The Cancel Culture | The Mean Girls are loose!September 15, 2020 • By Debra Tash
By Mel Mann
It is interesting how words change with time. Growing up I collected stamps because I wanted to do something my father also did. I learned that the postal mark on a stamp meant it had been used and was considered “cancelled.” Of course, for the less nerdy: “canceled” was what happened to television shows you wanted to see, but were not popular enough to come back. A lot of shows I liked got cancelled which might imply my taste were not entirely network mainstream. Nowadays, cancelling is something we do to businesses and to people.
A quick note on the spelling here. The original form is cancel, past tense is cancelled or canceled. Apparently only Americans use the one “L” spelling. For everyone, cancellation is with two L’s. Only the English language could be so inconsistent.
The contemporary practice of canceling a business or person is now referred to as the “Cancel Culture.” Apparently, when a public figure or enterprise does or says something that a group considers objectionable or offensive it is publicly shamed, most often in social media. This is clearly a new phenomenon, or I am really old. I always thought that if a business offended you, you simply didn’t buy their products. If a public figure said something you viewed as offensive, you then chose to ignore them. Apparently, my notions are not aggressive enough.
The old notion of canceling a person was restricted to choosing to ignore them or take away their public platform. In extreme cases, there has always been a public need to shame them into prosecution and punishment. Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer would be excellent examples. The loss of their careers and in some cases ultimately being locked up is warranted. Unfortunately, the modern cancel culture, hiding being the anonymity of Twitter and other social media platforms looks a lot more like cyber bullying. There seems a zeal to ruin lives over mistakes made many years ago, without any opportunity to offer a second chance or redemption. People are judged by increasingly higher standards of political correctness that may not have existed at the time of the perceived transgression. For those participating in the cancel dialog, they seem to view themselves as righting some great social wrong. Former President Barack Obama notably criticized the cancel culture (though not using those words), arguing that “easy social media judgement don’t amount to true social activism.”
Interestingly, despite the sexual assault and child abuse claims, Michael Jackson’s music is played on all the pop radio stations. I guess if it has a good beat and you can dance to it, you’re immune to cancellation regardless of how many times you grab your crotch in a video.
Getting “canceled” can mean being removed in many ways. In recent weeks, episodes of “Live PD” and “Cops” were pulled from television broadcast after George Floyd’s death sparked questions surrounding misleading police story lines. Last year, comedian Shane Gillis was fired from “Saturday Night Live” after people unearthed old comments that by current standards are considered offensive. Others have faced a similar fate.
Canceling has now moved into the realm of tearing down monuments and amending school curriculum. I never really understood why there were so many monuments to Confederate generals in the south, I thought they lost. There is a statue in Washington D.C. at the Lincoln Park called the Emancipation Statue. At first glance is appears to show a slave kneeling at President Lincoln’s feet and this would imply being subservient. A closer look shows that as Lincoln is holding the Emancipation Proclamation, the slave’s chains and shackles are breaking and he is beginning to stand. Maybe the failure is that the monument requires thought as it projects a complex image rather than simply being instantly understood like and 15 second video clip. The monument currently has an added concrete barrier to prevent vandalism. Worth noting is that the statue was commissioned by black civic leaders.
Canceling monuments is really about canceling or forgetting history. I had thought since the 4th grade that history was a series of factual events that have occurred over time. With additional years I have learned this is some room to interpret these events. Toppling statues of Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson and others is really more about rewriting or eliminating history you don’t agree with.
Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, as our 3rd President he stabilized our economy and oversaw the Louisiana Purchase. In the context of his era, that was not considered overtly wrong.
Christopher Columbus’s voyages opened up the Americas to explorers and settlers. Along the way whole populations were displaced or killed. If we need to undo that, how far back in history should we go? A Pre-Columbus world map is not a distribution most of us would want to return to.
Statues of Ulysses Grant have been torn down. Yes, it is true that he owned one slave for about a year. William was inherited from his wife’s family. It is well documented that Grant worked side by side with William in the field. Grant was a poor farmer on his best day, despite needing help to make the farm work in March of 1859 he filed the papers personally emancipating William.
The Emancipation statue with Abraham Lincoln was also a target of cancellation, luckily smarter heads prevailed.
I don’t in any way which to rationalize slavery, but rewriting history is in truth only a means to forget and then repeat critical mistakes in society and culture.
The cancel culture has not only attached public figures, monuments and entertainment, everyday individuals have found themselves victims as well.
In 2012 Dan Cathy, then president of Chick-fil-A spoke out against gay marriage. Supporters of Cathy’s statement lined up to order Chick-fil-A showing solidarity. Those on the opposite side decided to line up the local Chick-fil-A to order nothing but a free cup of water while often voicing their disagreement with employees. Having witnessed the struggle his brother-in-law experienced coming out, a young Tucson executive named Adam Smith joined the protest ordering a cup of water. Felling righteous, he decided to film the exchange and post it to YouTube. In the video he is seen telling the drive-thru attendant, “I don’t know how you live with yourself and work here. I don’t understand it. This is a horrible corporation with horrible values.”
Adam said “It was my first protest, I thought it was benign…Certainly, I didn’t think about any consequences that it might have.”
His video went viral overnight. His employer received bomb and death threats and fired Smith for posting it. Before the terminology existed, he was “cancelled.” Unable to find work, within 2 years his family was on food stamps. Years have passed and he has rebuilt his life, looking back he made the comment: “I became much more sensitive towards being kind to others and realizing the impact that it could have on the person receiving it, but also on the person who’s giving it. I don’t subscribe and support the shaming or the canceling of people at all. I think there are much, much more effective human ways to create change.”
In 2019 Maria Tusken, who has a yarn-making business, was drawn into a scandal that involved the Instagram knitting community. When a fellow knitting influencer, Karen Templer, wrote a controversial blog post. Templer, who is white, wrote in about her excitement for an upcoming trip to India, saying that it was “like being offered a seat on a flight to Mars.” Templer’s post continued, “If I can go to India, I can do anything — I’m pretty sure.”
The response was brutal. Commentators called out Templer for using “othering” language (statements that marginalize or persist inequalities across social groups) that fed into an imperialist mindset. The backlash unleashed against the post led members of the knitting community to open up about various experiences of racism. Templer apologized for her language, but Maria Tusken saw the criticism as unfair.
Tusken explains. “Everyone was falling over themselves to apologize for being white….and I felt really bad for Karen Templer.” She said the community was being “hostile in the name of social justice.”
“No one was defending her, no one was saying that this was wrong, that this wasn’t her intent. And I felt like I had to do something because no one else was,” Tusken said. But she underestimated the consequences. “I didn’t understand at the time how actually trying to defend Karen Templer would affect me and my business,” she said. “After a couple of days, these people online, the mob that went after Karen came after me.” Tusken began to receive messages denouncing her; she was called a Nazi and a white supremacist. “It’s the worst thing,” she said. “Thousands of people who just hate you. It’s hard to explain until you’ve been through it.”
I’ve watched current events, especially “cancel culture,” with interest and with an unsettling sense of familiarity to other things I have read about in history books. There is a clear parallel to the massive assaults on intellectual freedom and independent thought that has been the precursor to socialist regimes. Dissenters of some perceived non-standard views are denigrated, slandered, excluded, and fired for expressing opinions that just a few years ago were widely expressed and often still represent majority opinion. There is, obviously, a totalitarian flavor to all of this, and (remarkably) it is imposed on us by us. We’re doing this to ourselves. No Bolshevik faction has stormed Washington and occupied the White House and commandeered the army. We have chosen to expel/cancel ourselves.
Unfortunately, one of the worst purveyors of this behavior is President Trump. When someone says something contrary to his view or agenda he takes to shaming or denigrating them in social media. Beyond his political opponents, Trump has used his position to attempt to cancel the NFL, NBA, Goodyear Tire, CNN, NBC, the Washington Post and Macy’s to name a few. I was hoping he was too busy to worry that Macy’s had discontinued his line of suits. Maybe we need a Constitutional Amendment restricting the President from using Twitter. It is very difficult to tell others to move beyond the cancel culture when our President attempts to use it on a regular basis.
The hysteria of the cancel culture seem very similar to the reports of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Initially, 3 women were accused of witchcraft by children. Sensing an opportunity to save herself, one of the accused women, Tituba confessed and then began accusing others. With the primary testimony being dreams and visions nearly 150 men, women and children were accused and tried. Ultimately, 30 were found guilty and 19 executed by hanging. People who visited that area reported that a cloud of shame and fear hung over the community for more than 20 years.
Much like Salem over 300 years ago, there is a lot of accusation and ire, but not a lot of facts. Twitter and other forums are being used as a platform to be Judge and Jury ultimately creating the next big test of free speech. As a society we are faced with considering what is “too far” in cyber space. Clearly, tools like Facebook and Twitter can be used to bring people together bridging the gaps of distance and culture. As Anne Charity, Professor at University of California has said, “Something that can be used for good can also be weaponized. Everything can go too far; even free speech can go too far.”
On the flip side, professionals who specialize in social movement’s say the cancel culture was born out of people growing tired of those in power controlling the narrative of marginalized their communities or message. History is filled with example where sometimes you have to make a little noise to get noticed and create change. Clearly, social media is a new forum for pronouncing a message or trying to hold someone accountable for an overlooked transgression.
It’s easy for the cancel movement to get wound into a game of false equivalence, with some people calling for justice while others worry about expressing themselves. We have spent our history protecting freedom of speech and opinion, but the lines have always hovered near the transition to causing harm. While free speech is guaranteed in the Constitution, court cases over the years have shown that it does have limits and people must be responsible. Some of the current limits focus on fraud, slander and inciting lawless actions. Maybe we have reached the point where there should be additional accountability and another test case reigning in some of the unrestricted discontent and rants.
Fortunately, cancellation, in most cases has not proved to be permanent, Adam Smith and Maria Tusken have recovered and they are all but forgotten in cyber space in favor of the next candidate for cancellation. Some calls to boycott or call out people, companies and institutions have led to change that many view as positive.
Think back to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. When activist April Reign sparked the hashtag in 2015, the nominees for the prestigious acting awards visibly lacked diversity. The Academy responded to the outcry by setting inclusion goals, and in 2020 announced that it had more than doubled the number of minority members since 2016. The #MeToo movement was able to get Harvey Weinstein cancelled all the way to jail and Matt Lauer is off the air.
Unfortunately, while many will claim they are trying to create change, their attempts at cancelling are really no more than hate speech and cyberbullying. Social media has allowed people to hear about, organize and respond to a cause more quickly and comprehensively than any time in history. Being able to in many situations, speak out anonymously also means that more of those people who have been wronged will speak out.
As with anything pertaining to human behavior, there is always a need for accountability and responsibility. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but is not absolute. The notion of shaming anyone who does not believe the same as you is extremism and not free speech. Saying things that incite violence or slander cannot be tolerated. Righting a wrong is a noble thing, but standards and political correctness change with time. Just because something is offensive now does not mean you should be cancelled for doing it 30 years ago if it was not considered objectionable then.
We all deplore bullies, yet the cancel culture makes it easy for each of us to abuse, slander or hurt almost anyone. That sure sounds like a bully. Then again, maybe it is more like the “mean girl syndrome”, except very large. Just think about the worst version of “mean girls” you have ever seen, sure seems a lot like the cancel culture stuff. Not that school age boys can’t engage in shaming and bullying. They just do it less subtly and usually don’t even try to justify it.
Who knows, maybe after reading this a group of mean girls will start a movement to cancel me?
Mel Mann currently works as a software developer as well as dabbling in playing the blue grass banjo.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal