“Cancel culture,” according to BBC News, is a public “dethroning” or protesting of leaders who have committed injustices and can no longer be trusted with the power they hold. This can look like a social media hashtag asking the public to boycott a damaging film or like a call to take down statues of Christopher Columbus, known for obscene crimes against humanity.
The possibility of a topic on which both President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama agree seems unlikely, but we just might have found it. Both have expressed their concerns on “cancel culture.” Obama explains that “the world is messy” and space for discourse is key if we want to find a solution. However, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect here, because those who engage in “cancel culture” understand the nuances of opinion. Yet, according to Ernest Owens of the New York Times, “cancel culture” has nothing to do with opinion. There are certain assertions, says Owens, that are both so demonstrably false and damaging to marginalized populations, that their amplification is unnecessary and actually damaging to the sanctity of public discourse Obama speaks of. For instance, a society that removes a statue of Columbus is one that is adaptable and prioritizes the voice of its people, whose values no longer align with the nation’s violent history.
While Trump has compared “cancel culture” to “totalitarianism,” he too has (perhaps unknowingly) engaged in some of the most biting social media call-outs. Famously active on Twitter, Trump frequently uses social media to dismiss those who question his authority, says NPR’s senior political correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Yet, President Trump also seems to misunderstand the core of “cancel culture,” as do other social and political leaders.
On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published a letter written by 151 “journalists, academics, and authors” decrying the risk “cancel culture” poses to free speech. Yet, Erin B. Logan of the Los Angeles Times, considering the outcry of this open letter, writes of just how oppressive and silencing society has been to marginalized voices for more than a hundred years. To her, the letter seems out of touch although well-meaning, and as if these writers are willing to risk the continued subjugation of certain populations just so that they may write without fear of offending.
According to Sarah Hagi of Time Magazine, “cancel culture” is actually protest, a staple of American culture, but (unfortunately) does not hold as much sway as those in power think. She cites #MeToo of 2017 as one of the movements that set “cancel culture” off at full speed. Hagi explains that the most prominent benefit that has come from this is the empowerment of marginalized voices to finally join the conversation and call out that which has oppressed them, from protest against sexual assault to police brutality. However, social cancellation has not been translating into tangible change at the speed at which many assume it is. For example, while Shane Gillis was eventually removed from Saturday Night Live for to his racist comments, he is still on tour. His career is intact, which means that society is willing to make plentiful exceptions for those in power, and Gillis is one of many.
“Cancel culture” is an act of protest against injustices which seeks to bolster the safety of marginalized populations and denounce violence, subtle or blatant.