The second wave of “cancel culture”

By Aja Romano, Vox, 5 May, 2021. How the concept has evolved to mean different things to different people.

“Cancel culture,” as a concept, feels inescapable. The phrase is all over the news, tossed around in casual social media conversation; it’s been linked to everything from free speech debates to Mr. Potato Head.

It sometimes seems all-encompassing, as if all forms of contemporary discourse must now lead, exhaustingly and endlessly, either to an attempt to “cancel” anyone whose opinions cause controversy or to accusations of cancel culture in action, however unwarranted.

In the rhetorical furor, a new phenomenon has emerged: the weaponization of cancel culture by the right.

Across the US, conservative politicians have launched legislation seeking to do the very thing they seem to be afraid of: Cancel supposedly left-wing businesses, organizations, and institutions; see, for example, national GOP figures threatening to punish Major League Baseball for standing against a Georgia voting restrictions law by removing MLB’s federal antitrust exemption.

Meanwhile, Fox News has stoked outrage and alarmism over cancel culture, including trying to incite Gen X to take action against the nebulous problem. Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s most prominent personalities, has emphatically embraced the anti-cancel culture discourse, claiming liberals are trying to cancel everything from Space Jam to the Fourth of July.

The idea of canceling began as a tool for marginalized communities to assert their values against public figures who retained power and authority even after committing wrongdoing — but in its current form, we see how warped and imbalanced the power dynamics of the conversation really are.

All along, debate about cancel culture has obscured its roots in a quest to attain some form of meaningful accountability for public figures who are typically answerable to no one. But after centuries of ideological debate turning over questions of free speech, censorship, and, in recent decades, “political correctness,” it was perhaps inevitable that the mainstreaming of cancel culture would obscure the original concerns that canceling was meant to address. Now it’s yet another hyperbolic phase of the larger culture war.

The core concern of cancel culture — accountability — remains as crucial a topic as ever. But increasingly, the cancel culture debate has become about how we communicate within a binary, right versus wrong framework. And a central question is not whether we can hold one another accountable, but how we can ever forgive.

Cancel culture has evolved rapidly to mean very different things to different people

It’s only been about six years since the concept of “cancel culture” began trickling into the mainstream. The phrase has long circulated within Black culture, perhaps paying homage to Nile Rodgers’s 1981 single “Your Love Is Cancelled.” As I wrote in my earlier explainer on the origins of cancel culture, the concept of canceling a whole person originated in the 1991 film New Jack City and percolated for years before finally emerging online among Black Twitter in 2014 thanks to an episode of Love and Hip-Hop: New York. Since then, the term has undergone massive shifts in meaning and function.

Early on, it most frequently popped up on social media, as people attempted to collectively “cancel,” or boycott, celebrities they found problematic. As a term with roots in Black culture, it has some resonance with Black empowerment movements, as far back as the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s. This original usage also promotes the idea that Black people should be empowered to reject cultural figures or works that spread harmful ideas. As Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America at the University of California Santa Barbara, told me in 2019, “When you see people canceling Kanye, canceling other people, it’s a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you in the way that we once did. … ‘I may have no power, but the power I have is to [ignore] you.’”

As the logic behind wanting to “cancel” specific messages and behaviors caught on, many members of the public, as well as the media, conflated it with adjacent trends involving public shaming, callouts, and other forms of public backlash. (The media sometimes refers to all of these ideas collectively as “outrage culture.”) But while cancel culture overlaps and aligns with many related ideas, it’s also always been inextricably linked to calls for accountability.

As a concept, cancel culture entered the mainstream alongside hashtag-oriented social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo — giant social waves that were effective in shifting longstanding narratives about victims and criminals, and in bringing about actual prosecutions in cases like those of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. It is also frequently used interchangeably with “woke” political rhetoric, an idea that is itself tied to the 2014 rise of the Black Lives Matter protests. In similar ways, both “wokeness” and “canceling” are tied to collectivized demands for more accountability from social systems that have long failed marginalized people and communities.

But over the past few years, many right-wing conservatives, as well as liberals who object to more strident progressive rhetoric, have developed the view that “cancel culture” is a form of harassment intended to silence anyone who sets a foot out of line under the nebulous tenets of “woke” politics. So the idea now represents a vast assortment of objectives and can hold wildly different connotations, depending on whom you’re talking to.

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