Have you ever said or done something that could be considered offensive or objectionable in your recent or distant past? A relatively recent phenomenon known as Cancel Culture refers to the widespread practice of withdrawing support for public figures after they had done or said something considered objectionable or offensive (Lemoine, 2020). As a curious and communicative person, I frequently encounter canceling – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and in correspondence with acquaintances. I decided to study this issue so that my audience can get a comprehensive idea of the essence and consequences of canceling. Is cancel culture a useful tool for social change, or does it have the potential to come after you for some past misdeed or opinion? I will attempt to define Cancel Culture, provide some examples, highlight its long-lasting effects, unpredictable nature, and how it could impact your future.
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Let me start by first trying to define Cancel Culture. According to Dictionary.com, “Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive” (Lemoine, 2020, para. 1). Through the Cancel Culture, society expresses its condemnation and blame. If the criticism is directed at a person, the public may insist on depriving that individual of influence, power, and the opportunity to continue their professional activity. Besides, canceling may concern works of art or state symbols and values.
Canceling can erase an individual’s entire life, destroy everything they created. Therefore, when faced with a Cancel Culture, one must carefully analyze whether the ‘accused’ is really ‘guilty.’ To understand this facet, one can refer to examples of Cancel Culture in action. Let us discuss the example of Harvey Weinstein, who was publicly shamed and then ‘canceled.’ This man got what he deserved, as the court proved him guilty of sexual violence and assaults against women. Harvey Weinstein has become the most famous victim of the ‘Me Too Movement,’ and his arrest has been fair retribution for many of his victims. The same goes for Bill Cosby, who was charged with various types of sexual assault by more than 60 women, and who was sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years. If it were not for the social movement, the famous comedian would have remained unpunished, since the statute of limitations for most crimes has long expired.
Another strikingly different example of Cancel Culture is the act of Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick refused to stand during the US national anthem, protesting police killings of African Americans. The BBC reports that the quarterback was shocked when police officers used weapons against unarmed African Americans and killed a man for speeding (Jennings, 2017). The quarterback’s behavior has been interpreted by many as “disrespect” for government values, and Colin Kaepernick has long been attacked on social media. Still, he also received public support and managed to draw attention to social brutality that transcended all boundaries. For example, Nate Boyer, a former NFL player, who used to be in US Army Special Forces, was offended by Kaepernick’s action and equated his behavior with burning the flag. But after finding out the reason for Kaepernick’s protest, Nate Boyer decided to stand next to the quarterback during the anthem on the next game with the 49ers to show solidarity.
Another example of Cancel Culture was HBO Max’s refusal to keep the 1939 film Gone with the Wind in its library until enough films have been produced to convey the era’s realities more faithfully. According to CNN, the offer to cancel the movie was voiced by John Ridley, screenwriter of “12 years of slavery,” in an article for the Los Angeles Times. He noted that the film “glorifies the antebellum south… when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, (it) pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color” (Palotta, 2020). Ridley also noted that the film, which was worked on by the best talents of time, sentimentalizes a story that never happened. Other critics have acknowledged that the original plot of Margaret Mitchell’s novel was more in-depth and versatile.
One other interesting example of canceling is the ban on propaganda films shot in Nazi Germany in the ’30s. Listverse offers a list of such movies: Hitler’s pseudo-documentary Triumph of the Will, the anti-Semitic Jud Suss, advocating euthanasia I Accuse, and Homecoming justifying the invasion of Poland in 1939 (Quinn, 2017). Besides, DW reports that during Nazi Germany, there were two types of films – melodramas, produced to distract viewers from the war, and propaganda movies (Kürten, 2017). The latter had such a powerful message that they are still banned from being broadcast on German television.
The resolution of the Democratic Party of Orange County in California to rename the airport titled after John Wayne, the star of American Westerns, deserves special attention. CNN reports that the Democrats decided after somebody released Wayne’s 1979 interview with Playboy magazine to the general public (McLaughlin & Hackney, 2020). CNN correspondents noted that despite Wayne’s defenders’ assurances that the words were taken out of context, the interview contained many racist statements and cited broader quotes. The most famous quote was, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility” (McLaughlin & Hackney, 2020, para. 8). Even put in the textual context, the statement says what it says, which created the preconditions for eliminating the monument to the actor in the lobby of the waiting room and the airport’s renaming.
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CNN also took a comment from Chapman University associate political science professor Fred Smolle, who noted that “John Wayne Airport in Orange County’s confederate statue, its ode to white supremacy” (McLaughlin & Hackney, 2020, para. 13). The scientist also noted that “if Mississippi can remove the confederacy from its flag, then Orange County can remove images of John Wayne from its airport” (McLaughlin & Hackney, 2020, para. 14). However, it should be noted that the discussions about race and education that took place in the late 70s were different from those that are underway today. Therefore, John Wayne’s statements were more centrist than radical.
For example, US President John F. Kennedy sympathized with black movements and had a friendly relationship with Martin Luther King. The Sun-Diego Union-Tribune reports that portraits of Jesus, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy, who were known friends of the black people, hung in many African American homes (Washington, 2013). However, Kennedy could also make ambiguous observations that reflected the real state of affairs in society rather than his personal preferences or desires.
Another example of ambiguity is when Martin Luther King, in an advice column in Ebony magazine to a young gay man, wrote that his urges are a psychological problem that a professional should deal with. Should we then label him as homophobic and pull down his statue? Common sense dictates that MLK is not blameworthy, as his words must be seen in the context of the column message and the era in which he lived. It is also known that Martin Luther King was against abortion, so shall we then, based on today’s standards, label him a misogynist? Probably not; instead, we should inquire about the reasons for or against abortion. Besides, we should trace the changes in the present that happened thanks to discussions and struggles in the past.
Now that we have discussed what cancel culture is and its impact, I would ask you to think back on your life. Have you ever said something or made fun of someone in a way that might be considered offensive? Maybe, you have posted or reposted some messages regarding canceling a public figure on social media? Or perhaps you have been caught in a photo or video doing something that might later be deemed unacceptable by society, school, or employer. Calling someone out for something that is considered objectionable or offensive can be a tool to affect change. Still, rather than seeking punishment in the way of cancellation, we can have an honest conversation and change minds. We must also keep in mind that as standards change, so do people’s opinions and views.
Jennings, P. (2017). Colin Kaepernick: from one man kneeling to a movement dividing a country. BBC Sport. Web.
Kürten, J. (2017). Movies under Hitler: between propaganda and distraction. Deutsche Welle. Web.
Lemoine, A. (2020). What does cancel culture mean? Web.
McLaughlin, E., & Hackney, D. (2020). Democrats want John Wayne Airport renamed after ‘I believe in white supremacy’ interview resurfaces. CNN.
Palotta, F. (2020). ‘Gone with the Wind’ pulled from HBO Max until it can return with ‘historical context’. CNN Business. Web.
Quinn, S. (2017). Top 10 Nazi propaganda films. Listverse. Web.
Washington, J. (2013). JFK holds complex place in black history. San Diego Union-Tribune. Web.