For many years, cancel culture has been despised or misconstrued as a new phenomenon that’s caused havoc on free expression and speech. We’re supposed to now assume that we can’t say or do anything without an angry mob instantly judging us and preparing to end our careers before they start. In actual fact, we are the people who make up the so-called mob, and we have control of our own actions.
Cancel culture has leveled the playing field for those who can’t always rely on the government to protect them. Right now, bigots are protected under the First Amendment to fuel disgusting rhetoric without state-sanctioned consequence. The America that tolerated white supremacy in their policies and laws is the same country that wants to remind us how such forms of hate are still legal via free speech. Cancel culture is the poison to those in power that have benefited from unchecked free speech.
When conservatives on Fox News declare that it’s a “free country” and that cancel culture is “un-American,” they forget speech works two ways: It allows for discourse to take place but grants all voices can be heard. In other words, straight white men and other people with power aren’t used to getting pushback for the ways they conduct themselves—and cancel culture has reset the ways society can react. Those who fear cancel culture may claim they fear suppression of speech, but it’s accountability that they want to avoid.
When British media personality Piers Morgan publicly attacked Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, on a March 2021 episode of Good Morning Britain, he didn’t expect the immediate backlash or that he’d soon be exiting the show.
Morgan slammed Markle for seeming to criticize the royal family and complaining about the bigotry she faced within the family and from the British press. Many viewed Morgan’s comments as insensitive to Markle’s mental health and racially insensitive given the often-racist coverage she’d faced from the British tabloids as a Black woman. The station had received over 57,000 thousand complaints regarding Morgan’s comments from disappointed viewers, including one from Markle herself. Public pressure is speculated to have played a role in Morgan abruptly leaving Good Morning Britain after nearly six years on the air.
Prior to social media and civil rights advancements, men like Morgan would likely have gone unchallenged. Today, he is put in a position to have to reckon with his behavior—even if he still gets to remain rich with some level of influence.
Cancel culture as we consider it today feels new because of the digital platforms we have at our disposal. Previous generations were canceling—but the road to accountability was paved with many barriers, both technologically and socially. It was hard to fully cancel something when you weren’t granted the same civil rights as your opponent—even more so when you could face even more persecution and exile for doing it. Once the internet began to take off in the 1990s, society began to see a shift in how the public could consider canceling with less gatekeeping. In 1997, the Supreme Court acknowledged this major shift when it dealt with its first internet-related First Amendment case. The court wrote at the time that “any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”
Those who fear cancel culture may claim they fear suppression of speech, but it’s accountability that they want to avoid.
Cancel culture is a way for a new generation of people to practice free speech. The way that we cancel today is more advanced because of our rights as a people and our access to digital communication tools. What opponents of cancel culture get wrong is the act itself: It’s not what we’re doing that’s new; it’s how we’re canceling that’s different. It’s not the fault of the general public that society’s more progressive than in previous decades. In fact, that should be the goal of a democracy. Perhaps the consequence of a more democratic or progressive society is for the most powerful to recognize the limits of control they once had. “It is a direct call to get better, do better, and be better for communities that are often marginalized,” says activist-attorney Preston Mitchum on cancel culture’s versatility. “Unfortunately, sometimes this must be done publicly to gain ongoing support and get the point across that what happened was unacceptable and for accountability to be achieved.”
Before we were calling it cancel culture, society got caught up in the term political correctness. What started as an inside joke of a phrase in the late 1980s became all the rage within the media in the 1990s as political pundits and public figures began to bash the term in pop culture. The same thing is happening now with cancel culture: Powerful people are trying to suggest that they are being suppressed by the new ways that everyday people are reacting to their behavior.
Just like how political correctness was initially an inside joke that ran rampant, so has cancel culture taken off as a phrase. Once those in power got a hand of the term cancel culture, they attempted to redefine it as a pejorative phrase, stripping away its craftiness and mischaracterizing its intention. It’s like any cool phrase that gets taken too seriously and blown out of proportion by a cranky, uptight parent who isn’t hip to modernity—cancel culture was reframed and weaponized by those in power who were afraid of what it could truly represent.
Some suggest a rebranding. “In terms of cancel culture, I think it’s misnamed,” said famed host and actor LeVar Burton during an April 2021 interview 6 on The View. “That’s a misnomer. I think we have a consequence culture, and that consequences are finally encompassing everybody in the society, whereas they haven’t been ever in this country.” Burton was right in his assessment of what society is currently doing in this wave of cancel culture and how it’s showing “good signs that are happening in the culture right now.” He further argued, “I think it has everything to do with a new awareness on people who were simply unaware of the real nature of life in this country for people who have been othered since this nation began.”
I don’t believe reframing cancel culture as consequence culture is the answer. Rather than run away from the term cancel culture, we should embrace it. Instead of changing the name of cancel culture, we should set the record straight about what it really is. Calling cancel culture something more specific like consequence culture or even accountability culture just concedes to the most powerful trying to police the ways in which everyday people engage with them. Holding the most powerful people accountable is never going to be desirable or appealing to them. It’s like paying taxes—whether you call it an annual payment or compulsory financial charge, it’s still a sum of money being pulled out of your account by the IRS. Semantics often breeds sensitivity, and when we consider who’s the most alarmed by the language surrounding cancel culture—it’s always those who are experiencing the brunt of it. To hell with their feelings—cancel culture is here to stay.
History has shown us that there’s never going to be a proper way to demand change from those who are invested in dictating our lives. Respectability politics will always make society, especially marginalized people, believe that they can be spared from harm if they only appeal to their oppressors in a particular way. It’s simply not true. Whether one describes same-sex marriage as marriage equality or love is love, bigots will be mad. The current conversation on how to rename or reframe cancel culture is a distraction from its very intention. The fact that people—both powerful and less so—have been put on notice that whatever move they make can now be checked, not only by the courts, law enforcement, or government but by the people, means cancel culture has essentially won the cultural wars. Although still rich and influential, the most powerful have now been humbled by the digital accessibility of everyday people whom they once could simply dismiss or silence. And increased civic engagement is even more available to the people. For our society and democracy to evolve, we’ve needed new ways to further free speech, civic participation, and collective action.
Cancel culture has given a voice to the voiceless at a time when other aspects of our democracy have become threatened. Today, the voting rights we once thought were protected are under attack. Republican leaders, bitter over the presidential cancellation of Donald Trump, now want to make it harder for marginalized communities to vote. Such bold acts of intimidation harken back to the Jim Crow era, when powerful white men threatened the freedoms of Black people. Now, these acts are called out more publicly on social media, influencing everyday people to call on companies and other leaders to take a stand more boldly. In April 2021, hundreds of Fortune 500 companies, such as Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, signed on to a statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would negatively impact people’s ability to vote. “Regardless of our political affiliations,” reads the statement, which ran as a two-page ad in The New York Times and the Washington Post, “we believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice.” Such a surprisingly bold move from powerful companies would have never happened had it not been for the collective calls from accountability of many of their customers—everyday citizens who signed digital petitions, protested outside of state buildings, and used their social media platforms to shame a lack of response from those they held in high regard.
The potential for cancel culture is democracy uncensored and unchained. Despite how critics have tried to represent it, cancel culture is not cyberbullying or doxing. Cancel culture gives us the chance to engage in new and exciting ways—civically, culturally, and politically. What could we change in the world if we used cancel culture as the tool that it is? Answer: Choose a cause you care about and get involved. Like all forms of protest, cancel culture can be cumulative. The segregation laws around buses didn’t change the moment Rosa Parks sat down. It took 381 days of Black people refusing to take the Montgomery buses—and the Supreme Court to rule that their seating rules were discriminatory—for things to change. Rosa Parks made a single gesture and created a domino effect that resulted in change. The Stonewall riots inspired Pride parades around the world and in turn sends the message of celebration, rather than suppression, to LGBTQIA people everywhere. What you do can matter. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that. Although there are still many more hurdles to overcome and social barriers to cross, the demand for accountability, just like our ability to cancel, will never die.
From The Case for Cancel Culture, by Ernest Owens, publishing on Feb. 21. Copyright (c)2023 by the author, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.