The Problem with Cancelling Cancel Culture

Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

Before we dive too deeply into cancel culture, it is first important to understand its origins. Like much of what the White American majority now views as "Internet slang," the term "cancel" originated in Black culture and is part of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) like "woke," "bae," "lit" and so many other words. And just like those words, White America appropriated, altered its meaning and then drove it into the ground.

Some authors have speculated that it originated from a song by Nile Rogers in 1980, but I suspect its origins are older, since AAVE usually influences Black music rather than the other way around. I have no proof of this, however, so do not hold me to it, since there is no historian chronicling every new word that enters the AAVE lexicon.

BLM Black Power by Andrew Ratto 

What we know for sure about the origins of "cancel" is that it was meant to be a personal statement of one's distaste for something or someone rather than a call to arms to protest or, in some cases, bully someone on Twitter. If I thought a TV show's latest plot twist was dumb, I could lightheartedly declare they are "cancelled," and it just meant that I no longer wanted to watch it. In some instances, this might even only be a joke, as I would later continue hate-watching it anyway.

But Twitter is toxic. I say that without reservation, and it is important to keep that in mind because most of what comes out of twitter as some type of "culture", whether it is cancel culture or something else, is actually Twitter culture. The proof of this is that protesting and boycotting has always existed outside of the Internet, but when Twitter got involved, it took on a new form.

White America grabbed "cancel" and ran with it. While Black people used "cancel" as a way to exercise power where they actually had none, white people use it to exert their very real and sometimes very consequential power. White people who already considered themselves "woke" (something they ironically also appropriated), took to Twitter to cancel celebrities or politicians they deemed unfit because of whatever action they had taken.

JFK protest by Rhododendrites CC BY-SA

In the most extreme instances, when the target of cancel culture has done something reprehensible, something that causes harm in the real world, it has resulted in real-world consequences. A person who uses a racial slur and then gets called out on Twitter might actually lose their job. To be clear, this would happen without Twitter. The only role that Twitter takes in this scenario is that of an amplifier.

The other, more nefarious use of "cancelling" is when a Twitter mob circles the wagons on someone who said or did something in error, possibly even years ago, and is truly remorseful and apologetic. Nevertheless, the Twitter mob launches an all-out assault on them. Their employer or sponsors may take action only to distance themselves from the bad publicity, even if they consider the person to be reformed.

Those who oppose cancel culture, such as former President Barack Obama, seem to only focus on that last scenario, as if everyone who is cancelled is undeserving and should be "given a second chance." Nevermind that most people who get cancelled are not remorseful or that most of them are celebrities who seemingly suffer no real lasting harm from the Twitter mob assault. That is the danger with using a term like "cancel culture" rather than just speaking out against Twitter bullying.

Real, honest and effective protests do happen on Twitter. Black Lives Matter and MeToo are perfect examples. The sinister truth behind those who want to cancel "cancel culture" is that they also want to silence dissent and erase the voice of those who usually do not have a voice. It is, therefore, no surprise that the majority of them are alt-right politicians and their followers (i.e. Trump supporters). White Supremacy is their ideology, and anything that threatens that ideology must be stamped out.

Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally by Anthony Crider CC BY-SA

This is expected and unsurprising, but what is unfortunate is that many center-left people and whites with good intentions have echoed calls to eliminate cancel culture. Rather than focusing on the real problem (toxic Twitter), they follow the white supremacists right into the whirlpool of attempting to silence Black voices. This is ironic since it is mainly this group that created what is now known as cancel culture when they appropriated it from us.

It is also not surprising that many of the people who oppose cancel culture are celebrities. Their motives are usually self serving. The Internet gives them a way to speak openly to the public without any type of filter, and they essentially want carte blanche to say anything on their minds without any consequences.

A Clear Path Forward

The moderate path ahead is clear.

  1. First, we must stop using the term cancel culture and let "cancel" revert back to its true meaning and roots within AAVE. It never belonged to "Internet slang" and should not be subjected to the current hate campaign it is now receiving.
  2. Next, we must address the real problem areas, such as the toxic nature of sites like Twitter and Reddit where people hide behind false identities and attack one another. To be clear, the technology itself is not bad. It is the way people use it. These sites must encourage and ultimately enforce better behavior.
  3. Finally, allow legitimate protest and free speech to continue. If someone says or does something that the public dislikes, that person has the right to free speech, but the people who oppose that person also have the right to freely express their disagreement. Free speech goes both ways.

Like most aspects of the Internet, there is good, bad and a large chunk of grey area in cancel culture. Rather than denouncing it as some evil force that exists in a black and white morality scale, we need to break it apart and examine its positive, neutral and negative attributes. Only then can we construct a clear path forward that respects everyone's dignity and right to exist and freely express themselves.

Tavis J. Hampton

Tavis J. Hampton

IT worker with a master's in Library and Information Science currently working in the healthcare industry. Passionate about Free and Open Source software.