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Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Explained: What is ‘cancel culture’?

The most visible examples of cancel culture occur when a celebrity or public figure says or writes something or engages in an act that is deemed offensive and inappropriate by the public.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: August 23, 2020 10:15:27 am
One of the reasons why the term’s exact meaning is still being ascertained is perhaps because it is relatively new and its scope is still evolving with developing online behaviour.

The term ‘cancel’ is a relatively straightforward one; a purchase is ‘cancelled’ if it isn’t needed any more. Merriam Webster says an advertisement campaign is ‘cancelled’ if it is inappropriate or is an unsuccessful marketing strategy. A television show is ‘cancelled’ if it manages only abysmal ratings. For the longest time, the meaning of the term ‘cancel’ hasn’t been very complex, but sometime in the past decade, it has acquired a new definition, particularly in context of internet lingo.

Today, everything and everyone can be ‘cancelled’ if the internet collectively decides that it needs to be so. The term ‘collectively’ is important here because the cancelling of something is really a result of a mass movement, collective in form and force. J.K. Rowling is ‘cancelled’ because of her transphobic views. Cardi B and Nicki Minaj are ‘cancelled’ because they made homophobic comments. Trump is ‘cancelled’ because of his racist, inappropriate conduct and words towards women, people of colour and immigrants. Kanye West is ‘cancelled’ for saying slavery was a ‘choice’ and for supporting Trump.

But it isn’t only public figures who get ‘cancelled’ by forces-that-be in the realms of the online space. Very simply, cancelling means to stop giving support and credence to something or someone, including organisations and establishments, and so anyone in public consciousness can be subjected to this cancelling.

What is cancel culture?

Cancel culture is relatively new; it only surfaced in the last five to six years and has been largely a product of internet culture. One of the reasons why the term’s exact meaning is still being ascertained is perhaps because it is relatively new and its scope is still evolving with developing online behaviour. The most visible examples of cancel culture occur when a celebrity or public figure says or writes something or engages in an act that is deemed offensive and inappropriate by the public.

It works like this; when a large number of people on social media platforms collectively object to any action by a public figure, it leads to calls to ‘cancel’ the person. This cancelling occurs by pressuring the individual’s workplace to fire them, pressuring brands to drop their association with the offending individual, using threats of boycott or engaging in any other action that impacts the individual’s reputation or finances.

When did cancel culture arrive?

The specific date is debatable, but some observers believe that its arrival coincided with the #MeToo movement, that first started with women opening up about being subjected to violence and abuse using public platforms to share their experiences. According to some others, conservatives in the United States have historically engaged in a form of cancel culture that existed in days prior to the arrival of the internet, when things or people did not align with their conservative views.

Columnist Mehdi Hasan writes in The Washington Post: “The list of conservative “cancel culture” targets stretches back decades, long before the dawn of the Internet. In 1966, right-wing Christians tried to cancel John Lennon, after he claimed the Beatles were “more popular” than Jesus. The British band received death threats in the United States and a Birmingham, Ala., radio station announced a bonfire and invited teens to burn their Beatles records.”

One of the characteristics of cancel culture is also the tendency to ‘pile on’, where social media users engage in mass behaviour by specifically targeting the individual who is being publicly called out. Last month during a speech that he made at Mt. Rushmore, US President Donald Trump appeared to call out “cancel culture”, perhaps because he himself has been a target so often, particularly since he first announced his presidential campaign. It is “the very definition of totalitarianism,” and “completely alien to our culture and our values” with “absolutely no place in the United States of America”, Trump had said.


Following Trump’s speech, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany doubled down on Trump’s stance saying: “President Trump stands against … cancel culture, which seeks to erase our history.”

The usage of the term ‘cancel culture’ has become so ubiquitous that it is seemingly found everywhere, from everyday conversation to larger socio-cultural contexts: “cancel XYZ brand”, “today’s weather is cancelled”, “Actor XYZ is cancelled”, “Trump is cancelled”.

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Does cancel culture actually work?

The debates surrounding cancel culture have also led to discussions on whether ‘cancelling’ someone or something has any long-term impact. In a broader sense, cancel culture is a form of collective punishment meted out to public figures and these days, more increasingly private individuals, who have suddenly found themselves in the public gaze due to words and actions of their own.


Cancel culture is also about enforcing some degree of accountability on an individual, although there have been arguments whether it is justified or not, particularly from a legal perspective. An example of this would be discussions that followed when reports surfaced of public figures having engaged in inappropriate acts or acts of violence and abuse against women when the #MeToo movement gained traction in 2016.

One of the most visible examples of the application of cancel culture was when Affleck was sued by two women for sexual harassment on the set of the mockumentary ‘I’m Still Here’. The actor had settled both cases out of court, but these reports resurfaced during the 2017 Oscars when he was nominated and subsequently won the award for ‘Best Actor’ for ‘Manchester By the Sea’.  At that time, social media users had tried to ‘cancel’ Affleck, to hold him accountable for both incidents and public opinion was strongly against the actor being lauded and recognised by the Academy Awards.

Vox points to the example of American actor Kevin Hart who didn’t appear to face any real accountability for his homophobic tweets and the purported jokes the actor had made in the past. When these reports surfaced, Hart was forced to step down as host of the 2019 Academy Awards. Critics pointed to how Hart neither genuinely apologised for his conduct and nor was he impacted financially or career-wise for these tweets and jokes.

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During the 2016 elections, when reports surfaced of Trump speaking about women in an offensive and degrading manner, not only did it not significantly impact his business interests, but he went on to occupy the highest public office in the United States.

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First published on: 20-08-2020 at 07:39:36 pm
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