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A Guide to Cancel Culture

By Karis Fields

Gone are the days when something being ‘canceled’ meant the nullification of things such as television shows, events, online orders, and magazine subscriptions. Now, the phrase is used in reference to the canceling of a person.

The call to ‘cancel’ someone typically arises when someone, oftentimes with a high influence or social standing (celebrity, politician, influencer, etc.), says or does something deemed as offensive and fails to hold accountability over their actions. Then, in hopes of ending their career, the public incites social media backlash, oftentimes politically progressive in nature.

What exactly is ‘cancel culture’, though? There isn’t one simple answer to such an open-ended question. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure”. Forbes claims it to be a primarily left-wing ideology, “a belief that you are no better than your worst moment no matter how young you were when you transgressed”. Vox defines it as “the cultural blocking of a person from having a prominent public platform”. Nobody is going to give you the same answer if you ask them what ‘cancel culture’ is.

In September 2020, Pew Research Center asked Americans of different political ideologies to define what ‘cancel culture’ is in their own words. 49% defined it as actions taken to hold others accountable. 14% as censorship of speech or history. 12% as mean-spirited actions taken to cause others harm. 9% as ‘cancelling’ anyone they disagree with. 6% as those who are challenged facing consequences like being fired or boycotted. 5% as an attack on traditional American society. 4% as a way to call out someone (oftentimes for racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). And, finally, 2% as a misrepresentation of people's actions.

For a term so prominent in the public zeitgeist today, one can only ask where it came from. Before we do a deep dive into ‘cancel culture’, we first need to look at ‘call-out culture’.

Predating ‘cancel culture’, ‘call-out culture’ refers to the trend of calling out someone or something within early fandom. Many social media accounts were dedicated to criticizing fandom, more notably the early-2010s Tumblr blog Your Fave Is Problematic. The blog, which ran from 2013 to 2016, claimed to be one which kept record of all the problematic things some of our favorite celebrities have done as a way to hold them accountable and inform fans of their past mistakes. What this blog doesn’t do is call for the ‘canceling’ of these celebrities.

The idea of ‘canceling’ someone actually first started as a joke on Black Twitter throughout 2015. The joke stemmed from an episode of VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop: New York, which aired in December 2014. In the episode, there is a moment where two cast members are in a fight with one another, ending with one of them telling the other that they’re ‘canceled’. People on Twitter started using the term ‘canceled’ as a reaction to something they didn’t agree with, whether it was something a friend said or did, both used in serious and joking contexts. It has since evolved to a term used to boycott celebrities.

Flash forward to 2016 where we first see growth of the phrase ‘cancel culture’ on Twitter. ‘Cancel culture’ was brought to the public consciousness between the years 2016 and 2017 in connection with the #MeToo movement. #MeToo is the social movement where many people came out with their stories of allegations of sexual assault and abuse. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer, Donald Trump, James Franco, R. Kelly, and Bill Cosby were among the most notable accused (some even proved) abusers in the early stages of the movement. Now, skipping to today, sexual abusers aren’t the only ones getting ‘canceled’. Newly added targets of ‘cancel culture’ are ableists, sexists, misogynists, pedophiles, homophobes, transphobes, racists, xenophobes, and the list goes on.

But what happens after someone is ‘canceled’? For example, for those in Hollywood, ‘cancelation’ oftentimes led to being blacklisted, or essentially out of a job. Some of these people, like Weinstein and Spacey, are rightfully blacklisted. There are some people who were rightly ‘canceled’ that have frighteningly even put their hand in making a comeback. But there are also, however, some victims of ‘cancel culture’ who do not deserve public banishment but with the power of the media they have become targets. What is to say about ‘cancel culture’ if, on some occasions, the person ‘canceled’ makes a comeback? Additionally, do those who have been affected by ‘cancel culture’ actually hold themselves accountable? For all we know, that person could just be trying to save face in order to gain back their social acceptability. Some even say that due to the complexity of the term, ‘cancel culture’ isn’t even real. Real or not, it’s something relevant throughout our daily internet lives.


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