Date: September 17, 2019
“What is cancel culture, and is it improving society or making it worse?
The answer to those questions largely depends on who you ask. Some people, particularly those who consider themselves targets or victims of cancelation campaigns, argue that it is a dangerous trend in American culture, one that is actively stifling art, media, science, education, and free thought. Others argue that cancel culture is just another term for accountability, and that invoking the spectre of cancel culture is just a way of dodging responsibility for one’s actions.
But what is cancelation, exactly? There’s no one answer to this—the definition, it turns out, is largely in the eye of the beholder—but I think of it as a form of social and cultural boycott. The goal isn’t restoration or even analysis; it’s excommunication.
Call-outs began as a utopian ideal, a way of extracting justice and change without cops or courts. But then came the internet. Activist Loretta Ross wrote about this recently in the New York Times: “My experiences with call-outs began in the 1970s as a young black feminist activist,” she wrote. “I sharply criticized white women for not understanding women of color. I called them out while trying to explain intersectionality and white supremacy.” Forty years later, after watching call-outs migrate from in-person to online, Ross has come to the conclusion that this trend isn’t just counterproductive but actually toxic.
“Call-outs are justified to challenge provocateurs who deliberately hurt others, or for powerful people beyond our reach,” Ross writes. “Effectively criticizing such people is an important tactic for achieving justice. But most public shaming is horizontal and done by those who believe they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses. They become the self-appointed guardians of political purity.
…the difference between cancelation and critique. “Critique involves listening and understanding, and then perhaps trying to change the minds of those who disagree. Instead of trying to change people’s minds, the mob removes them from view.”