There is actually no real "cancel culture"
Last Thursday, Saturday Night Live announced its three newest cast members. Within hours, videos were uncovered revealing that one of them, Shane Gillis, used racial slurs while appearing on a podcast, insisted on including bigoted comments in his standup routine, and called a Democratic presidential candidate a “Jew c***k”.
While the comedian may lose his opportunity to appear on SNL, this has already become yet another occasion for people to express outrage against the outrage: a condemnation of “cancel culture” destroying people’s lives. But even if Gillis is removed from SNL’s lineup, I argue that it would be an exception that demonstrates the overall lack of a predominant cancel culture.
For someone to be canceled, it means that their livelihood is lost or permanently damaged due to a public backlash against something they did or said that was perceived as objectionable. If people are going to assert that a Twitter army of “politically correct” “social justice warriors” is destroying lives with their purity tests and barrages of hate, then we must have some evidence of it destroying lives, right? For a cancel culture to exist in any substantive way, people must be getting canceled.
Whenever I ask for examples, people mention Aziz Ansari (you can watch his July standup special on Netflix), Kevin Hart (according to IMDb he is acting in at least four upcoming productions), or James Gunn (he has now written the script for The Suicide Squad and has been rehired to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3). None of their stories are examples of cancel culture at work.
While figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have ended their careers from their criminal acts, the public response to their behavior was substantively different from what people imagine politically correct “cancel culture” to be. The only clear-cut example I’ve seen of a successful “canceling” was of Rosanne Barr being fired from her show following her racist tweets targeting a former Obama aide, but even so, she may find a new audience in time.
For every actor, musician, and personality who faced incidents where it appeared that they were being "canceled," practically all of them either stayed intact or recovered one way or another. Beauty personality James Charles has regained most of the subscribers he lost since he was supposedly canceled. Viner turned YouTube personality Logan Paul suffered a massive backlash at the beginning of 2018 over his “suicide forest” video, but since then has almost reached 20 million YouTube subscribers and got away with “going gay” for a month earlier this year.
Rapper XXXTentacion had his songs returned to Spotify’s playlists while he was being prosecuting for domestic violence. Even gaming YouTuber ProJared could make a comeback after controversies surrounding soliciting nude photographs from minors and an alleged affair. And none of this is mentioning the numerous public figures who haven’t suffered any tangible damage after being “canceled.”
It seems that a lot of the discussion around cancel culture is more “looks like so-and-so is getting canceled” than anyone actually being canceled. PewDiePie? Canceled. Kanye West? Canceled. Taylor Swift? Canceled. Half of the SNL cast members? Canceled. Kanye West? Canceled again. Woody Allen? Canceled. Every actor who’s played a character of a different ethnicity? All supposedly canceled. It’s as though the source of cancel culture’s perceived power is people repeatedly asserting how powerful and pervasive it is.
A counterpoint to this is that the outrage people on social media display while targeting someone shows the power of cancel culture when that target is bullied off the platform, but that’s not what cancel culture is; that’s cyberbullying. Cyberbullying can, but not necessarily, be a component of cancellation. It is only a sufficient component of canceling someone if the target’s livelihood is actually threatened by leaving the platform. I wouldn’t call The New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens canceled after he was bullied off of Twitter for taking offense to being called a bedbug.
But what other explanation is there for all the attention paid to cancel culture, and the attacks on various public figures? I will refer people to what Bloomberg Opinion columnist Noah Smith dubbed “the Shouting Class." This is generally a small subset of people on social media who spend their time on social being vocally outraged about something or someone. They might be part of the 10 percent of Twitter users who send 80 percent of all tweets, or the people who mobilize the cancel hashtags.
Regardless, this is an incredibly small group of people — and unless you want to “cancel” the Shouting Class, they won’t be going away without systematic changes to how social media functions, with its mechanisms for elevating certain types of voices over others. What we can do now, however, is remind ourselves that the people trying to use years-old tweets to get someone fired don’t represent any society at large, and we must resist giving them the oxygen that social media platforms tend to want us to give them.
However, it’s also important to acknowledge that when the discourse around who the Shouting Class is going after enters the general public, that person is likely receiving the scrutiny and accountability that is warranted; at that point it’s out of the Shouting Class’s control. Whatever happens to Shane Gillis’s future at SNL is up to the show's powerful producer Lorne Michaels now.
As I finish this, it appears that there’s new reporting on a corroborated sexual misconduct allegation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his time at Yale. I wonder if the almighty cancel culture will actually get him this time.