The Reality of Cancel Culture Is that it Is Not Real
by Nicole Patano ’22
Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. When people make comments that are offensive, bigoted, or vile, they deserve to be held accountable. In recent years, all calls for holding individuals accountable for their statements and actions have been oversimplified to one term: cancel culture.
While cancel culture is not a new concept, it has gained particular notoriety in the past few years, with celebrities like R. Kelly, Kanye West, and J. K. Rowling falling victim, although victim may be too strong a term. Despite being accused of, charged with, and arrested on numerous counts of sexual assault and child pornography, R. Kelly still made $200,000 in royalties from January to April of this year. Kanye West was “canceled” after suggesting that slavery was a choice, yet his album Ye debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts just one month later. Instead of apologizing for making transphobic comments, J. K. Rowling published a book which features a man who dresses as a woman to kill people. Troubled Blood topped the United Kingdom’s book charts, selling 64,633 copies in five days.
There are several myths surrounding cancel culture, the first being that it is an attack on free speech. Free speech is protected by the First Amendment against government regulation (with exceptions, of course). The First Amendment protects you from the government, not from public pressure. This is why the government could not make Dan Snyder change the name of his football team from the Washington Redskins, but public pressure could. This is why people can get “canceled” on social media.
The second myth about cancel culture is that it punishes innocent people for statements they never made or ones they made several years ago. In most cases, a person’s guilt is rather obvious—a public tweet, a YouTube video, DNA evidence. The question is not about whether the individual intended for their statements to be racist or homophobic, but that they had the impact of marginalizing or oppressing others.
There are three reasons a person may be “canceled.” First, the person said or did something offensive or harmful. These cases are often the most controversial because individuals may be canceled for something they said or did 10 years ago—Kevin Hart stepping down from hosting the 2019 Oscars after his homophobic tweets from 2009 resurfaced is just one example.
Sympathizers of those canceled may claim that the person was just a kid or that times were different back then and such statements would have been appropriate. However, if a person is never held responsible for their actions and the harm they caused, it will set the precedent that there is an expiration date for the harm caused by a person’s actions.
The second reason is that a person said or did something offensive or harmful and did not apologize. In this case, the person knows that what they did is offensive but does not care. Their public apology may sound something like this: “I am sorry that my statements hurt your feelings.” The person apologizes that you feel hurt, but does not apologize for their statements being the reason you are hurt. It is a denial of their culpability and deflects the blame onto the person who calls them out.
Oftentimes a person who fits into the first or second categories will respond by saying that they are not racist, sexist, or homophobic. This is often the case; a person can say something racist without being a racist or do something homophobic without being a homophobe. As long as the person understands why their words or actions were harmful, apologizes for the impact their actions had, and vows to do better, they should be safe from “cancellation.”
The third case arises when a person fully intends to say something offensive or harmful because the person is a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc…These individuals repeatedly show they feel no remorse for such statements and the harm they cause. They are repeat offenders who are wilfully ignorant about the harm their statements cause. For example, Mel Gibson has been caught on tape making anti-Black, antisemitic, sexist, and homophobic comments; yet, he is still an active and prolific actor and director. Despite the evidence against him and the fact that he has been “canceled” twice already, the list of people supporting Gibson’s career has only grown.
This brings up the third myth about cancel culture: that cancel culture is real. Based on the current status of the aforementioned victims of cancel culture, it is accurate to say that none of them have been canceled. In almost all cases, the individual is able to keep their career, status, and fan base without any repercussions. “Cancel culture” is a term used by privileged people to delegitimize the criticism and silence the actual victim.
“Cancel culture” is cited to prevent a discussion about the harm done and how those who caused the harm should be held accountable. It is a way for oppressors to play the oppressed, re-centering the sympathy on those who already have privilege and authority.
Instead, “cancel culture” must be viewed as a form of holding people in power accountable for their actions. “Canceling” is an act of withdrawing support for a person that will impact their revenue, public image, and privilege. If you continue to support a person because of what they offer you despite the fact that they are causing harm to others, you are effectively telling that person that you can excuse their behavior because you need them. You are giving that person permission to continue causing harm. Holding them accountable by refusing to support them is the only way to prevent them from marginalizing or oppressing others.