“Cancel culture didn’t start getting the language of ‘culture’ until mostly white people in power started being held to account for their actions and behaviors,” said Sonya Renee Taylor, the author of “The Body is Not an Apology.” While talking about cancel culture in a video on her Instagram account, she goes on to say, “We have made cancel culture a synonym for accountability.”
“Cancel culture” has come to describe what is deemed to be a new phenomenon of individuals in the public sphere, such as celebrities or politicians, receiving widespread blacklisting and disapproval — usually perpetuated by the progressive left — for instances when they might have said or done something harmful. Vocal opponents of cancel culture argue that this is an attempt to restrict free speech, and that we are ruining lives over small mistakes in an attempt to be more “politically correct.”
The Republican Party has also become a staunch opponent of cancel culture, citing it as an attempt to mute citizens. I think that it would do us some good to look at the people who we claim to have been “canceled.” Look at J.K. Rowling, who received backlash for transphobic tweets. Despite her “cancellation,” she will remain one of the most successful and wealthy authors of our time and will still be free to continue voicing her thoughts on social media. Or Louis C.K., who, after accusations of sexual misconduct, took a hiatus, only to return to comedy and perform successful shows. Or Shane Gillis, who lost his job at Saturday Night Live after recent anti-Asian “jokes” went viral on social media — but has also continued working as a comedian.
So where is the silencing? Do we actually think lives are being ruined, or are we just outraged that people are finally being called out for problematic or even violent behavior? If we are actually going to talk about cancel culture, which is a useless phrase in and of itself, then we need to talk about the people who are actually being “canceled.”
Because I know there will always be someone who insists on a bad faith reading, I will emphasize this now — I am an advocate for second chances. People are complex human beings who are capable of improvement, and I think that we should provide them with compassion when we can afford it. We should give them the chance to get better, but this does require making sure people know when they have inflicted harm. This is exactly why I advocate for restorative justice rather than punitive, and why I think we need to reckon with who is actually being canceled in our society.
If we want a prime example of blacklisting, silencing and ruining someone’s life as a consequence of their behavior, then all we need to do is look at our criminal justice system. If you staunchly believe in second chances and treating others with compassion, should you not also be fighting our carceral system? The very system that subjects individuals to maltreatment can ruin future possibilities of meaningful employment and perpetuates a system of violence rather than addressing its root causes. A system that removes your right to vote — that is, your right to have a say in our democracy. That is cancel culture — not mere accountability, where you can keep your economic standing, your power and your voice.
A prominent example of accountability is Dr. Seuss’ estate discontinuing the publication of six of his books. There was an outpouring of outrage. But Dr. Seuss is not being canceled. First of all, he’s dead. Second of all, his books will continue to be widely read in elementary school classrooms across the country. A few of them will be discontinued due to racist depictions. This is not a bad thing. Understanding that things that may not have been deemed harmful at one time can be deemed harmful now is progress. Dr. Seuss’ estate reckoning with the fact that some of his books are considered problematic today is a positive step. Are we so deprived of creative children’s authors that we cannot leave the bad works behind and move forward with the books, as well as other forms of art, that coincide with our beliefs today, and not those of almost a century ago?
Of course, people have the right to say whatever they want to say. But everything comes with consequences. While we can also believe that people are complicated and will make mistakes and deserve to learn from them, we should also be centering victims. Those people who have suffered from toxic environments and experienced firsthand the repercussions of a society that considers sexism, racism, classism, transphobia and homophobia to be harmless when they are part of jokes made in “good fun.”
If you are in a place in your life where you are causing harm, intentional or not, you need to rectify that harm. And as a result, there may be environments and positions of power you need to be removed from until then. Actions have consequences, and too often, those consequences are other people. Rather than spending all of our energy opposing cancel culture, if it can even be called that, we need to be thinking about how we can justly be holding ourselves and others accountable for harm that we have inflicted.
DEREEN SHIRNEKHI is a sophomore in Davenport College. Her column, titled ‘Interlude,’ runs monthly on Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.