Cancel Culture is now constantly in the news it seems, the latest phrase slung around in debates on everything from morning television to newspaper columns. Today, for example, actor Laurence Fox claims to have been cancelled by his former colleague and friend Rebecca Front, sharing a screen grab of a private message in which she explained that she found his All Lives Matter views offensive.
It is clear that this is not cancel culture. This is a woman who no longer wishes to be friends with a man whose views with which she disagrees.
So what does it really mean? And who has been cancelled recently?
What is cancel culture?
So what does cancel culture mean? Simply, it’s the idea of totally taking away someone’s (or support for someone’s) platform, fame, business, company, job, power, popularity – or any combination of the above – because of something that’s seen as unforgiveable behaviour.
If you wanted a proper cancel culture definition, dictionary.com says: ‘Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (cancelling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.’
Buuuut, it’s the internet, so nothing’s ever simple. And it can be hard to define cancel culture when lots of people think it means different things. For some it’s removing social media support, for some it’s simply not liking someone anymore, or them not being as popular as they used to be. But a full cancellation is more severe than that, with the idea being it would mean a deletion from the public sphere.
Why is cancel culture in the news?
Firstly, because social media loooooves to cancel people. Regularly. Or try to. As discussed though, it often doesn’t really mean to cancel someone, as much as give them a telling off, or signal that they don’t like them, or won’t buy their records/books/watch their films. Sometimes they just want an apology - and an apology can lead to 'uncancelling'. Often it’s co-opted to suggest what used to be thought of as boycotting.
The cancel culture open letter
In early July 2020, an open letter signed by the likes of Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood and 150 writers, academics and activists. It was published in Harper’s Magazine and says that the tendency towards cancel culture is causing a ‘restriction of debate’.
Part of the letter reads: ‘This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.’
Ironically, some then said that the people who signed that very letter should be cancelled.
Who have been ‘victims’ of cancel culture?
The net spreads very far and very wide, from the slightly tenuous and reactionary to the serious, racist and even criminal. That’s probably another problem with the idea of allowing people to try and place blanket, similarly-defined bans on people for perceived wrongs of very varying degrees. For instance...
Jodie Comer was in the news in early July, with some calling for her to be cancelled. After a series of internet rumours, many believed Jodie Comer’s boyfriend is James Burke and that it was a James Burke who was a Donald Trump Supporter.
Some have called for JK Rowling to be cancelled for her comments on transgender people and transitioning recently.
Many called for David Starkey to be cancelled for his comments on slavery in an interview – he has since apologised ‘unreservedly’ for his ‘deplorably inflammatory’ words. In an online interview, he said slavery was no genocide as ‘so many damn blacks’ had survived.
What's kid cartoon Paw Patrol got to do with cancel culture?
In a bizarre but lighter moment in the cancel culture debate, popular kids cartoon Paw Patrol was forced to Tweet at the end of July 2020 that it had not been cancelled when a White House spokesperson wrongly said it had.
In a press briefing, Kayleigh McEnany said President Donald Trump was opposed to cancel culture 'specifically as it pertains to cops' following the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd.
She said: 'We saw a few weeks ago that Paw Patrol, a cartoon show about cops, was cancelled. The show Cops was cancelled, Live PD was cancelled.' She also wrongly claimed that Lego had withdrawn police-themed toys.
As parents across the world panicked, Paw Patrol's social media accounts were quick to correct Ms McEnany, saying there was 'no need to worry'.
Can you really cancel someone?
As mentioned above, there are examples of people being ‘cancelled’ temporarily, or to slap them on the wrists socially. There are some where the cancellation will cause extreme harm to their career going forward. For something seemingly so absolute, it's a sliding scale.
But even in the most severe cases, many have pointed out, in practice it's hard to fully cancel someone. Even the most despicable of characters have supporters, and often continue to have a social media presences. Ironically, they can continue to have a large social media presence, because everyone wants to check in and be angry about what they’ve said. And can you really cancel someone if they’re powerful and rich and get to continue living a ‘good’ life?
So, while some may say Harvey Weinstein was ‘cancelled’ after being found guilty of criminal sexual assault and rape in the third degree, has he really? Yes he's a total persona non grata. But he’s been pictured in New York, surrounded by friends and has his supporters. And, of course, lots of people are still talking about him… Even if it’s as a swear word tbh.
And yes, some can have that social media presence taken away – Twitter did just that to Katie Hopkins recently. Maybe that's full cancellation. But again, there are still spheres where she is listened to, even if she’s been deplatformed, or non-platformed in many places and on that specific social media.
Jameela Jamil, who has spoken about cancel culture to Grazia, posted this helpful reminder of the differences between call out culture and cancel culture – and why the latter is difficult to do, or often too severe.
Supporters say that there are elements to both call-out and cancel culture that are helpful and important. It can be a useful way for people to make their voices heard about what they do and don't want from people and brands. And if people and brands are scared of cancel culture, while that has its problems, it can also mean that everyone spends more time trying to do the 'right thing'. It's especially helpful for groups who feel marginalised and can gather support and have their voices heard sometimes.
For example, without call out or cancel culture, would Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad have been taken down so swiftly?
When did cancel culture start?
One of the first and best discussions of cancel culture is this Vox piece, which traces the history of the phrase.
As it says, it’s ironic that it was probably first referenced misogynistically in the 1991 film, New Jack City. Wesley Snipes character Nino Brown, after his girlfriend breaks down because of all the violence he’s causing, dumps her by saying, ‘Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.’
In 2010, Lil Wayne used a reference to the film in his song I’m Single, saying he had to ‘cancel that bitch like Nino’.
But social media seems to have picked up on it after it appeared in VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: New York in December 2014. Cast member Cisco Rosado tells his love interest Diamond Strawberry during a fight, ‘you’re canceled.’