“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
Ever since I heard those words in “The Dark Knight”, I keep seeing it proved again and again, like a horrible Blue Car syndrome. Role models, world leaders, artists, athletes. Time makes fools of us all. Except now those fools have teams of Proud Boys and Twitter trolls to call to their side.
Like most terms, “cancel culture” started as light slang being thrown around. If you were “swiped right” you were canceled. People tweeted at Kanye West “you’re canceled” when he did something stupid.
Now it’s grown to where public outcry on social media can affect someone’s career. Is all this controversy worth it? Are we not being forgiving enough or do celebrities deserve it?
Why is it when James Gunn gets fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 for tweets he made in the past, he’s not the bad guy. But James Lasseter and his shoulder rubs are. Why is that?
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Cancel Culture?
First we need to clarify some definitions — what is cancel culture and what is not. Like a lot of liberal movements, it has no leader and no manifesto. So the rules and end goals get ambiguous.
“Cancel culture” is a movement to not support or cut off income (such as royalties or speaking fees) from an artist’s art because they did something heinous. It refers to the act of fans turning on a celebrity (sometimes too quickly) who did something wrong or something they don’t agree with. One of its goals is to “deplatform” them–to make it so no one wants to hire them for new work.
This applies to the person, not the work itself. So that means you can’t “cancel” Song of the South or Gone with the Wind. That’s a different kettle of fish I’ll talk about it a minute.
Criticizing is not cancelling. So if a celebrity’s big enough to be targeted, leaving a bad review on Amazon doesn’t do anything to their bottom line. Likewise, Twitter replies to their bad takes are not cancellation.
Being offended does not mean that someone is “canceled”. It is not “I don’t like this and nobody else should either.”
“Cancelling” is an act or a protest. Like a peaceful sit-in or a boycott. Voting with your dollar. But often it must happen to those who hired or commissioned that person’s art (resulting in them letting that person go).
Like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. Some people think doxxing or going after someone’s sponsors or getting them fired is cancel culture. It’s not. That’s just griefing or plain old harassment, like GamerGate.
So we know we’re not talking about harassment or criticism. Are we talking about punishment? Justice? Are they the same thing? Let’s take the example of Count Dankula.
Short version of his story is that he taught his dog the Nazi salute and apparently this is worth getting arrested for in his native land of Scotland. He said in a tweet that he tried getting a normal job in a sandwich shop, and was rejected the next day because of people harassing the shop.
We can argue whether this is an overreaction. We can argue whether a dog trick is a hate crime, either here in America or in a country actually affected by the Nazi regime. We can discuss the fact that Count Dankula is a humorist and not a neo-Nazi and there were no victims.
But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about this question–was he “canceled”? The question is did Count Dankula not get the job because:
A) Harassers harassed the shop in obnoxious ways
B) Harassers harassed the shop to point out he did a video of a pug doing the Nazi salute
C) The shop being made aware of the video itself
People cite this case study as a reason cancel culture is bad — that you’re preventing people from being heard or having a normal life. I say there’s not enough evidence here to make a conclusion.
Another case study: Shane Gillis was supposed to be on SNL’s 2020 season. Then he was found to have said a bunch of racist jokes a number of years ago, trying to be funny. People found out and told SNL. SNL dumped him. Was that right or wrong? You don’t want to reward racists, but how long do you hold the mistakes of the past over their head? What if it turns out they weren’t past mistakes, that’s just the way that person is?
Is Justice Punishment? Is Punishment Justice?
The trial of O.J. Simpson taught us a fundamental lesson about America–the justice system doesn’t care if you’re guilty, as long as you’re famous. We have been living in that society ever since 1996 and we feel powerless to stop it. Hence the gates lift on the jury of the masses.
We’re not talking about cases like Richard Jewell or the Boston Marathon Bombing (where Reddit, upon being prodded by the FBI, falsely got a Saudi man arrested). Those cases were the fault of the media, an unregulated Internet forum, and a poorly thought out FBI response. The court of public opinion is eager to pounce and sometimes it pounces without a mouse being there. In those cases, that is not justice. But what else do you have when the justice system fails?
Cancel culture came about because the justice system takes too long to fix. People like R. Kelly and Chris Brown and Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian should all be in jail now, but they get off because of their fame and that their fame lets them afford expensive lawyers. Drug fines and DUIs are nothing to them financially, but they’re acts that can get someone killed. L’il Wayne and Gwyneth Paltrow and Mel Gibson and Tekashi 6ix9ine get new gigs and make millions.
These are the cases where the evidence is either plainly there or corroborated by witnesses. People like Woody Allen and Louis C.K. and Billy Cosby have clearly performed crimes–heinous family-destroying sex crimes–and continue to make money and suffer no consequences.
And then there are the crimes that can’t be tried in court, like racist or sexist or abusive statements.
Society changes fast, and thanks to social media, we’re learning about more celebrities who aren’t catching up to social norms that haven’t been 100% set yet. Maybe you can’t get justice, but you can give visibility to marginalized voices.
What Are We Trying To Do Here?
One of the reasons that I said “don’t consider Gone With the Wind and Song of the South as targets” is that I believe we shouldn’t judge people now for the mistakes they made as children. America has matured since the 1950s in terms of the role of Black people in media and where they belong. Now if a movie studio tries making something like that today…
There’s a difference between an author who made a controversial work in the past (maybe during a time when the content wasn’t so controversial) and one using their wealth and power to advocate against marginalized groups. You can’t control how someone uses their money and influence. But you can control how you work with a text.
We changed, but older people like Seinfeld and Adam Carolla and Donald Trump haven’t. What they think is funny is not funny to us. They grew up in a time with The Honeymooners, when beating your wife was considered fine humor.
What do we want? I think we want an apology. A good apology. And a cessation to the behavior that caused them to be canceled in the first place.
People like Jonah Hill, Dan Harmon, and Justin Bieber all had cases where they did something very wrong and apologized for it. And they did their apology the right way. I think, for the most part, the world has forgiven them. (The works they’ve done since then are another matter, but not part of this conversation.) But others have not been so humble.
These people aren’t being punished and never sincerely apologized for their actions or words: Mel Gibson, Roseanne Barr, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, J.K. Rowling, Louis C.K., Orson Scott Card, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity. They are rich entitled people surprised that the world has changed to one where there are consequences because social media lets us all talk to each other. There are zero degrees of separation between me sending my hot take on soup to Tom Hanks and him seeing it with his own eyes.
So if no apology is given, what do you do? Not support the author. That means more than not buying the books (because you’ve probably already bought them) or attending the shows. It means not participating in the fandom at all. No fan fiction sites or conventions to see your friends.
Because you can’t consume Harry Potter stuff without supporting Rowling’s wealth and influence. You have to force consumers to change their habits. You must make businesses decide that person is too toxic to associate with. And that’s going to be damn hard for someone who has her own theme park.
And how do the celebrities respond? Like they’re being attacked. What should happen is that we refuse to buy R. Kelly and Chris Brown’s albums. Then their label drops them. But then they blame us, saying they were “canceled” when they just weren’t making money. People with power don’t get to claim they’re a victim of their fame.
It’s really a denouncement, like the Klingon discommendation ceremony. You did this bad thing, so I shall not support you anymore. I turn my back on you.
And that’s pretty much all you can do as a consumer. It’s not much, but maybe if enough people get behind it, something can happen?
Why Do We Cancel?
Are we simply living in an intolerant climate? Or do we now have avenues to organize and do something about bad behavior? Are the people who claim they’re being canceled just screwing up and don’t want to be called on their bullshit? Speech has consequences. Actions have consequences.
And it’s so easy to track and record everyone. We’ve become a 1984 surveillance society VOLUNTARILY. We carry our cameras and microchip trackers in our pockets. It’s easy to become Orwellian when your citizens do the work for you. We decided it’s worth being monitored if we can have a button that lets us know where our kids are at all times.
But one of the benefits of that is that you can’t get away with things so easily. There would be no George Floyd protests if someone hadn’t been recording all eight minutes and forty-six seconds of his death. Cops are so bad they have to be fitted with body cameras to audit their actions. Body cameras which they routinely turn off or obscure when they know they’re going to do something bad.
Are we too brittle? Too sensitive? Or are we trying to strike back at people who mean to do harm. Are we blowing the whistle on those who continually “get away with it” because they’re famous?
If you make anti-LGBT or anti-semitic comments, what makes you think that’s okay? It makes me think you’re not aware of what kind of society you live in.
This is called shitposting or being an edgelord. This kind of humor general doesn’t translate well to anyone who isn’t someone in the group being joked about or sensitive to that group.
It’s tough to be in certain demographics, especially these days. Police are targeting Black people to the point where they’re being straight up killed and the cops who did it face no consequences. Congress is chopping up the land of Native Americans in the Dakotas and Alaska for fossil fuel profiteers like they learned nothing in 250 years. So when celebrities spout off a slur, the fewer platforms they can do it on, the better.
Who Should We Cancel?
The people that Cancel Culture wants to target are people like J.K. Rowling and Dave Chapelle and Michael Richards. People who have tons and tons of money and prestige. They’re the prime targets because they’re in the limelight and they’re seen as role models and they have no problem speaking about controversial topics.
I do believe there is a difference between art and the artist–no one thinks a crime writer wants to commit murder. But also, the artist has an unbreakable tie to their art. One influences the other. Like Doctor Victor Frankenstein, the creator cannot be extracted from the created. You know the work better if you understand the context it was written in, like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.
The Harper’s Letter
The famous Harper’s Letter that came out shortly after J.K. Rowling’s remarks states: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
First, I hate how poorly constructed and unreadable that sentence is in something endorsed by a bunch of writers. Second, I’m not really into that perception when the “information and ideas” are about white supremacism and racism.
Any platform that allows free speech, even hateful speech, is making a small, silent allowance that it’s okay to say these things. Legally, Twitter is not responsible for the statements people make on their application. Morally, they are.
Third, there is no atmosphere stifling you. There are so many ways to get your message out nowadays. The difference is what you say with your art and what you say on Twitter or in an editorial.
Everyone who signed onto this letter is old and already established in the industry. There’s no Pewdiepie or David Dobrik on this list. No Tomi Adeyemi. No Lil Nas X. No Megan Thee Stallion or Nicki Minaj. No G. Willow Wilson or Brian K. Vaughan or John Green or Justin McElroy or Taylor Tomlinson.
Plus the people who rescinded their signatures after they figured out what the letter was about. What, did Harper’s mislead them? Did they not give them the letter to read beforehand?
Celebrities and Comedians
So ask yourself this question: are you angry at cancel culture or are you angry at people reacting to you being a shithead?
It’s only the controversial celebrities who complain about it, because their livelihood, their product, is based on social transgressions. If they get canceled, they have no job.
Comedians especially are mistaking being canceled for not producing material that’s liked (Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Kathy Griffin). Which is fine–it’s their job to throw out joke after joke and not all of them are going to stick. I don’t expect it to. The problem comes when they double down on a joke they think is funny, but either A) has problematic content B) didn’t land. They , they think it’s the audience’s fault. Which is a huge no-no.
Case in point: Kathy Griffin. Did she go too far? Maybe. I think so. I didn’t see where the joke was and I hate Trump. What was her goal? To incite violence? No. I think she was trying to make something, if not funny, at least satisfying. Because many of her fans are LGBTQ and with Mike Pence as VP, they had a prison spotlight on their backs.
However, the backlash was equally too far. There’s no reason to think a successful American comedienne is part ISIS. Speech and photographs are not evidence of treason. Subjecting her to an FBI investigation is a waste of our resources and my taxes.
The best thing to do when a joke is unfunny or doesn’t land is to just ignore it. Don’t give it attention, because that’s what comedians want.
When they hear they’re getting “canceled”, they think there’s an angry mob after them, instead of a vocal minority. But there’s something about social media that amplifies the most contentious voices. So John Cleese is not the victim because two people complained about a Fawlty Towers episode from 1970. The victims are the people who work on the shows that get taken off the air because producers thought it would be too controversial.
Comedians are sensitive, broken souls, so it’s little wonder they act like this. They think people are searching for what they’ve done in the past, not who they are today, but that’s not true.
They think we’re twisting their words to fit our own narrative. Like we decided we’re going to “get” Rowling and “get” Louis C.K. We don’t need to–they dug their own graves. We don’t need to twist anything, it’s already there. Logan Paul visited a suicide forest and posted it on YouTube. What’s he going to do? Deny it?
How Not to Cancel
One of the negative elements of cancel culture is the tendency to jump down throats or to shut their ears while they shout at the person. I remember, long ago in the early 90s, I saw a 20/20 special where John Stossel was talking to some college kids demonstrating for the environment. When he tried to tell them there were actually more trees now than a hundred years ago or that recycling caused pollution, they just shouted him down and drowned him out with chanting. They didn’t want to listen to the agenda-having, propaganda-spewing journalist.
I’m no fan of John Stossel–I think he’s a blowhard–but you can’t shut your ears to viewpoints you don’t like. “I’m not going to let anyone sway me of my opinion” or “anything you say is opposition, which means you are the enemy, which means you must be blocked at all costs”. That’s what I’m afraid is happening with social media–we’re demanding change and justice too fast.
We’re seeing it in real-time with Bean Dad. I’m not sure why what he did was so “triggering”. He wasn’t starving his daughter, he was trying to teach her a “hard knocks” life lesson. It wasn’t abuse by the legal definition, but it was a judgment call.
Parenting–no one really wants the job but everyone thinks they can do better.Bruce Lansky
Problem was this notoriety made people dig up a bunch of unrelated tweets he made in 2012 and 2013. Were they racist and anti-semitic and sexist tweets? Yes, I think so. But maybe there’s a reason they’re all from eight years ago and not 2017, 2018, or so on. Maybe he’s changed since then.
Rather than tell her the answer, he tried to guide her to it, using abstract thinking tools that can be applied to many life scenarios. He’s allowed to parent his nine-year-old the way he wants, even if that evokes the “Ron Swanson School of Toughness and Discipline”. But it wasn’t wrong or right. And it’s not up to me to decide how to parent his nine-year-old. I’m not there with her.
He deleted his Twitter because of this. Does this mean his career over because of bad jokes he made eight years ago? His song has been the theme of one of the most popular podcasts in America for a decade. The day this all went down–the SAME day–they changed it. Because it was “antithetical to the energy they try to bring”. The evidence has been on Twitter for the past ten years, why didn’t you change the theme then?
There is a difference between making a clumsy mistake (James Gunn) and condemning a category of people (J.K. Rowling).
I don’t think actions from the past should be used to cancel you in the future. I’m not talking about people like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein. I mean old college essays or a Halloween in blackface or “bad take” tweets. Things that happened before they were famous.
Using your current fame and influence to do wrong things is bad. I don’t like it when things that were socially acceptable then are censored now. This means Song of the South and Gone With the Wind and old Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons should not be hidden from the world’s eyes.
I was watching Community for the first time on Netflix and I had no idea the famous Dungeons & Dragons episode wasn’t there. Why? Because Ken Jeong dresses as a Dark Elf and there’s a joke that he’s in blackface. Except he’s NOT in blackface — that’s the joke. So because of a one-off joke, I had to buy the episode on YouTube separate from my already-existing subscription to Netflix.
These are works and art with values from a different time. Values that no longer exist or have changed into different values. Harry Potter and Ender’s Game are great works, but they can’t be removed from the culture they were created in, no matter what their authors do.
Just because it’s racist now doesn’t mean it’s offensive now. Shoving art under the rug, like it didn’t happen, isn’t okay. Facing your past is the only way to conquer it. It’s always going to be a part of you, but you don’t have to let it define who you are now.
Cancel culture fails when it loses a sense of forgiveness. Count Dankula is no longer using his platform to promote Nazism (whether he intended to or not, and I don’t think he did). He’s been deplatformed, and shouldn’t be stopped from going to one that’s different. He doesn’t need to be blacklisted for the rest of his life.
But forgiveness should be proportional to the crime. People like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, given their position and age, I don’t believe there’s any punishment they could receive that’s enough.
Conclusion: Does Cancel Culture Work?
At what point do they pass from “mistakes of the past” to “evidence that proves someone is a bad person”?
I don’t know. For the past four years, I’ve watched the majority being ignored. Either in voting or abortion or healthcare or wealth distribution. I’ve been to huge protests and seen nothing change. So I wonder if we can do anything to change.
As with any movement, people get caught in the splash damage. Maybe that’s why James Gunn and George Takei and Aziz Ansari “got away with it” or were “exonerated” (depending on how you look at it). Did we decide they were worthy of saving because they had done more good in the world than evil, like Martin Luther King?
I’ve never seen it work.
Louis C.K. still sells out comedy shows. Donald Trump was never successfully impeached. Everyone who was one of his cronies got pardoned or exonerated. Jeff Bezos buys a yacht and his workers struggle to make rent. Sean Spicer got to be on Dancing with the Stars. Ansel Egort still gets roles. Ellen DeGeneres just turns into Rosie O’Donnell.
The one thing we can take solace in is that the art will outlive the artist.
The people who saw Gone With the Wind in 1939 were interpreting something different than we do today when we see it. Back then, smoking used to be okay. People smoked everywhere. Doctors went on TV to recommend brands. But not anymore. Does that mean we have to remove smoking from every movie? There’s tons of smoking in It’s a Wonderful Life–are you going to stop watching it during the holidays?
So why does it matter what we do now? Because, for us now, knowing who J.K. Rowling is influences the way you read Harry Potter. Knowing Orson Scott Card is an anti-homosexual affects how you read Ender’s Game. And moreover, any dollars you give or fandom you contribute support that author and those views. They’re using their platform to do things that are “iffy” at best, harmful at medium, morally reprehensible at worst.
So I’ve got nothing for you. Just do what you’re going to do. Vote with your dollar or don’t. Seems like more factors must take place to get a Harvey Weinstein put in jail, more than normal citizens are capable of doing. And even if a majority of those factors work together, it still might not happen.
Remember, words are tools. They can hurt and they can harm.