So, did she do the work and learn then grow, or was the woke mob too quick to judge? Can both ultimately be true? Perhaps that’s exactly the fine line we should all strive to toe.
That’s all for this one, babes.
No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.
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