To cancel cancel culture—and to write off the impulses that motivate it—would be to miss a valuable chance to learn.
Kanye West is canceled.
James Charles is canceled. Doja Cat is canceled. Harvey Weinstein is canceled. J. K. Rowling is canceled. Dave Chappelle is canceled. Donald Trump and all his supporters are canceled. Camila Cabello is canceled. Boomers are canceled. And now, cancel culture itself has been canceled.
The term "cancel culture" has quickly become one of the most discussed trends of the digital age. America is canceled, murder is canceled, Earth is canceled. If one were to scrape through everything I have ever said and written with a fine-toothed comb, I would probably be canceled, and you likely would be, too. As Jonah Engel Bromwich reported in The New York Times, "Everyone is canceled." Maybe we should all just go back to sleep.
Though it would be simple enough to rehash the argument that we should just "cancel cancel culture," cancel culture isn't disappearing anytime soon. Neither are the systemic forces of oppression and the forces of human nature that created it.
Instead of arguing for a complete end of cancel culture, we should ask if there's a way to move past cancel culture's flaws without completely shutting down the deeper meanings and gems of potential buried within the term.
The Case for Canceling Cancel Culture: Twitter, Queer Infighting, and Capitalism
Humans have always been "canceling" each other; it's a way of shaping and solidifying societal values. But the term "canceled" (as we understand it today) actually appeared sometime around 2015, when the hashtag #cancelled appeared on Black Twitter. Initially, cancel culture was used as a way of leveraging the collectivity inherent on the Internet and the attention economy and using this power to critique people in positions of power. In theory, it is a way of giving voice to the marginalized and the voiceless.
Yet inevitably—perhaps because it originated from a place of brokenness and anger—cancel culture began to twist and bend out of shape. It started coming for the powerless, shutting down discussions that would've been beneficial, splintering communities and stymying learning opportunities.
Of cancel culture in the queer community, Ryan Li Dahlstrom writes, "I'm feeling really tired of the call out culture on social media especially within the queer/trans people of color communities. We need to center and build relationships with each other…By making these public attacks on each other, we are engaging in the same disposability politics of capitalism and the prison industrial complex that we purport to be against while feeding into state surveillance tactics that are monitoring how we are tearing each other down."
Cancel culture ultimately idealizes unattainable standards, a fact that led even Barack Obama to critique the trend. "This idea of purity and you're never compromised and you're always politically 'woke' and all that stuff," he said. "The world is messy; there are ambiguities… People who do really good stuff have flaws." He emphasized that cancel culture "is not activism," which it isn't. It can provide immediate gratification and can be cathartic—but while writing a poem about how angry you are (usually) doesn't hurt anyone, cancel culture can have visceral consequences, particularly for people without the resources to bounce back.
It can also lead to burnout on all sides. "One way to heal this emotional drain is to consider what change you're hoping for. Do you actually want this person to learn and do better, or just to feel bad about what they did?" writes Maisha Z. Johnson.
This isn't to say we shouldn't be angry, or that we should all just "get along"; centrism, tolerance, and "politeness" have always been used to breed stagnancy and cover up true harm. But it's important to remember that cancel culture usually does very little to change the things it was trying to address, like systemic violence, racism, transphobia, and the like. If anything, it can perpetuate unproductive constructs. Critiquing Lana Del Rey for dating a cop might feel satisfactory in the short-term, but we can't delude ourselves into thinking it will do anything at all about police brutality.
As Jonah Engel Bromwich writes, "Only those whose power is, for the most part, predicated on the attention economy are susceptible to cancellation." This means that politicians, businessmen, and the people truly in charge of power structures often avoid being canceled while ordinary Internet users become targets, treated as if they single-handedly created massive social issues like racism or capitalism, treated as if they were not broken people with lives and the capacity to change.
Many have noted that cancel culture is a capitalist and carceral practice, one that breeds isolation, competition, and dehumanization. "[Cancel culture] speaks to a lifestyle of commodity, consumerism and capitalism, of transactions being canceled. It's a very transactional word," says Jason Richards, the writer of an episode of Joanne the Scammer that featured an early use of the term "canceled."
According to eminent scholar, preacher, and writer Michael Eric Dyson, cancel culture is literally "the internalization of an ethic of white supremacy, which is wanting to cancel black people from the beginning." Instead, he says, "We have to stand outside and protest and force people inside of the system to do the right thing."
In short, cancel culture takes our eyes off of the prize, which is—ideally—a better world.
The Case Against Canceling Cancel Culture: Learning from Aziz Ansari, Lana Del Rey, and Our Mistakes
All that said, it's tempting to say we should just cancel cancel culture itself. Realistically, though, this won't happen. Whether you think it's real or not, cancel culture generates massive amounts of attention and capital, meaning that it'll continue to be fueled by click-hungry websites and by the parts of us that long for likes, engagement, and revenge.
Plus, the Internet is a natural breeding ground for call-outs. This may be thanks to something the writer Ginger Gorman has called the "online disinhibition effect," which is when people online say things they'd never dream of uttering in real life. And of course, this world offers no shortage of reasons to be angry.
Ultimately, to cancel cancel culture—and to write off the impulses and anger that motivate it—would be to miss a valuable chance to learn from it.
We can honor the fact that cancelations often stem from places of deep pain and insecurity, often rooted in larger issues, while also understanding that the point-blank nature of cancel culture may be unproductive. For example, many men now live in fear of being accused of sexual misconduct, but women have always lived in constant fear of sexual assault. Instead of shutting down the voices of men who fear sexual assault accusations, we need to invest time and energy into dialogue about how men might avoid assaulting women. We could dive deeper into the root causes of sexual assault, like toxic masculinity and trauma, and focus on healing the wounds that created them.
This doesn't mean we should excuse abusers, but one of the most positive results of the increased dialogue about sexual abuse is the widespread proliferation of information about what constitutes consent. We should be highlighting the lessons we might learn from people like Aziz Ansari, whose cancelation generated a great deal of vitriol—but also created an opportunity for rich, nuanced discussions.
We should uplift all people who commit to healing and practicing radical love after (or ideally, before) being accused of something, just as we should honor women and people of all genders for their growth, not just their mistakes and traumas. It may be idealistic to think this is possible, but what would the alternative be? Total nihilism? People are always changing, and those who show a clear willingness to listen and learn from their mistakes deserve the space to do so. They should not be cast off into the wilderness or made into pariahs. We shouldn't rely on the methods of the power structures we're trying to replace.
Transformative Justice Approaches to Cancel Culture
In New York City, people have been writing the same message all over the subways: "We are not in the business of policing each other." We should, however, be in the business of remaining open to questions, to change, and to our own complexity.
The process of diving into the root causes of things, embracing complexity, and focusing on the outcomes we wish to see rather than the problems at hand are all part of a practice called transformative justice. This practice originated in the worlds of prison justice and gender-based violence organizing, but it's very applicable alternative to cancel culture. Transformative justice "seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations while holding people who commit violence accountable within and by their communities," according to usprisonculture.com. It's about advocating for learning, conversation, and growth instead of silence and ostracization.
Transformative justice is not the same as unconditional forgiveness. It means creating opportunities for repentance, reparations, and ongoing healing for all parties involved. It means channeling our rage into action, organizing, and community-building, not using it to tear others down. In this broken world, maybe the best we can do is learn from our mistakes and help others do the same.
The activist and writer adrienne maree brown makes a passionate, beautiful argument for why we need to replace cancel culture with transformative justice approaches. "Is this what we're here for? To cultivate a fear-based adherence to reductive common values?" she asks. "What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there's no one left beside us?"
If we continue to cancel each other instead of focusing on growth and systemic change, she implies, we'll merely perpetuate the philosophies that got us into all these messes in the first place. But "if we want to create a world in which conflict and trauma aren't the center of our collective existence, we have to practice something new, ask different questions, access again our curiosity about each other as a species," brown writes. "I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience and interdependence."
This approach can be useful for those on every side of a potential cancelation. "What the majority dismisses as so-called hate is usually honest criticism that needs to be addressed," advises Erin Tatum. "In lieu of justifying your actions, try channeling your energy into understanding the other person's perspective." When we are the ones being called out, we can try to practice understanding the complexity of the other person's perspectives, and we can realize that we aren't personally being attacked. We might also acknowledge that we might have done something wrong, but this doesn't mean that we can't learn and grow. Acknowledging our mistakes and inherent biases is the first step to getting over things like white fragility, and it's a way to heal deeper wounds instead of trying to stitch them up by opening more.
As brown writes, "All these mass and intimate punishments keep us small and fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be massive and complex and strong."
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- Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture - The New York Times ›
- Call-out culture - Wikipedia ›
The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.
Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."
This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality
Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.
But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?
Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?
When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.
After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.
Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.
Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.
Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.
For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.
It's Almost Like They're Still Getting Away With Stuff...
Cancel culture has gone absolutely crazy.
You can't say anything these days without "triggering" a bunch of SJWs to get together and collectively cancel you. I mean, that's the contention of half the comedy specials on Netflix, so it must be true. They will dig through past comments and behavior to find any excuse. Even after you're dead, you can still get canceled! The whole situation is getting so out of control that it's getting hard to keep track of who is and isn't canceled, so here's a helpful guide to remind you of some of the celebrities whose cancellations may have escaped your notice.
All 4 Women
Everyone knows Mark Wahlberg as the star of the Ted films, and Mel Gibson's son in Daddy's Home 2, but did you know that in his teen years, he was also the perpetrator of a string of brutal, racially motivated assaults, and that he has never acknowledged the racial component of his violent past? But who hasn't permanently disfigured and partially blinded a man while shouting racial slurs? Still, as a result of this normal, not-at-all upsetting history, Mark Wahlberg was officially cancelled in February. Since then, Wahlberg's once flourishing film career has collapsed to the point that he is only starring in five major motion pictures currently in production.
What a normal-looking couple
Jerry Seinfeld made himself a target of cancel culture when he called out college kids for not laughing enough at his brilliant "gay French king" joke, but what really sealed the deal was the fact that, at the age of 39, when Seinfeld was the star of America's favorite sitcom, he was also dating a seventeen-year-old high school student named Shoshanna Lonstein. And yes, he absolutely looked like her awkward father in every picture they took together, but what man in his late thirties hasn't spent some time outside a high school looking to pick up chicks? Unfortunately for Jerry, the cancel cops got a hold of this info, and officially blacklisted him in August, resulting in Netflix only paying an estimated $500 million for the streaming rights to Seinfeld.
Speaking of men and teenage girls, did you know you can be cancelled just for defending someone? That's what happened to Whoopi Goldberg in response to her 2009 comments on Roman Polanski, in which she said of Polanski's 1977 crimes "I don't think it was rape-rape," despite the victim's testimony that she continuously resisted his advances as Polanski gave the thirteen year old alcohol and drugs, and proceeded to rape her.
As a result, Donald Trump Jr. headed the team that cancelled Whoopi last October, which is why she has since appeared on The View only 5 days a week. Goldberg joins the ranks of Quentin Tarantino and a host of other prominent Hollywood figures whose careers have been absolutely tanked by impassioned Polanski defenses that are not at all indicative of a horrible culture that values talented men too much to punish horrifying crimes. Besides, it was only 8 years after Sharon Tate's murder! You can't be held accountable for anything you do in the decade after a loved one dies, even raping children!
Remember when people used to really idolize John Lennon and The Beatles? Their music used to be really popular, and people would even say mean things about Yoko Ono, blaming her for breaking up the band, not anymore. That all went out the window in July of last year, when a Twitter user reminded the world that John Lennon was a serial abuser, and then cancelled The Beatles. Sure, Lennon abused multiple partners, and at least one of his sons, but ever since Lennon was struck with the same post-mortem cancellation that Michael Jackson received, his solo music and The Beatles' entire catalogue have dropped completely out of cultural relevance, and is now valued at only around a billion dollars. "Imagine" that.
Footage recently resurfaced of Drake from a 2010 concert in Denver, in which he brings a girl onstage to dance with her, then takes the opportunity to drape his arms across her chest and kiss her neck before asking her age. When she answers that she's 17, Drake reacts as any 23 year old would when coming to terms with the fact that his behavior with an underage girl was suggestive and inappropriate. He says, "Why do you look like that? You thick. Look at all this," and follows that up with, "I like the way your breasts feel against my chest." Cool.
At any rate, that was nearly a decade ago, and Drake was pretty young himself, there's probably no reason to look further into the now 33 year old's tendency to befriend teenage girls who he ends up dating once they're of age. That's what the people who cancelled him in January—resulting in him being only the fifth richest rapper on earth—want you to focus on. They want you to be concerned about his friendship with Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown but let's just talk about his grooming habits instead.
On second thought, maybe the hysteria over "cancel culture" attacking any and every tiny misstep is a little overblown. Sure, Kevin Hart didn't get to host the Oscars, but he definitely still has a career, and James Gunn's brief cancellation was revoked. Maybe it's justified to call people out when they screw up, to push for apologies for minor offenses, and to stop giving money and awards to people who've done truly monstrous things. Maybe cancel culture should actually be going a lot further...
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