Bill Cosby. R. Kelly. Kanye West. Michael Jackson. Cardi B. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Jussie Smollett. Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden. This is just a sampling of folks who, over the past few years, have been “cancelled” or threatened with cancellation by the culture, specifically black culture. In the age of social media, we, society, have become more distinctively polarized regarding points of agreement and disagreement. Points of agreement undergo purity tests that seek unanimity rather than an understanding of the topic’s nuances. Similarly, this process occurs for things we disagree with or dislike. The result is often a form of groupthink that occurs when a person or entity (organization, school, etc.) does something disagreeable to societal norms or with the public majority and are “cancelled,” or rebuked by the culture through boycotting or abstaining from their presence, output (art, movies, music, etc.), commentary, and more. We engage in cancel culture because it is enabled by social media and it is easy to participate in as a rallying point as well as being an awareness or advocacy tool. Paradoxically, cancel culture is rooted in the historic principles of nonviolent civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement; and, of the ignorance of post-racial colorblind theory of the white hegemony (i.e., “I don’t see race” people). The goal of cancel culture is to seemingly reject, through avoidance and erasure, all socially-accepted questionable individuals and entities that disrupt the ever-evolving, socially-acceptable rules of engagement or behavior. Though, cancel culture, when someone or something is evidently-proven problematic, can be a positive initial step in allowing victims or those affected a chance to recapture and steer the larger social narrative. However, when it has not fully been vetted or evidently-proven, cancel culture can be highly problematic, divisive, and career or reputation-threatening. This piece is not a defense of specific people or entities, but address the culture of public accusation and adjudication within cancel culture. Here, I would like to examine some of the reasons why I find cancel culture, both, problematic and yet fixable.
First, one of my main critiques of today’s cancel culture is that it does not actually address the structural and inherent issues of the individual or entity. In many cases, we do not even address the overt issues either. Cancel culture allows us to avoid or erase the presence of the accused individual or entity by blocking their social media feed, boycotting their products or services, posting in defense of the victims or those affected, publicly shaming the accused, and much more. These responses, if done responsibly, can be an effective form of advocacy; but, I believe that these reactionary responses should be accompanied by proactive deeds. Too often, it is acceptable that a mere reply or crafted post is the substitute for action and that goes for every facet of life — deaths, birthdays, checking-in, professional work, civic engagement, education, etc. The typed acknowledgement or reaction to an incident is often insufficient of the change that needs to occur to avoid the same thing from happening again, which is why we see these issues repeat and we recycle the same outrage. To me, this is the physical manifestation of the theological concept of, “faith without works being dead.” Moreover, once the reactionary responses and proactive deeds are aligned, they must be strategically-focused on remedying the institutionalized systems and structures, problematic individuals and cabals, and the biased and divisive policies. Proactive deeds, rather than the problematic individuals and entities, is the hard-work that is truly avoided by the cancel culture. To truly embody cancel culture means going beyond the removal or erasure of something or someone, but it is the acknowledgment of the problem and those problematic actions, examining the issues and coming to an evidence-based conclusion, taking the prescribed course of action, and then working with the proper entities to create safeguards and changes to avoid the issue from repeating itself. We carry out similar processes for work and other aspects of our lives, why not for cancel culture?
Secondly, cancel culture is a repetitive cycle with no real solutions. To elaborate simply, we cannot go around cancelling everybody or everything regardless of whether they are problematic or not. For example, in the case of Cardi B, who admitted to drugging and robbing men who hired her as a sex worker, we can all agree that her actions were wrong; but, the situation, her gender, her trauma and the trauma faced by sex workers must be considered before rushing to judgment against her. Sometimes the answer is not simply equality but also about finding equity, or the proportional accounting of variables, when making decisions. Similar to what my mother once told me when I asked her whether she loved my sister or myself more, you may not judge everyone equally but you must judge them fairly according to the full scope of facts available.
By cancelling every problematic entity, you would be: 1. Perpetuating the cycle of recidivism by not properly re-educating those who are problematic as well as fixing the problem (though blacks, women, and other minorities are often tasked with teaching whites why their racist or sexist behaviors are problematic, should not have to do this, it is nonetheless essential because otherwise we become complicit in letting these issues continue); 2. We would create an underclass, similar to re-entrants from incarceration, where those inside are never forgiven by the public or able to redeem themselves through rehabilitation, and they are prohibited from successfully re-entering the public good graces due to a lack of resources and supports (granted this has to be done a case-to-case basis with heinous offenses treated in the most severe manner); 3. Disproportionately remove or erase entities that are only presented to the public which can feature racial, gender, ethnic, and other biases; 4. Arbitrarily have the public serve as a moral adjudicator for which we, ourselves and the policies and structures in which we operate cancel culture, are fallible and subject to the same issues (i.e., Jussie Smollett case); and, 5. Similar to police, our awareness or safety or purity are reliant on the actions of an imperfect and often biased news source or social network system.
The parallels to the prison-industrial complex are apparent, real, and it feeds into an eye for an eye ethos. This ethos ignores the fact that the culture and its individuals will all eventually go blind without forgiveness, re-education, rehabilitation, and supports for a successful re-entry in cases that warrant it. Furthermore, what usually happens in today’s current cancel culture is that we persistently move from incident to incident cancelling people and eventually forgetting about them, either, due to volume or time without any preventative changes. There are two examples of this, the first is the R. Kelly cases where he would release new music as a distraction during and immediately after a scandal. And, the second example is in the State of Virginia where the top 3 government officials (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, & Attorney General) were embroiled in blackface or sexual harassment scandals and they merely waited out the media scrutiny without suffering any consequences. This is unacceptable because sometimes time does not heal all wounds.
Thirdly, cancel culture is a form of accountability system that is based on quickness (reactionary responses) over accuracy or prudence (proactive deeds). Cancel culture often practices a cut first and measure second approach rather than vice versa. This is apparent in the chain of events that can lead TMZ or another news source to race to break a story or incident on social media, follow that up with a litany of edits or retractions or clarification (usually quotes to push aside the inaccuracy while pacifying any distrust to have them remain attentive to their wave of updates until the story is finally correct), outside actors add fuel to the fire with conspiracy theories, and then eventually we get to the final accurate story which no one is exactly happy with receiving. If this sounds very familiar then it is because it happened this past Sunday with the tragic death of Los Angeles-based rapper Nipsey Hussle. Also, this has happened time and time again. This is a byproduct of social media and technology-reliant culture, and this often how cancel culture works. It is only until we take time to focus on the evidence, discern the facts, and come to responsible conclusions that we will then be able to address this issue in cancel culture.
Thus far, I know that this has come off as an anti-cancel culture rant, but there is a good to cancel culture. As previously mentioned, it shifts the narrative towards the victims and those affected to create a larger advocacy platform. However, cancel culture can also remedy some of the aforementioned issues by doing the following:
- Gather all pertinent information — be patient and willing to take your time to decide and avoid the false sense of hurry social media causes. Your opinion will likely be just as valid later as it is now.
- Discuss and vet ideas and issues internally with a trusted group (family, friends, mentors, etc.) to form a more comprehensive, diverse, and tested viewpoint.
- Be willing to accept and give critiques of viewpoints — it is important to learn from others and incorporate some different viewpoints. To do so is not flip-flopping or vacillating from your position, but it is becoming more informed if you do this and acknowledge that it was learned from others. We must be willing to educate those who are uninformed rather than publicly shaming someone’s ignorance for the world to see (this is hard for black people and women because we do it so often without any acknowledgement or actual change; but, it is essential because kindness begets change, while meanness only creates stubbornness and resentment). Also, progress is a two-way street of giving grace and taking correction.
- Think before you post.
- Ask yourself whether cancelling actually going to change anything? — do not be afraid to the proactive deed along with the reactionary response, practice the Benedictine principle of “Ora et Labora,” or “Prayer and Work.” Most of all, be the change that you seek in this world.
In summary, I believe that cancel culture is problematic in its current form, but it can be fixed when paired with actions, patience, and compassion it is a byproduct of a social media and technology-reliant society and can resemble a high-tech, prison-industrial complex. However, we must work together on improving structural and social policies, individual and collective actions, and cultural norms to address these flaws. Through these fundamental systemic and personal changes, we can work to address systemic wrongs, rehabilitate and re-educate the accused, and support and advocate for the victims or those affected. It is only then that we will be able to cancel the need for cancel culture and embrace the wholeness of an imperfect human culture.
James 2:26 KJV