What is Cancel Culture?

To begin, as I write this article, I don’t have a strong grasp of what cancel culture is or thorough examples of cancel culture phenomena. I’ve seen friends post about it on social media like Facebook and Twitter, but the references are lost on me. For example, an actress was fired recently from the show, The Mandalorian, for tweets that compare modern conservative victimization to that of Jews during the Holocaust. I’ve never watched The Mandalorian, nor do I think I’ve ever seen anything with Gina Carano before. This article will guide you through my own thinking on the subject. The question that people are asking is: Should she be fired from this show for tweeting categorically anti-Semitic comparisons?

When I looked up Cancel Culture on Wikipedia (because all good research starts on Wikipedia), the identified relevant terms were: Blacklisting, Deplatforming, Deviationism, Divestment, Enemy of the people, Freedom of speech, Internet vigilantism, Online shaming, Political correctness, Polarization, Persona non grata, Presumption of guilt, Relational aggression, Social exclusion, Social justice warrior, and Thoughtcrime. I was surprised to see that boycott wasn’t on the list of relevant terms because this is the closest term with which I associate cancel culture.

Definition provided by Merriam-Webster

To compare, Merriam-Webster recently added “Cancel Culture” to its dictionary.

For use in this discussion, we must also define the term, “cancel,” as “cancel culture” is a noun and “boycott” is a verb.

In general, it seems that the “cancel” from “cancel culture” may have more destructive qualities to it, whereas a boycott is not interested in destruction, but change.

Front-End vs. Back-end?

When considering the recent firing of the actress from The Mandalorian, I wondered if the difference is where the withdrawal of support comes from. Did Disney fire the actress because there could be a potential boycott of the Disney+ service if they kept her?

But then I think about the Goya “canceling” that occurred after the CEO voiced his support of Donald Trump. I thought, this is a great example of a boycott. However, when I searched on Google News for “Goya Boycott” and “Goya Cancel Culture,” the former resulted in 7,520 articles, and the ladder yielded nearly double, 13,400. This was a consumer-based withdrawal of support, so the front-end vs. back-end theory doesn’t seem to work here.

Change and Redemption vs. Destruction

I’m coming to think that one of the defining differences between a cancel and a boycott is the destructive nature of canceling. When we look at one of our country’s most famous boycotts, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the goal for it was not to destroy the bus company, but to force their hand in changing their policies to provide people of color equal treatment. Canceling, however, seems to have more destructive qualities. When we look at the most recent example of the actress from The Mandalorian, there is nothing to be changed. The audience has come to the conclusion that she’s an anti-Semite, which is viewed as something that cannot be changed. Thus, her product or service must be eliminated entirely. It is pronounced irredeemable. Similarly, JK Rowling famously over-defended her position on LGBTQ+ persons and critics attempted to “cancel” her. A boycott wouldn’t work here because there’s no particular policy to be changed. Her opinions are poison and cannot be fixed or amended.

Here is a list of notable boycotts from history.

Another example of a boycott is the Chic-Fil-A boycott over their support for anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. This is not a cancelation because consumers don’t want to destroy Chic-Fil-A, they want them to stop donating to Anti-LGBTQ+ organizations and to redeem themselves by funding Pro-LGBTQ+ organizations. An interesting thing happens here though. As the Business Insider article states, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for being caught eating at a Chic-Fil-A. Was he at risk of being “canceled”?

State of Being

Also important to the discussion of cancel culture is that cancel culture is a state of being. I think the main criticism of cancel culture is that we, as a society, are trapped in this state of being during which we are constantly canceling things instead of trying to change them. Is any person truly poisoned? Are we redeemable? I am not a religious person, but I do know that the three Abrahamic religions teach that all people are redeemable. This is a belief to which I generally subscribe. Unless you are leading genocides yourself, I do believe that the vast majority of people can be redeemed.

I think that what Gina Carano said was deplorable, but I’m not sure canceling does the work we need to do. I’ll concede that the work is incredibly difficult, but it is evident from the United States’ inability to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic that we have a very hard time learning from our experiences and changing our views on things. For example, many people are lamenting the recent CDC recommendation that people should wear not one, but two masks. This is based on accumulating scientific data and understanding. This is different from the previous recommendation to wear a single mask, which people were resistant to, and the initial recommendation to not wear a mask at all, which people were resistant to. This is what we should be doing though. When new information comes to light, we change our behavior.

The idealist answer to Ms. Carano’s misdeeds is to find a way to educate her and others like her on the difference between Jewish suffering and Republican self-victimization. This, however, is not easy. It might not even be possible. However, I think that should be the over-arching strategy. Do not silence, but enlighten. You can call me out here for being a little pompous.

The Capitalist Connection

The “because” to the “why” connecting Ms. Carano’s firing is simple. She, like most people, whether you’re a teacher or an IT specialist or a cog in a factory, likely has a clause in her contract that says that at all times she is a representative of the company for whom she works. Thus, when she made her anti-Semitic statements, those statements represented LucasFilms. These are statements that LucasFilms does not want to be associated with because they will cost them viewership and profit. I have confidence, too, that if I were to tweet racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic statements, my employer would be qualified to sever my contract, because it says in my contract that at all times, I am a representative of my employer. This is not canceling. This is deregulated, pro-employer, anti-worker, capitalism. However, this is not something that pro-worker legislation can remedy because it stems from a cultural phenomenon. In other words, although clauses like these are pro-employer, they actually protect the worker in most cases from saying stupid things on the Internet and other public places.

The problem with this, though, is that if all contracts have a clause that says this, then you don’t really have a choice, do you? You can keep telling yourself, “She knew what she signed,” but did she actually have a choice? When given the choice between working and not working, the vast majority of people will choose to work, especially when it’s a job you love.

Is this a Freedom of Speech Issue?

On a constitutional level, no. The government didn’t fire Gina Carano or prohibit her from speaking; her studio and talent agency did.

However, when any ruling body prohibits speech, whether its a government or its society, it’s a problem. One can easily argue that she can use any platform she wants to say whatever she wants, but that only further categorizes her speech and insulates it from the rest of us. I think we should generally be able to speak our minds to further understanding of each other. After talking with Angel Eduardo, and reading his article, “How to Star-Man,” I was reminded of Daryl Davis, the Black man who converted Ku Klux Klan members to non-white supremacy. He was able to do this because he didn’t put them in the racist bin. Instead, he constructed a plan to infiltrate his non-racist ideas into racist minds who’d been lead astray. I think this is a really great example of why it’s important to talk to people, rather than cancel them.

Angel also showed me an article from The Atlantic during which a cab driver was fired because someone had sent in a photo of him doing a white supremacy hand signal, though he didn’t realize it was such. The problem here is that we’re all caught up in talking about JK Rowling and Gina Carano. But they’ll be fine. I won’t be fine if someone were to manipulate me into saying or doing something heinous.

Extended Conversation

I had a Twitter conversation with a friend of mine, Angel Eduardo, regarding the difference between Cancel Culture and Boycotting. You can read the conversation here, which took place in July of 2020.

I followed that up after publishing this article. Our conversation continued.

Additional Readings:

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