“Cancel culture” is an alleged pattern in progressive spaces, wherein people boycott the work of someone who is said to have done something problematic. For a mainstream perspective on cancel culture, I suggest The New York Times, and for a perspective more critical of the concept, I suggest The New Republic.
I won’t review all the arguments surrounding “cancel culture”, but will draw a comparison to the adjacent concept of “callout culture”. Callout culture is also an alleged pattern in progressive spaces, but instead of boycotting problematic people, it was about the harassment of problematic people. Callout culture was extensively discussed circa 2015, when I made a linkspam about it. My feelings about it were mixed at best.
Whatever my feelings about “callout culture”, I feel that “cancel culture” is simply an inferior concept. Compared to harassment, boycotts are less obviously bad, and obviously less bad.
Furthermore, where the target of harassment could be anyone, the target of “cancellation” is almost always cultural creators who are very popular and successful. Their supposed punishment, is that they become less popular and successful–and yet they are still more popular and successful than either I or most of my readers. “Cancel culture” completely centers the top 1% of cultural creators. It is, essentially, a complaint that the gods among us are sometimes granted slightly shorter pedestals.
Cynically put, cultural production is a pyramid scheme. Many people get into the business hoping to rise to the top, or at least close enough to the top to make money. Most people can’t possibly make it, there just isn’t the space. There’s a line about how most Americans vote in the interests of rich people because they think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Complaints about “cancel culture” suggest that many people think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed celebrities.
Here’s another angle: the interests of celebrities get over-amplified because we’re paying disproportionate attention to them. I don’t mean to criticize people for liking celebrities. The degree of attention given to celebrities is a fact of life, and has obvious justification. People pay attention to Kanye West (even now despite him being “cancelled”) because he makes better music than I ever could. What I produce—analytical writing—is not so popular and easier to find.
But given the fact that we all like celebrities, perhaps it would be wise to compensate for the bias this generates. If a celebrity talks about being harassed, well harassment is an important issue that all sorts of people end up dealing with. But being “canceled”? Most of us cannot be victims of cancellation, because we were never popular to begin with. Put another way, we were “cancelled” before we even begun, because we have less resources, or we make something that just has less popular appeal.
I had mixed feelings about callout culture. We need to reduce harassment, but it is all too easy for people to silence healthy internal criticism by labelling it as a “callout”. “Cancel culture”, on the other hand, has all of the bad, and none of the good. Cancel culture is just a way of misdirecting our attention towards the plight of celebrities.
Andreas Avester says
“We all like celebrities” isn’t a fact, it is an incorrect statement. At best you could say “majority of people like celebrities.”
(I cannot name a single celebrity I like. Sure, I can say that I like the artworks made by some celebrities, but I really couldn’t care less about the people who made those artworks that I like. Unless I’m personally familiar with some person and consider them a friend, then I cannot like them. Thus I just couldn’t care less about any of those celebrities I may have heard about.)
It’s bullshit anyway. “Cancel culture” is the right-wing word for holding people with power and reach accountable for doing “problematic” – i.e. hurtful – things. It is, as usual, people with a platform (and the ones who assume they’ll have one any day now) objecting to criticism.
“Cancel culture” is a boycott of people instead of corporations and countries, nothing more.
The difference is how people object to such boycotts (e.g. David Bowie fans compartmentalizing his statutory rape of girls). Fans intentionally try to overlook and minimize the behaviour of people whose works they enjoy. They rationalize behaviour they would never tolerate from someone who wasn’t famous.
If someone has feet of clay, let them sink into the mud instead of propping them up.
@Andreas Avester #1,
I had a paragraph where I qualified that statement, but I edited it out.
I’m a celebrity! Not a very big one. You might say that celebrity-ness is fractally structured.
I thought I understood where you were going with this until the last paragraph, which seemed to run counter to all you’d said before, rather than summing it up.
You say cancel culture is “obviously less bad.” Then you say it has “has all of the bad, and none of the good” of callouts.
I don’t know what you’re saying about callouts in the last paragraph. “We need to reduce harassment [i.e., callouts?], but it is all too easy for people to silence healthy internal criticism by labelling it as a ‘callout’.” Does that mean people deliberately or inadvertently silence criticism by calling it out (if callouts are necessary), or that people silence criticism by labeling the criticism as a callout (since we need to reduce callouts)? It depends on whether you see calling out as a good or bad thing, and I’m still not sure which view you hold, so I can’t tell what you meant.
You seem to both support the idea of a boycott as being less harmful, but also reject it for being less harmful (i.e., effective?). Are you saying harm is ok when applied to celebrities but not others? Maybe harm is relative, depending on one’s resources to shield oneself, but if that’s your view, it’s unclear. You also seem to not like it for bringing more undeserved attention to celebrities, while admitting it may cause them to get at least a little less attention. And while it’s true that celebrities already get undeserved attention, that means their views have undeserved influence, so I’m not sure why reducing that, or calling attention to that influence is a bad thing, or why that is worse than business as usual.
“Cancel culture is just a way of misdirecting our attention towards the plight of celebrities.” I think that the right’s complaining about “cancel culture” does that, but the tactic itself of boycotting does not. Since they’ll weaponize any response to their views other than no response, there’s no point in letting that dictate our response.
I’m not sure where I stand on this issue myself, but since it’s not at all clear to me whether you’re pro or con and why, it’s hard to incorporate it into the development of my views. 🙂
It sounds like the central confusion comes from the fact that if someone supports the idea of “cancel culture”, it’s likely because they oppose the thing that “cancel culture” describes. What I argue in the OP is that the thing that “cancel culture” describes is not obviously bad, and therefore the idea of “cancel culture” is obviously bad.
“Here’s another angle: the interests of celebrities get over-amplified because we’re paying disproportionate attention to them. I don’t mean to criticize people for liking celebrities. The degree of attention given to celebrities is a fact of life, and has obvious justification. People pay attention to Kanye West (even now despite him being “cancelled”) because he makes better music than I ever could.”
Oh gosh yes. One of my special interests is the band Fall Out Boy, and I have a very distinct memory of people in the Tumblr fandom getting angry at me for daring to criticize one of its members. They started off calling me a hater and when I pointed out that my entire blog was devoted to the band, they called me a fake fan.
The irony of this whole thing is that the entire conversation had started out because I had gotten an anon asking me if I didn’t like another band (21 Pilots) for being “problematic” and I told them that I just didn’t like their music more than anything else and didn’t feel like I could say that they were anymore “problematic” than the bands I listened too.
Oh, and as an addition to my last comment…
I do get a weird feeling from a lot of the complaints about “cancel culture” where it feels like people are mad that I’m not giving my attention to [insert celeb here] which is just so odd. Like, if someone was just like “I find Paul Rudd annoying so I turn off the TV anytime I see him on it,” I don’t think you’d get the same reaction, even though ultimately that’s what the result of most “cancellation” is. Its especially weird when 90% of the time its some celebrity I almost never think about- then there are the cases where I straight up had not heard about a celebrity before they did the thing that got them “cancelled”. Like a few months ago, I think the actress from the new Mulan said along the lines of “I support the Hong Kong police. Go on, “cancel” me, I don’t care.” I had never even heard of her before this incident! But controversy creates press creates money, so honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if I see more celebrities doing this kind of thing going forward.
Andreas Avester says
I liked a few articles you have written. But since you are a stranger to me and I know almost nothing about you as a person, I have no reason to like you. Merely liking an article you have written doesn’t invoke in me any particular interest about you as a person. For me you are just another random stranger. And I just don’t care about those strangers who have created the media I consume.
I have never liked some person unless I know them personally and well enough to be a close friend. Theoretically, it would is possible for me to like some celebrity who is my friend, but I would like them because they are my friend and I know them personally, and not because they are a celebrity.
My point was about how I can like only people that I’m personally familiar with, otherwise they are merely strangers I don’t care about. Celebrity-ness being fractally structured doesn’t influence this. Sure, at some point in my life I might make some friend who’s a minor celebrity, but this doesn’t change my statement that I don’t like celebrities.
@Andreas Avester #9,
That’s very fair, and a fine way of looking at things. My comment about everyone liking celebrities is commentary on society, and if you tell me that you see things differently, I would not dare contradict you.
Yeah… in that example the reference to “cancellation” is basically pre-empting of criticism. It’s like when people say “people will hate me for this”. Well the mere fact that you predicted the hate has no bearing on whether the hate is justified, so it’s just kind of obnoxious thing to say.
Athenae Galea says
I think there are a couple of points worth bringing up. (Not saying I disagree with you, just saying some arguments against. I’d probably have added some arguments for but I’m naturally contrary with things like this so I automatically think up arguments against the last person to speak. It doesn’t necessarily mean I disagree with them.)
First of all, there’s a stronger reaction than not paying attention to someone, which is that if anyone else uses them as an authority on anything or refers to them in a positive way, they agree with whatever the reason for the “cancellation” was, whether or not the two matters have anything to do with one another. This removes potentially valuable resources from the discourse.
Second, and potentially much more damaging, is the incentive to play safe. I’m focusing purely on those whose focus is whatever they are at risk of being “cancelled” for, because I don’t think that, for example, political discourse would be much harmed by Kanye West not stating his opinions. But if someone writes about politics a lot, then a sense of the existence of cancel culture might discourage them from saying anything potentially risky.
I’d argue that this is a bad thing, though of course the response might be that if it’s risky that’s probably because it shouldn’t really be said anyway.
But anyway, I lack the experience with the relevant corners of the internet required to have a meaningful opinion on this issue.
Good. I appreciate comments that introduce new complicating factors.
The way I think of this, moral wrong has a certain level of “contagiousness”. For example, if someone likes Trump, I would hold them accountable for that even if they are not personally involved in most of the stuff Trump does. But if someone says something vaguely problematic on twitter, is that really contagious enough that we need to hold accountable anyone who ever speaks favorably of that person?
It does seem like people overestimate the appropriate level of contagiousness, I agree that’s a problem. But the point is, even if there are real problems with how we treat celebrities (like harassment!), “cancel culture” is a particularly poor way to frame those problems. “Cancel culture” doesn’t make me think about the contagiousness of moral wrong. “Cancel culture” makes me think about the downward mobility of celebrities. And well you can’t have upward mobility without downward mobility so it seems like a non-issue.
Yeah, I’m sure it does! But this is missing the larger picture. Any content that is trying to be popular, is inherently less risky. You want more risky content, don’t pay attention to the most popular creators, pay attention to creators with little to lose. Most of the blogs hereabouts are in that category. If people were to stop paying attention to the big celebrities, yes maybe those celebrities would become more risk-averse, but also maybe we’d be paying more attention to other creators who are less risk-averse.