Understanding Cancel Culture
an article by Chris Fong Chew
Dear Asian Youth,
This phrase has been thrown across comment sections, articles, and chats throughout the internet; so much so, that it has developed into its own culture around it. The term “Cancel Culture” has become an infamous multi-definition word ranging from a sarcastic response to a distasteful joke, to holding companies, organizations, and celebrities accountable for harmful actions.
Cancel Culture came from a somewhat ironic and humorous origin which has since been redefined by activists into what it means today. According to the Vox article, “What is cancel culture and why do we keep fighting about cancel culture?,” cancel culture started as a “misogynistic joke” in response to the song, “I’m Single” by Lil Wayne. In the song, he quotes the line, “Yeah, I’m single / n***a had to cancel that b*tch like Nino,” an apparent reference to a sexist joke from a 1991 movie New Jack City when an abusive character Nino Brown says, “Cancel that B*tch. I’ll buy another one” when referring to his girlfriend who breaks down over his violent actions and he subsequently dumps her.
The term, “cancel culture” started to appear across various social media platforms for celebrities or organizations' harmful and problematic actions, and was initially used as a “joke” to express discomfort for odd or abnormal behavior. However, it has most notably been used when a celebrity said or did something that was socially insensitive or hurtful.
Cancel culture often goes hand in hand with “call-out culture” which has a similar name, but different origin. Call-out culture originated back in the 1960s and ‘70s when activists would call out another person's insensitive platform or misuse of a word or phrase either in private gossip or public statements.
The two have become largely intertwined in modern-day as each have become a tool of accountability. These cultures have been amplified by social media where any singular person has the ability to reach thousands of people from a single tweet or post. This has made both cancel and call-out culture incredibly controversial as many people question the actual effectiveness of “calling out” and “canceling” celebrities and organizations alike. Call-out Culture has sat in the center of controversy with a long history in many social justice movements. Often when activists would call-out a political leader over their dangerous or often discriminatory policies to bring about greater awareness. However, it has also been weaponized to tear apart movements from within.
In an article by the New York Times published in 2019 titled I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic by Loretta Ross, Ross discusses her issues with call-out culture and the history behind it. She states, “I sharply criticized white women for not understanding women of color...I rarely questioned whether the way I addressed their white privilege was actually counterproductive... We believed we could change the world and that the most powerful people were afraid of us. Efforts like the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO projects created a lot of discord. Often... discrediting them (activist) through a call-out attack.”
Call-out culture was not only a medium of education, but also a weapon used to discredit those that pushed for change. The use of call-out and cancel culture is an incredible power with dangerous consequences.
Another article by The Guardian discussing call-out culture quoted former President Obama on the topic stating, “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong word or verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, ‘Man, you see how woke I was. I called you out.’ That’s not activism,”
Unchecked “Call-Out Culture” has become an incredibly toxic and discouraging space, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t also a powerful tool for activism. Understanding the great complexities of Cancel Culture and Call-out Culture can help push towards greater change in society, but in the wrong hands, can be a divisive weapon that destroys movements.
This brings me back to the origin of cancel culture and how it was used to call out celebrities’ often problematic and harmful behavior. Less than a decade ago, online activism was in its infancy and often written off by older activists by the derogatory term “Clicktivism.” The seemingly random calling out of anything that a person found offensive coupled with the broad reach of social media created an often toxic and problematic culture. The issue with ‘Clicktivism” ran so rampant that even former President Obama spoke out against it. Yet, in the following years, and especially with the rise of #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter Movement, social media has become a formidable way for activists to organize, educate and yes, cancel.
Calling out and canceling when done right is a powerful tool for change. Canceling is using social media to call out, boycott, protest, and also publicly shame a person or organization for harmful actions they have committed. This is often followed by withdrawing support either financially or socially. Deplatforming a person or organization to draw attention to the harm they have caused forces the person or organization in question to address the issue, learn why it's wrong, and enact meaningful change.
In a recent article, I wrote on the topic of Transformative Justice. I find that many aspects of “canceling” and “calling-out” are intertwined. Transformative justice is the idea of a community and survivor-based justice system. A big part of this is understanding the root cause of harm, how a person's actions or a community’s attitude play a role in perpetuating harm, while also rehabilitating and re-educating perpetrators of harm.
The first step to this is allowing the survivor to have a space to share their story. Much like the concept of calling a person out. They address their community on the harm a person has caused, and make the community aware of what occurred. What often happens next is what would be considered “canceling” that person. Making that person aware of their actions and bring about reparations that force that person to address and understand the harm they caused.
Now I understand there is a fine line between bringing justice and mending harm through calling out and canceling which must be taken into account. The often problematic and toxic aspect of calling out and canceling a person or organization through public shaming or boycotting is that it can often worsen the issue. It leaves the perpetrator feeling ostracized and alienated from their community without understanding why. Canceling takes away a person's platform to prevent them from continuing to perpetrate harm. However, if this “canceling” is not followed up with a way to educate them on the harm they caused as well as a plan in which that person can make amends, then there was no use in canceling.
Cancel and call-out culture walk a very fine line in today's world, especially in activism. When utilized properly they can be powerful tools to transform our justice system, hold people to a higher standard of accountability, educate, and inform. However, when in the wrong hands, it can be a destructive tool for petty drama and hate. Our society and future are shaped by our actions and we have a great responsibility to use these tools wisely.
- Chris Fong Chew