Myths and Realities: Cancel Culture

“Cancel culture” refers to the modern social practice of professionally ruining and socially shunning someone. The person whose career and social life gets ruined is said to be “cancelled.” Because it is a social trend and not an official practice or policy of any one place, culture, or profession, what makes a person “cancelled” is open to interpretation. Some consider a person “cancelled” or shunned, if they lose large sums of money due to a dip in popularity, such as a YouTube content creator losing sponsors, or a famous athlete being dropped from a top team in their sport. Others use “cancelled” to mean the person has simply become a lot less popular.

“Cancelling” is typically done in response to a specific behavior or set of behaviors someone finds upsetting, insulting, dangerous, disrespectful, or in any way problematic. It can range from actively trying to get a person fired, demoted, or in other kind of official trouble, to simply encouraging family, friends, and your own professional network to withdraw professional and or social support from the person.

Although the term has only recently become popular, there are already a few myths circulating about it.

Myth: Cancel culture is strictly a leftist trend. Only liberals attempt to “cancel” or shun, people for doing or saying things that do not fit in with a liberal worldview.

 Reality: “Cancel culture” is a new term for “shunning” or “ruining” someone, and anybody with any political leanings can certainly do that. Conservatives pushed for the NFL to completely reject or “cancel” Colin Kaepernick when he chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality targeting Black people. Former President Donald Trump, while claiming to be against “cancel culture” is actually a chief practioner of it. In a July 7, 2020 article on the CNN website, writer Daniel Dale details thirty separate instances of Trump trying to get someone fired or otherwise shut down and shunned between 2012 and 2020 alone. Whether you agree or disagree with these attempts, they certainly fall under the definition of “cancelling” someone.

Myth: Only those from the right side of the political spectrum, or people in groups the left does not traditionally support, get “cancelled.”

 Reality: Anybody can get cancelled by anyone else. Essayist, Comedian, and Documentary Filmmaker Shane Dawson is openly gay, and is engaged to a man. He is currently considered “cancelled” due to material from more than a decade ago. Over the past several years, Dawson has openly stated that past comedy routines in which he mocked child abusers in a joking manner, and created characters that embodied crass racial stereotypes were immature, insulting, inaccurate, and not something he would ever do or support anyone else doing today, as a mature adult in his thirties. Dawson’s recent projects have included biographical videos on famous people, research into urban legends and myths, and social experiments.  But once someone re-posted the old content and criticized it again in recent years, an online backlash occurred that led to Dawson’s career shutting down for more than a year as of the writing of this article. He is said to be making a slow comeback, beginning with editing his fiance’s YouTube videos and podcasts, but the couple continues to face harsh backlash for the content from the distant past.

Myth: “Cancel culture” is the same thing as “holding people accountable for their actions”.

 Reality: “Cancel culture” is shunning. Once someone is “cancelled” they are considered completely irrelevant.  This goes far beyond being held accountable for your actions. It implies that nobody can grow and should never be forgiven for what they have done. This holds true even if the person renounces the behavior, changes the behavior, or makes other amends.

“Cancel culture” further demands that the work of someone who has been “cancelled” be deemed inferior and irrelevant, even if it had been hailed as genius, or had some other beneficial impact on society, in the past. “Cancel culture” negates the idea that someone can be a “bad” person, but still be good at what they do professionally.

Myth: If you speak out against “cancel culture” it means you think racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and other forms of prejudice are okay, or are at least not a big deal.

 Reality: This would only be true if people were only “cancelled” for being prejudiced, or at least displaying behavior others interpreted as prejudiced. This is not the case. People are cancelled for a variety of reasons. Most of Donald Trump’s attempts to cancel people were done in retaliation for criticizing him, not for making any kind of statement. Kaepernick certainly wasn’t displaying racism. People attempted to cancel him for speaking out against it. They felt his protest disrespected the American flag, and rather than simply disagreeing with him, or making the personal choice to stop rooting for his team or purchasing his branded merchandise, they sought to drive him from his sport.

Myth: Brands pulling items due to offensive packaging or content means the brand or item is “cancelled.”

 Reality: This isn’t “cancel culture.” This is capitalism. While the decline in the item’s popularity may be due to the pervasive belief that everything that might offend somebody in some way should be eliminated, the people who make the decisions to market or pull products do not care how we feel. They care what we buy. If people stop buying an item, whether it’s because the imagery it contains is considered racist or sexist, or because the product itself fell out of fashion, the company is going to stop producing the item. Those who disagree with the decision are still free to go out and purchase all of the remaining items. They are free to distribute those items. Their existence is not wiped out. You may think the item should have been pulled years ago, or you may think the decision was completely ridiculous, but the item was not “cancelled,” unless  it was recalled and production was ceased due to public outcry.

Myth: Cancel culture may be harsh and unforgiving, but if someone is “cancelled” it at least means they did something awful at some point, and brought it on themselves.

 Reality: All it takes for someone to be “cancelled” is for one person to call for them to be cancelled. If that person can succeed in generating enough of an outcry for their target’s life to be seriously impacted, the one singled out for cancelling is cancelled.

University of Southern California Business Professor Greg Patton narrowly escaped being cancelled in 2020 after a video of him teaching a communications class about pauses and filler words offended some members of the class. Patton was not fired, but was removed from the classroom and forced to formally apologize when some students, using an invented group name, wrote a letter claiming that Patton had used something that sounded like the “N” word in English in his class.

Patton had not used that particular word, nor did he make any type of racial slur about anyone’s ethnic background. The word he used was a Chinese word that translates as “that,” but is used a bit like English speakers use “ummm.” But someone in class complained, so he lost his course for the term.

Look around at your own work, your own taste in visual art, music, television, film, or literature. Look at the sports stars you like to watch play, and the products you like to purchase. Is there something in any of that which might offend or upset anyone for any reason? Do you think this is a valid reason for eliminating it entirely?

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