By Teresa Zhang
March 1, 2021
In our modern tech-filled society, it seems the best way to voice our displeasure is through the internet. This philosophy has even affected social activism, which in the twenty-first century has morphed into online cancel culture.
Cancel culture, according to Professor Anne Charity of University of California, Santa Barbara, was a tactic originally used by African American activists during the Civil Rights Movement, and involved the boycott of certain companies and people that opposed the Civil Rights Movement. This tactic allowed for Black empowerment by taking away the power and influence that these groups had on the African American community through individual action.
The term gradually faded into obscurity until the early 2010s, when cultural forces brought the term back, this time on the social media platform Twitter. Black Twitter users used the term “canceled”, sometimes jocularly sometimes seriously, to call out their friends or celebrities for actions the users deemed offensive. Cancelling someone became a norm but did not gain mainstream prominence until the #MeToo Movement in 2017 when celebrities and regular users alike exposed people of authority for the abuse of that authority.
However, despite the benefits of cancel culture, the act of cancelling itself has become a byword for the snowflake mentality, twisted by misconceptions of what exactly cancelling does by the canceller and the cancelled alike.
During the summer of 2020 amidst the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, some people on Twitter jokingly called for the cancellation of Paw Patrol, claiming such shows as the animated children’s show about a police dog and his friends are problematic because it indoctrinates children with pro-police attitudes, otherwise known as “copaganda”. While these comments were tongue in cheek criticisms of online cancel culture, they raised enough attention that show executives had to announce publicly the show would not be cancelled.
Other examples of this type of activism include the removal of the name and logo of Aunt Jemima on the breakfast products, as well as the removal of the Native American woman on the packages of Land O’ Lakes butter packs.
While these changes made by PepsiCo (the parent company of Aunt Jemima) and Land O’ Lakes Inc can be seen as a victory by some activists, in reality what these corporations are doing is appeasement. Corporations like these hope that by removing the issue, activists will stop aiming the focus on them and avoid taking responsibility in the role they have in the oppression of minorities and systemic injustice. And in most cases, that’s what ends up happening.
Activism aside, cancel culture has become a punching bag in American politics by Republican politicians, who discredit or dismiss accountability for their actions by labeling criticism as agents of cancel culture. Indeed, that was exactly what happened during the 2020 Republican National Convention when speakers such as Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee referred to the condemnation of police brutality by the Black Lives Matter Movement as “cancel[ing] our heroes”, sidestepping the fact that flaws to the American policing system exist.
The most prominent usage of cancel culture as a way to dodge political censure is the defense of statements by former President Donald Trump. Republicans label criticisms of Trump’s blatantly every kind of ist comments as “toxic cancel culture” which allows Trump, and by extension the GOP, to bypass accountability for their comments, excusing these sentiments as first amendment rights and ignoring the fact that as the president of the United States, Trump’s words carry a heavier weight than the average American, creating the notion that such sentiments are appropriate because a high profile public figure also expresses the same opinions. The culmination of Trump’s words was the storming of the Capitol building by right winged insurrectionists who were emboldened by Trump’s words of hate.
But perhaps the most toxic traits of cancel culture is its perchance to avoid conversations about the issues at hand and ignores the personal growth of the people being cancelled.
In an article in the New York Times, one teenage student expresses her frustration at being unable to shake her reputation as “annoying, petty, and thirsty for validation” and the resulting trauma of being cancelled by her entire school.
“You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you,” she said. “We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.”
This student’s experience exemplifies our culture’s lack of forgiveness or even understanding of personal growth and maturation. We may like the redemption arc that our on screen anti-heros receive, but what about a confrontation from our high school bully, who upon exposure to a larger society outside the petri dish of high school, realizes the great wrong they have committed against us and seek to rectify their offense by way of apology? Try as we might, we will never forget the first impression of grievance we receive from someone.
Personal growth and understanding is not a pheromone that only affects the average laymen, however. Black feminist and social activist Loreta Ross has also faced the same issue, confessing in an op-ed in The New York Times that she too “…[has] been called out, usually for a prejudice [she] had against someone, or for using insensitive language that didn’t keep up with rapidly changing conventions.”
Ross acknowledged the difficulty it is to have established perceptions altered, admitting that it took work to reconcile between what she thought was fact and the current political climate, but the key advice Ross emphasized in her article was the need to avoid projecting personal trauma and experiences onto the opposition when dealing with differing opinions, stating that “not every flirtatious man is a potential rapist, nor every racially challenged white person is a Trump supporter.”
Canceling someone nowadays essentially means said person is placed under a gag order and their opinion is no longer valid. This type of cancellation does not seek to open further discussion nor gain nuance and further understanding on the topic at hand but rather dismiss opinions that do not fit the cancellers’ views. Perpetrators of cancel culture prey upon the ignorant, combing through ancient digital annuals to find signs of outdated cultural perceptions to critique in an attempt to correct, allowing the cancellation vultures that boost of superiority they so long for.
Cancellation is inherently based on the feeling of superiority, the knowledge that you possess information that others do not, which therefore makes you superior to the have-nots.
Indeed, cancel culture serves as a form of class discrimination, with educated elites criticizing those in the lower working class for their ignorance while ignoring the inherent elitism of awareness of current cultural mores and exposure to broader cultural concepts that the working class do not have the time for nor access to.
When participating in cancel culture, consider whether you are correcting ignorance or bigotry: the outcome of correcting ignorance is the willingness of the ignorant to consider a different perspective and adjusting their worldview accordingly, while the outcome of correcting a bigot’s assumptions is likely to be time wasted.