Long before the coronavirus pandemic hit, 2019 and the beginning of 2020 were already beginning to shape an era that might one day be known as “the canceled years.” One might argue that cancel culture started before that, and I would agree if I wasn’t about to argue that cancel culture doesn’t exist.
Like many of the other things we call “culture” here in the US of A, cancel culture is a made up idea to make you (you, someone with privilege) think your life is getting harder. Simply put, if there is such a culture (definition: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group) created by the action of canceling some people or some things, we can skip novelty and just call it what it is: American culture.
When you read the words “cancel culture” here, some images may have come to mind. They might be figures who went down in the early aughts of our current cancel cycle like Louis C.K. or Matt Lauer. You might have imagined classic TV shows like Dukes of Hazzard suddenly revising or hiding their problematic themes. Whether someone was accused of actual crime like sexual assault, or what I would consider a moral crime like saying the N-word, the accused allegedly get no defense and are swiftly canceled.
The initial problem with “cancel culture” is clear to those who do the alleged canceling. Because as we have seen over and over again, it is very difficult to actually “cancel” a person in the way the cancellers want. When they say “Cancel Michael Jackson,” they obviously don’t mean kill him, because he’s already dead. They do mean stop listening to his music, stop financially supporting his estate, stop calling yourself a fan. This goes for most of the celebrities who’ve been the subject of cancellation lately: the goal is not to physically end their life, the goal is to take whatever power they have because they have somehow abused it.
This is why cancel culture cannot actually exist in the America as we know it. To cancel, by definition, means “decide or announce that (a planned event) will not take place.” Alternatively, it can mean “(of a factor or circumstance) neutralize or negate the force or effect of (another).”
Two words ring important in those definitions: “decide” and “force.” In both uses of the verb cancel, there is power in play. The power is the thing that decides or the thing that loses its force. If you are the thing with the power, you have to either be matched or negated in order for you to even be neutralized, much less “canceled.” Thus in a society run largely by rich white men, there are very few rich white men who will ever see themselves actually canceled. If the people of Twitter had actual power to dictate and adjudicate moral and/or legal crimes, cancel culture might exist.
But by and large, they don’t.
Think of all the falls from grace you’ve witnessed in your lifetime. I mean think of all the celebrities and public figures who within your lifetime went from beloved, revered, and/or famous to despised, condemned, and/or infamous. Paula Deen comes to my mind. In the sense that I somewhat remember the post-9/11 embrace of George W. Bush, in contrast to the rejection of post-financial crisis Bush. And then of course, Bill Cosby and every man who “went down” in the #MeToo movement.
All those people did something or were accused of doing something harmful that gave reason for the public to want to see them “canceled.” But people who also come to mind include Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Mo’Nique. All for different reasons, these women had their careers permanently damaged. Yet when America did in fact “cancel” them, it wasn’t a culture. Janet Jackson was a harlot aiming to corrupt your children. Britney Spears was an outdated caricature of a mental patient. Mo’Nique was a traitor to her race. But no, we didn’t call that cancel culture, did we?
Why? Because those were women. In some cases they were Black women. They had less or far less power than those who wanted them canceled. So it was justified and normal that we built entire TV channels dedicated to picking apart these women and men, too, who struggle with things like addiction. Or in Janet Jackson’s case, simply fall scapegoat to the nearest white man’s tomfoolery. In what compassionate world do we laugh and make jokes about people who struggle with mental illness just because they were once on the Disney Channel? I’m guilty of this too, for sure, having grown up watching the E! Network.
When we unknowingly canceled people back then, though, no one was up in arms about the suffocating oppression of “wokeness” raining down on them. Because back then we weren’t really canceling people for crimes. We were canceling people often for things totally out of their own control. But when we started “canceling” or at least attempting to cancel figures with power, suddenly we have a culture of oversensitivity?
America was built on canceling. Columbus came in and canceled the native population. The founders canceled the British colonization. The Union canceled the confederacy (read it again). And maybe that’s when the tides really started turning. The formerly enslaved decided they wanted to cancel their chains, but the slave owners (with the power to do so) resisted by simply canceling their subscription to the Union. But THAT wasn’t cancel culture either?
Now that we the people looking for a better world want to cancel things such as racism, sexual and gender-based violence, inequality, hunger, homelessness, etc. NOW we live in “cancel culture?” I really truly hope so. Because that means we the people are finally getting the power to do so.
But if that’s not the case and those with power refuse to give up those systems of oppression, then no. Cancel culture simply cannot exist.