Retire the phrase ‘cancel culture’ and focus on what really matters, accountability

If you listen to certain corners of political discourse, you’d be inclined to think that one of the most serious problems facing the United States is “cancel culture.”

The act of “canceling” someone refers to a form of pushing a person out of a social or professional circle or removing them from a platform because that person did something offensive or harmful. In regards to public figures, in particular celebrities, this also refers to no longer supporting their work or boycotting them.

And as Vox’s Aja Romano explains in an exceptional piece on the history of the cancel culture debate, canceling someone typically follows a pattern:

“A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person — that is, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from an employer.”

Canceling isn’t really a new phenomenon, although it certainly has become a more prominent term.

Today it seems like cancel culture is almost exclusively used with a negative connotation, especially in politics.

Republicans have weaponized the term to criticize people on the left and to equate “cancel culture” with an attack on freedom of speech pushed by an overly sensitive, angry online mob.

In the past few weeks alone, former President Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyer referred to “cancel culture” during the Senate trial, and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro lambasted cancel culture after “Star Wars” actress Gina Carano was fired after making social media posts that were transphobic, mocked mask-wearing, promoted voter fraud conspiracies, and equated the plight of Republicans today to Jewish peoplejust before the Holocaust.

Republican members of Congress also referenced cancel culture in an attempt to defend Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who was stripped of committee assignments because of her well-documented history of making racist and conspiratorial social media posts and others that celebrated potential violence against Democratic colleagues.

A debate could be had about whether cancel culture is even a real thing, because most of the public figures who have been canceled are doing just fine and really haven’t been set back, often finding work or a friendly platform again after briefly disappearing from the public eye.

Heck, in those three examples mentioned, all of the parties are still doing rather well: Trump still holds incredible political influence, Carano quickly found another gig partnering with Shapiro’s Daily Wire to develop and produce her own movie, and Taylor Greene is still a well-known member of Congress.

What isn’t really debatable, though, is that there is a perception that cancel culture is a serious problem.

A Huffington Post/YouGov poll at the end of January found that 88% of Republicans who had heard the term “cancel culture” view it as a “very serious problem” or a “somewhat serious problem.” In comparison, 46% of Democrats and 70% of independents held the same attitude.

A Yahoo News/YouGov poll from July also found that 56% of Americans think cancel culture is a “very big” or “somewhat big problem” in the U.S.

Given the uneven history of real fallout for people who have been canceled, those figures seem high.

Still, what’s striking is that this is an issue where folks can look at the same facts and draw totally different conclusions. And there’s some validity to certain parts of both sides of the argument.

If you support the idea of canceling a public figure who says something truly offensive and discriminatory or engages in other bad behavior, like sexual misconduct, typically your thinking is that canceling people is a form of accountability.

History tells us that public figures who behave badly or cause real harm to others rarely receive their comeuppance. Rarely do they make it into a courtroom or face any kind of real public fallout — especially if they are a man in a position of power and authority. Woody Allen and Mel Gibson films still perform well. Louis C.K. took a brief hiatus but returned to sold-out comedy shows, before the pandemic.

Their alleged victims, meanwhile, are left with nothing but pain, trauma and the negative consequences of someone else’s actions.

So canceling a public figure, in particular bigoted or predatory celebrities, is a small way to support victims and to punch back at someone who is powerful and caused harm.

On the other hand, there probably are some very valid concerns about canceling people.

No, cancel culture does not only target conservatives; people have attempted to cancel progressives as well. The Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, received death threats and were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations after criticizing former President George W. Bush and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., was one of the earliest men held to account in the #MeToo movement; he resigned his seat.

However, there’s a conversation to be had about how that fear private citizens may have about unintentionally crossing a line can limit an important dialogue and the healthy sharing of different perspectives, which is necessary for personal growth.

There’s also an important conversation to be had about what’s the line for deeming something offensive. How do we tell whether it was intentionally offensive or an offensive comment made out of ignorance?

And what’s the path back — if there even is one —for people we agree deserve to be canceled?

Accountability, at least for me, isn’t supposed to be purely punitive. It’s about justice and fairness, and taking a first step on the road to atonement.

The problem is we’re never going to have these more nuanced conversations if we allow people, in particular Republican politicians, to dumb things down and hide behind this catch-all label of “cancel culture.”

So let’s retire the term. And instead of using the politically expedient way of describing issues, let’s be honest and specific with each other about what our real concerns are, because that’s the only way we’re going to work things out and become a society that collectively supports greater accountability.

Charles Clark is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.