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The “End” of Cancel Culture - Why We Need a Better System

Cancel culture has been canceled…and for good reason. We’ve been living through the era of cancellation for nearly a decade now and are beginning to see people re-emerge from their periods of public banishment. If cancel culture was working, you’d see these people come out reformed. It feels like a step backwards that people who did some really bad stuff seem to have gotten away with it, and it also reveals just how muddy the waters of cancel culture were in the first place.

Transcript

Cancel culture has been canceled…and for good reason. We’ve been living through the era of cancellation for nearly a decade now and are beginning to see people re-emerge from their periods of public banishment. If cancel culture was working, you’d see these people come out reformed. And while some have owned up, reflected, and atoned for their behavior, others have just carried on regardless…and as a result, kind of gotten past it.

It feels like a step backwards that people who did some really bad stuff seem to have gotten away with it, and it also reveals just how muddy the waters of cancel culture were in the first place.

Here’s our take on who gets canceled, who doesn’t, and why there needs to be a better system for holding people accountable for their actions, while still allowing for second chances in our culture.

CHAPTER ONE: THE EVOLUTION OF CANCEL CULTURE

Kanye West has long eluded the clutches of cancellation despite years of damaging public statements, false allegations, and even the verbal abuse of his wife…until now. After a series of AntiSemitic remarks, brands like Adidas, Balenciaga, Gap, and even his agency, have cut ties with him. Kanye is finally seeing financial repercussions of his actions, which is really what “canceling” was meant to mean in the first place.

“You’re entitled to believe whatever you want, but there is fact, and real world, real life consequences, behind everything that you just said.”

- Kanye West

The word “cancel” is a verb that almost always involves a commodity or transaction–and in practice it makes sense…but it’s not always that simple for public figures. Real repercussions sometimes take years and repeated offenses to be seen, often coupled with behavior that’s not just immoral but also illegal.

And the custom of cancellation has evolved. Cancel culture has been around for centuries–from real life banishments to the fictional Hester Prynne and her scarlet A. Now, it can mean any number of things–including losing sponsorships, shows, or roles but more often being bullied and doxxed online.

At its best, social media has it’s been a forum for marginalized people to seek accountability when perhaps our traditional systems of protection had failed. At its worst, it can be turned into an arena for blood sport–a mob of people engaged in tearing down one person that they have unanimously decided deserve cancellation without any sort of due process.

And this is where things get complicated. Even if we might agree with the targeting of this person–the lack of a clear judge or jury–can lead to confusion over who deserves it and who doesn’t. We end up lumping together serious predators with people who made one callous comment. Men like Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and Harvey Weinstein have all been rightfully canceled (and faced legal repercussions) for sexual assault and harrassment. Whereas someone like Chrissy Teigen – who made an awful mistake online albeit not an illegal one–had to take a long social media hiatus and may never fully recover. When asked how long she thinks she’ll be a member of the “cancel club,” Teigen laughed and said, “I don’t know, it could be forever. I have no idea. I don’t know.”

There will always be a demand for celebrities to be held accountable–and sometimes it can be a quick fix–like Lizzo and Beyonce re-releasing songs after being called out for using an ableist slur, or Taylor Swift re-editing her Anti-Hero video after accusations of fatphobia. But we’re at a crucial point now where we need to pay closer attention to the intent behind people’s actions and offer a clearer path to rehabilitation. Otherwise, the act of cancellation will remain socially performative and not actually enact real change.

CHAPTER TWO: WHO GETS A REDEMPTION ARC AND WHY?

There seem to be a few key factors in the public’s decision to let people back into the fold: the timing of the incident, the attitude they put forth afterwards or how earnest an apology is, and if their talent outweighs the crime.

Depending on the level of offense, the public is generally able to look past some wrongdoings if they took place a long enough time ago. In 2020, calls for beloved late-night host Jimmy Fallon’s cancellation began circulating over a photo of him in blackface on SNL. He swiftly apologized for the then 20-year-old mistake, and many fans responded with reassurances. Compare this to someone like Shane Gillis–whose role as a cast member on the very same show was rescinded from him after an unearthed clip from the previous year showed him making anti-Asian remarks. Not only had not enough time passed for the public to deem this recoverable, but his attempt at an apology was considered lacking in accountability or remorse. That attitude can often be make or break for the chance at a comeback.

Aziz Ansari was one of the higher profile cases of alleged sexual misconduct in the aftermath of #MeToo, and his response–after taking some time away from the spotlight—was to be open about the amount of reflection and soul searching he’d done. He showed that he’d learned, and grown, and didn’t try and distance himself from the accusations after the fact.

“If it’s made not just me, but other people, be more thoughtful, then that’s a good thing.”

- Aziz Ansari

Aziz’s career now feels somewhat rehabilitated. In contrast, Louis CK may still be performing, but his audience has undeniably nosedived–a recent show in Glasgow was downgraded from a 14,000-capacity venue to 3,000. And while that partly may be to do with the difference in scale between what each did, it’s also undeniably down to the fact that when CK returned to the stage, he immediately undercut the apology that he had initially made, and still didn’t seem to have learned anything from the scandal.

But there are others who just outright refused to embark on any road to redemption at all, and still got a second chance. Kevin Hart may have lost his Oscars hosting gig after homophobic comments came to light, but he refused to apologize. By not doing that, his career is basically at the same level it always was. Similarly, Dave Chappelle has shown no remorse for his constant ridiculing of trans people–and despite backlash–continues to enjoy sold-out shows and comedy special deals with Netflix. Unfortunately, this sets a poor example for other offenders – that the path of no apology might work best.

“If this is what being canceled is like, I love it.”

- Dave Chappelle

There does seem to be a middle ground between someone like Aziz and someone like Kevin Hart – where you can give an apology but not let it define you. Bo Burnham poked fun at his own problematic past and cancel culture as a whole in his Netflix special ‘Inside’. In doing this, he found a way to acknowledge it and admit fault–but didn’t make it so heavy or serious which could have opened a door to more criticism. The song and the special were very well-received.

In some cases, exceptional talent has almost superseded the need for any elongated period of reflection. Lea Michele owned up to her accusations of bullying on the set of Glee, saying “while I am very sorry, I will be better in the future from this experience.” But many feel like her time in the ‘canceled dog house’ was cut short when she was recently given the leading role in Funny Girl–proving that some stars are forgiven for their talent, rather than for true redemptive actions.

And proving change can be complicated–like in the case of Liam Neeson. He suffered from an almost self-cancellation–when, in an effort to be open and reflective about his past, he revealed an unflattering story about wanting to pursue vigilante justice against a black man as revenge for his friend being sexually assaulted. He tried to explain that he was a younger man then and claimed that he was not motivated by racism but unfortunately for him–the damage had already been done.

Ironically, this may discourage people from coming forward about their bad behavior, because even though you think you’ve undertaken the correct steps toward forgiveness–like owning up to it–in the eyes of the public it may not be enough.

CHAPTER THREE: THE RISE OF ANTI CANCEL CULTURE

Our rigidness in cancellation–leaving almost no room for human error–plus our cultural obsession with mercilessly finding people’s faults has led to the pendulum swinging all the way in the opposite direction: anti-cancel culture

This newer, counter-culture often puts forward more damaging or hurtful language under the guise of ‘protecting free speech’.

The prodigal father of anti-cancel culture, Donald Trump, ushered in a new era of opposition to outrage during his presidential election that has only grown. By consistently rallying against it–calling it a witch-hunt that could affect everyday Americans as well as the politically powerful–he struck fear and disdain for cancellation into the hearts of millions. Trump also pulled the curtain back and revealed the weakness of cancel culture–by continually violating social norms and never facing retribution for it–showing America that you not only won’t be punished for being controversial, you can also be rewarded for showing no remorse.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”

- Donald Trump

Many members of the comedy community have adopted this attitude, with comics like Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Joe Rogan, and Whitney Cummings serving themselves up as anti-cancel culture icons. Comedy has always found a home on the line between what’s acceptable and not acceptable to say, but the general rule of thumb is that good comedy punches up. Anti-cancel culture comics have effectively reframed the practice so that it feels like they’re still doing that–by posing as valiant defenders of free speech, whose censorship would signal the start of something far more troubling.

“If this doesn’t get me canceled I don’t know what will”

- Whitney Cummings

These comedians have all effectively avoided feeling any consequence of their respective cancellations because their reactions have been to turn the focus back on their detractors.

These people cast themselves as the victims, and the people doing the canceling as a kind of baying mob. Even though most of the time the people doing the canceling are marginalized communities. But this tactic works because it makes cancel culture seem like a grave threat, one that would impact our basic freedoms.

“This safe space thing. It’s nonsense to believe that some people deserve never to be offended their whole life.”

- Ricky Gervais

More worrying is that now, it feels as if the threat of being canceled is weighted more heavily than the actual actions people are canceled for. The way the public rallied to support Johnny Depp in his defamation case feels a world apart from the atmosphere in the immediate post MeToo era, when the toxic, abusive behavior of powerful men was being put in the spotlight. Now, with people already rallying to defend Marilyn Manson and Brad Pitt from similar accusations, it’s as if we’re moving backwards.

If cancel culture is what’s fueling this–it’s even more of an argument for scaling back and finding new solutions. There’s definitely still a need to hold people accountable for their actions–and fans still seem motivated to do so–but things no longer feel so cut and dry.

OUTRO

Cancel culture is a sledgehammer, when we’re in need of a scalpel. In grouping everything from major sexual assaults to honest mistakes under the same umbrella, it calls into question the usefulness of the term, and maybe does more harm than good.

So maybe it’s good that we’re moving past it, because now we can think of what might come along to replace it. Accountability culture. Compassion culture. Second chances culture.

We still want to be able to hold people to a higher standard, but we also need to give people the opportunity to get there, and not shame them if it takes them some time–because the level of change and transformation we want doesn’t and shouldn’t happen overnight.

“The world is messy, there are ambiguities, people who do really good stuff have flaws”

- Barrack Obama