Where We Lost The Thread On Cancel Culture
A lack of organization, rules and nuance have long plagued our ritualized public scorn. How can we expect it to be taken seriously?
By Candice Frederick | Published Nov. 6, 2023
This is the second story in our weeklong series on cancel culture.
Read the other stories here.
Incoherent is one way to describe the state of cancel culture today, when anyone and anything is being canceled, both seriously and unseriously, for an indefinite period of time or just until the next ill-fated headline drops on Twitter, er, X. Which should be in the next few hours.
Unsustainable is another.
And yet, as New York Times journalist Ligaya Mishan’s terrific deep dive into the matter in 2020 proves, this type of collective and extremely public scorn has existed for centuries.
But cancel culture catapulted around the same time both #MeToo and #TimesUp did, at a point in our recent history when powerful public figures in corrupt establishments, including Hollywood, had failed to act appropriately. It had become the people’s issue to see that those offenders were properly disempowered.
That is to say, cancel culture came of age with a real sense of cause and urgency. It signified that accountability for wrongdoings like sexual assault, racist ideologies or other harmful transgressions was, from then on out, not just a suggestion but a mandate. It was an invigorating moment.
Then came the Aziz Ansari situation.
It wasn’t that cancel culture shouldn’t have addressed the sexual misconduct allegations against the actor stemming from his behavior on a date with a young woman in 2017 (he publicly apologized after her account of the events went viral in 2018). Rather, it was a matter of how, and whether a mass of faceless stakeholders primarily on the Internet could agree on it.
Five years later, this case remains a point of (mostly offline, for fear of backlash) discourse that brings up questions of nuance when determining how to assess each situation like it. Should Ansari be treated as a type of malefactor that should face the same repercussions as, say, Matt Lauer, who was accused of rape? (Lauer denied the allegations.) Or comedian Louis C.K., who admitted in 2017 that the several sexual misconduct allegations against him were true?
But we’re not supposed to even wonder that — certainly not aloud, as cultural critic Roxane Gay quickly learned when she posited that people like Ansari should not be lumped in with the likes of Lauer and C.K. She’s since deleted that social media post.
No one can offer an opinion or ask a question ― however valid ― about cancel culture without risking being just as quickly canceled. That’s what makes it such an erratic thing. As Mishan wrote, cancel culture “has neither leaders nor membership,” which makes it entirely futile to raise issues as fundamental as navigating murkier cases or questioning the ever-illusive rules.
These questions and opinions often get sucked up into the vortex of social media, only to be misconstrued and mangled by a flurry of keyboard warriors. But the lack of answers persists.
In fact, gray areas are typically painted over with broad strokes of black and white. Too many offenses are treated with conflated responses — from Gina Rodriguez rapping along to The Fugees’ “Ready or Not,” which has the N-word, and Awkwafina’s blaccent to R. Kelly’s sex crimes against minors and Kevin Spacey’s various sexual assault charges (he has been acquitted).
No one can offer an opinion or ask a question ― however valid ― about cancel culture without risking being just as quickly canceled. That’s what makes it such an erratic thing.
The calls to boot non-criminal offenders off the island, or maybe to just excommunicate them somehow, are just as loud if not louder than the often appropriate calls for criminal justice. But these cases are not the same. This is when a set of procedures on cancel culture would come in handy. Without it, this all just sounds like noise. And yet people wonder why cancel culture isn’t taken seriously.
Those who participate in it don’t even seem to take it seriously. Sure, deep, deep down there exists a strain of rational thought that has some semblance of justice or consequence.
But it too often looks like cyberbullying or doxxing. Not just against those who’ve committed serious wrongs, like the ones in Maureen Ryan’s Hollywood manifesto “Burn It Down,” but anyone who does or says anything considered unpopular or simply malformed in the moment.
The response to online bullies is to hypocritically bully them back ― treatment that’s also given to those who share an innocuous opinion that happens to be contrary to another’s point of view.
But who gets to decide what is the prominent (or correct) perspective is unclear, which makes cancel culture sound more like fanaticism than anything else. Or, as historian E.P. Thompson once described similar behavior in the 18th century, “a kind of ritualized hooting or groaning.” And that’s a shame.
It makes it all so arbitrary and short-lasting, with some perpetrators either not learning from their actions or facing no repercussions for them. The social media powers that be quickly forget what the “wrong” thing was because someone else’s foolish comment has emerged. And now that’s the center of ire. Rinse and repeat.
This modus operandi has very little to do with what cancel culture looked like it was gearing up to be several years ago. We lost the thread. Even worse, we don’t even seem to be actively searching for one. We’re just aimlessly throwing pitchforks without any real plan of action.
That’s why a space for healthy discussion is so imperative. It’s difficult to determine whether the platform formerly known as Twitter or even the new BlueSky, Threads or Spill will ever be spaces for necessary debate without resentment or judgment, because the IRL social climate has itself become so reactionary and binary. Social media just mimics that.
But having a place to ask questions and work through more complex instances of transgression — and even leave room to sometimes fumble — remains as important as ever and integral to getting us back on track.
We’re at a time when both media literacy and actual literacy are down bad, context is wildly dismissed or outright ignored, and people seem incapable of handling anyone else’s complexities, no matter how much they might resemble our own.
“To justify vindictiveness, you can’t recognize yourself in those you denounce,” Mishan writes.
And that’s created a whole other issue in how we view both our own and other’s humanity. By appraising people through a binary lens, we refuse to consider any shades of gray. That creates an impossible standard for the strangers we seem to hold to a higher standard than we do for ourselves.
Online, we mere civilians open up about being occasionally messy, incorrect or inarticulate in certain situations. But we can’t seem to tolerate that with celebrities ― or even fictional characters, for that matter. Part of that is due to our unhealthy relationship with celebrity.
But it’s also because we’re always ready to cancel someone at any moment for any reason or no good reason at all. That feels unfair.
When Eva Longoria miscommunicated her thoughts on Latina voters in Georgia amid the 2020 U.S. presidential election and was quickly on the verge of being canceled, she clarified her remarks in a subsequent post.
But it often seems like the infraction is irreversible. We don’t have a complex conversation about it. We just condemn it. Should it matter if an offender — depending on the offense, of course — has apologized and is making an every-day effort to evolve?
Should the people who make human errors in the form of, say, Rodriguez’s or Longoria’s actions, be canceled in the same way as those who commit crimes?
Is there a way forward so that cancel culture can effectively organize like any successful movement has throughout history? Can we talk through more minor issues so that we can better understand each other?
For that last part, an exchange earlier this year between “Reservation Dogs” star Devery Jacobs and “Abbott Elementary” star Sheryl Lee Ralph might shed some light on how we can engage more thoughtfully with one another.
After Ralph referred to Jacobs’ community as “Indians,” the latter respectfully told her that the correct term from non-Natives is “Indigenous Peoples.” And Ralph was happy to learn and be corrected. Shockingly, there was no social media backlash about Ralph’s flub or Jacobs correcting her — or at least it was very, very minimal — and many hailed it as a teachable moment.
It’s hard to tell why that specific instance was met with a lot more compassion than most. But we need more of that grace extended when people make mistakes or misspeak or apologize for minor offenses and make an effort to change. Otherwise, what are we really doing here?