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Cancel culture: Would you like to cancel your subscription?

By:
Harpo Mander (@itsharpo)

We’re currently living in the era of “cancel culture.” 

What is cancel culture you ask? It’s the phenomena of “cancelling” folks for the harm they may have caused. Cancelling someone means that the social media crowds have collectively decided to boycott someone based on something they have done. 

When it comes to celebrities, cancelling these big names can look like refusing to engage with their content, not consuming their music or art, and sliding them into the “we don’t effs with them” category. 

Many of our favourite artists and celebrities have come under scrutiny and been cancelled. Names like Kevin Hart, Terry Crews, Jimmy Fallon, and Priyanka Chopra have all had their fair share of “cancelling” done to them. 

Most recently, the cancellation of YouTube powerhouse Jenna Marbles has entered the discourse. Marbles was recently slandered by folks for her adoption of racist tropes in videos and occasional use of blackface in videos. Since being called out, Marbles has issued a formal apology and has even “cancelled herself” by leaving YouTube. 

A conversation on cancel culture has particularly re-emerged at this time given the current climate of the world. As we witness perhaps the biggest civil rights movement of our generation, many people are feeling the pressures of being politically correct. Many people are afraid of being cancelled.

As well, among this conversation of cancelling folks and political correctness, also rises a critique of cancel culture itself. Many people are torn and having a difficult time choosing which side of the debate to be on.

To cancel or not to cancel, that is the question. 

There are many problems with cancel culture and cancelling people. For starters, cancel culture does not create space for growth. 

In many cases, folks are cancelled for mistakes or harm that they caused in the past. In the case of Kevin Hart, for example, the comedian was cancelled for homophobic tweets that were made in 2011. It wasn’t until his tweets resurfaced in 2019 that he was cancelled. Hart urged that he had grown and worked on his homophobic biases in the last 8 years since he made the tweets, but cancellers were not interested in hearing his defense. 

Similarly, Jimmy Fallon and Jenna Marbles were also cancelled for mistakes made in the past. Both made use of blackface for their creative content years prior to being cancelled, with Fallon having used blackface in a Saturday Night Live skit 20 years ago and Marbles having used it in 2011. 

In all these cases, heartfelt apologies were offered and all urged that they had since grown as individuals. Nonetheless, cancellers found no remorse for the defenses that were made.

This brings me to the second problem associated with cancel culture. Cancellers are absolutely ruthless when they are cancelling public figures. Seldom do we ever practice such ruthless cancelling for people in our everyday lives with friends or family members, but when it comes to artists and celebrities, the cancelling comes with much more aggression.

This is partly due to how quick we are to place some of our favourite artists and celebrities on pedestals.

 In the words of author Roxane Gay,”People who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose, perfectly. Then they get knocked off when they f*ck up.” We almost grant a superhuman pedestal to our favourite artists and celebrities, placing them on extremely high pedestals. 

But the problem with high pedestals is that the fall is also that much longer and harder. 

We forget that those that we look up to are also just human beings like you and me. We forget that those in the spotlight are often there solely for their craft and talent, not because they took a course on political or social correctness.

In addition to ruthlessness, cancel culture also creates a sort of elite group of knowledge bearers who can be the only ones to call the shots. It gives cancellers the power to decide what is right and what is wrong, leaving no room for grey in their black and white world. But dare I ask, who makes one person or one group of people the moral authority on anything over others? 

And while yes, we can’t entirely separate an artist from their artistry, there should also be guidelines around that. British actress and activist Jameela Jamil has often been vocal about differentiating between cancel culture and call-out culture. She makes this distinction between cancel culture and call out culture in the following post: 

Jamil offers that instead of participating in cancel culture, she participates in call-out culture, with the latter being more conducive than the former. Cancel culture grants no space for growth and evolvement, whereas call-out culture allows for the calling-out of problematic behaviours, with the promise of space to learn. 

She also says that unless someone has caused irrevocable harm, or hurt more people than they help, we should not support cancellation. That is to say, that yes, we should cancel the Chris Browns and the R. Kellys of the world, but perhaps grant space for growth and change to those who were operating in the limited understanding of their privilege.

That is to say that we should continue to interrogate, and we should continue to ask: to cancel or not to cancel? That is the question. 

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