The idea and realities of cancel culture have been running around a little in my head recently. Usually when I think about these questions, I can usually come to some kind of conclusion about what I think, but the only thing I really feel about cancel culture is that it seems to be getting out of control.
Besides that, I have so many unanswered questions about what is right and wrong and good and bad about cancel culture. The ratio of questions to answers in this post is about to be galactic.
I think that many people know the phrase, “cancel culture”, but the other day in class, my art teacher who is in her late twenties and is very cool asked about it, so here’s my definition. Cancel culture is a phrase that describes how on the internet, swarms of people will collectively outcast—or “cancel”—someone famous or someone with a public platform for saying or doing something politically incorrect/plain wrong.
Depending on the which corners of the internet you spend your time in, the stories and effects of cancelling might be non-exisistent. If you tell me about a Youtuber or some social media person that got cancelled, that will very likely be news to me, but there have been a few stories of people getting cancelled that I actually heard about as they happened.
This first person is a scenario that seems to keep repeating. New ugly information will come out about a famous deceased person, and their name will be extremely hurt by it. Last year a documentary came out called Leaving Neverland. It’s about two men who say that when they were kids, they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson.
Does that mean we should stop listening to Michael Jackson’s music? Does listening to music made by Michael Jackson say anything about what you believe about his actions? When we realize that major historical figures and artists did terrible things out of sight, does that affect how we interact with the great things they did or the great art they made? What do we do with two clashing truths?
This second person is a story in which being canceled caused disastrous consequences while they were still alive and will likely mark their whole life. This is probably the more common story. At the end of the year, a comedian named Shane Gillis was fired from SNL. Journalists had found videos of him making different comments that were deemed as racist, homophobic, and anti-Semetic.
I don’t watch SNL, so in a different circumstance this development would’ve been of no interest to me, but Shane Gillis’ story involved Andrew Yang. If you’ve never heard of Andrew Yang either, he’s one of the Democratic candidates running for president this year.
(Quick digression about Andrew Yang. I just like him. I feel like it doesn’t happen too often that you actually like a politician as a person. Okay, digression over.)
Shane Gillis made a comment that specifically referenced Andrew Yang, but instead of participating in the cancelling, Yang did something different. While he completely did not condone or brush off what Gillis said, Yang also threw out an offer-“But I’m happy to sit down and talk with you if you’d like.”
From that same article is a quote from a person who disagreed with how he responded. Here’s part of the quote: “Mr. Yang took ‘a position that’s very much at odds with the Asian-American community,’ said Jenn Fang'”.
That argument is compelling to him because it raises the question—if someone is cancelled over making a comment specifically directed at someone, does it matter if the person on the receiving end forgives the offender? Should it matter?
Back to Yang’s offer. From an recent interview between him and the NYTimes, I found out the offer was actually taken. He also said some other things that I thought were interesting.
“And so then I sat down and started to figure out who Shane Gillis was, what he did for a living, and then I sat down and watched some of his comedy to try and get some context. After watching his comedy, I felt that he wasn’t a malignant racist and that his slur toward me was just very, very bad comedy run amok.”
Who gets to decide what somebody says or does is worth cancelling? What even is worth cancelling? Is there anything that is worth cancelling someone over? If the person apologizes, does that make a difference?
“Particularly because I think we’ve become unduly vindictive and punitive toward statements that people find objectionable. A friend of mine said something, he said, ‘If the online universe descends on someone, and they lose their job, the online universe moves on a week later, but that person still does not have a job a week later.”’
I don’t think the internet will remember or care who Shane Gillis is in ten years. But the people who are hiring him might. Is it a fair consequence for this man to be affected for the rest of his entire career for these ugly comments he made? Is that not intense enough?
Is it worth it if everybody realizes how much they could lose for saying unkind things, and as a result, are much more careful with their words? Or does it also create an atmosphere of fear that can stifle good dissent?
I don’t know. But I do know it feels a bit scary.
Then there’s another side of cancel culture I want to talk about, the side that people as a mass have the ability to really change things.
Imagine if this same collective power the internet has with cancelling was used to call out companies and the executives running those companies who treat their workers poorly. Or animals. Or the environment. Or companies that are being untruthful, whether it’s about the products they’re selling or what they’re doing with user information.
I think this cancel culture in some way has helped bring people to justice. Larry Nassar, the USA gymnastics coach who sexually abused so many young girls for so long is probably in prison for life. Harvey Weinstein, the American film producer who also sexually abused so many women, is on trial right now. The parents in the college admissions scandal have been sentenced to prison time.
Those people and the wrong things they did were brought to light and were punished for them because of so many reasons, but I think part of it was that the public had collectively outraged reactions and expressed much of that anger on the internet.
Would it have been harder to prosecute these people without this support? Was it easier? Would it have happened anyways? If it did matter, did it even matter to an extent that made a difference?
Is cancel culture good or bad? Would the world be better without it or with it? What part of it is good? What about it is bad? How to we make it better? How does cancel culture even work? What’s the tipping point? Is there anything we can do?
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
What do you think?