What is cancel culture? The history and controversy surrounding it

One of the biggest controversies of the past few years has been the rise of 'cancel culture' and the effects it has had on society.

What is cancel culture? The history and controversy surrounding it
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What is cancel culture? The history and controversy surrounding it

In 2020, Harper’s Magazine published 'A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,' which was signed by 153 public figures. The letter’s contents criticize 'cancel culture' and describe it as the enemy of free speech. One of the most vocal figures regarding this letter was J.K. Rowling, a transphobic writer who has received backlash for perpetuating harmful stereotypes and beliefs about trans people for far too long. Others that backed the letter’s content include Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem.

The reaction was mixed, to say the least. A response letter, 'A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,' was published and signed by over 160 people in academia and media. In it, they critiqued Harper’s letter for being a plea to end cancel culture from already-successful professionals with huge platforms, without even acknowledging people that have been 'canceled' for years due to their race or gender identity. Many people remained anonymous in the counter-letter due to fear of retaliation.

So, what is call-out culture? Why is it so controversial?

Call-out culture, often referred to as 'cancel culture,' is a form of ostracism where people are excluded from their social or professional circles. Typically, if someone says something questionable, offensive, or controversial, they will be 'canceled,' and fans will withdraw their support from them and projects they’re associated with. For some people, this can result in a hit to their reputation or income, while others remain completely unscathed despite the number of allegations against them. Although most 'cancel culture' discourse won’t acknowledge this, the result of 'canceling' often differs between people based on the level of privilege they hold.

It sounds simple at its core, but call-out culture is not without its controversy. Most people that have been ‘canceled’ are high-status individuals, celebrities with their own dedicated fanbase, and, in many cases, it has had little to no effect on them, their views, and how they choose to go about the world. In other cases, interpersonal confrontations between the cancelers and diehard fans can become very polarizing and detract from the original issue. People also fail to take into account that some individuals can grow and learn from their mistakes or previous beliefs.

History of call-out culture

The history of call-out culture is relatively new, as it came with the rise of social media. The term started being used around 2017, but the roots of it can be found in early 2010’s Internet culture, particularly on Tumblr, where pages like 'Your Fave is Problematic' were popular. These blogs featured extensive lists of public figures, as well as the many different problematic things they’ve said or done throughout their career. According to Google Trends data, the term didn’t become ubiquitous until late 2018 and early 2019, when nearly everyone was searching the Internet to learn more.

Where are we now?

People are still very divided on the effectiveness of cancel culture, including those in academics. Since its notoriety, several analyses have been conducted on it. Ideally, one might think, this would clear things up substantially. However, even academics cannot agree on this cultural phenomenon, with some describing it as empowering and others describing it as ineffective.

Many journalists have also come forward to question the validity of it as an actual phenomenon, stating that it 'rarely has any tangible or meaningful effect on the lives and comfortability of the canceled.'

Former US President Obama and Trump both publicly condemned 'cancel culture,' which successfully politicized the concept. Cancel culture is often viewed as a 'liberal' vs. 'right-wing' issue, which perpetuates reductive political stereotypes.

Who are some examples of 'canceled' people?

The word 'canceled' might bring to mind some specific people, particularly in the past couple of years. Some major figures that have made headlines for being 'canceled' are Ellen Degeneres and Lea Michele.

Ellen DeGeneres suffered a massive blow once horror stories started to come out about her television set. Many guests, bodyguards, and crew members described the host as cold and demanding, and the work environment as toxic. In 2020, actress Samantha Ware revealed that Lea Michele made her life hell while they starred in Glee together. Michele made comments about wanting to get Ware fired, 'amongst other traumatic microaggressions that made [her] question a career in Hollywood.'

So, what can I do?

  1. Do your research. It’s easy to take any headline or tweet at face value, but this can be harmful. Come to your own conclusions based on unbiased research and go from there!
  2. Support (or don’t support) how you see fit. Despite everything you hear, there is no 'proper' or 'improper' way of supporting (or withholding support) from an individual or company. Some people might choose to listen to their 'canceled' fave’s music, but on a platform that doesn’t directly support them. Some people might withdraw support completely. To show support, someone may verbally uplift an individual or provide them with financial aid.
  3. Hold people accountable when they need to be held accountable. Cancel culture brings out everyone’s black and white thinking, but the truth is, it’s far more nuanced than that! Don’t be blind to people’s wrongdoings because 'cancel culture' is viewed so negatively—holding people accountable shouldn’t be as stigmatized as it is.
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