The Powerful Blame "Cancel Culture" to Deflect Responsibility
Kai Wright: It's The Takeaway. I'm Kai Wright in for Tanzina. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been accused of sexual harassment by seven women responded to growing demands for his resignation.
Andrew Cuomo: People know the difference between playing politics, bowing to cancel culture, and the truth. Let the review proceed. I'm not going to resign. I was not elected by the politicians. I was elected by the people.
Kai: Cuomo is one in a long line of politicians and celebrities who have invoked the idea of cancel culture as a defense against allegations of misconduct. In recent weeks, English television personality Piers Morgan blamed cancel culture for his departure from Good Morning Britain. Fans of longtime reality TV host Chris Harrison are pointing to cancel culture after he stepped away from his role on The Bachelor. It's a phrase that has been used so much and so widely, it's starting to feel meaningless. We wanted to hear your thoughts on cancel culture.
Participant 1: I think cancel culture is just another overblown for dramatic effect way of getting attention and making us more divided. After all, the Dixie Chicks were canceled back in the early aughts, by the very people who are seriously whining about cancel culture today, and wasn't Colin Kaepernick canceled? I'm using air quotes around all of the canceled words here.
Dallas: This is Dallas Miller in Portland, Oregon. I think cancel culture is mostly at this point slang. A lot of manufactured outrage. Really, the ideology that we need to be using is accountability. Most people that find themselves "Canceled" have earned that themselves. It's crazy how these things become part of our lexicon, but really it's just an elaborate word-play, "Oh, it's Orwellian." It's a way for demagogues to escape defending a wrongheaded point of view, they can just say, "Oh, you're canceling--" I'm not canceling, I'm just disagreeing with you.
Kai: For more on what this phrase cancel culture really means I'm joined by Meredith Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's department of media studies. Meredith, welcome to The Takeaway.
Meredith Clark: Thank you for having me.
Kai: Let's start by defining terms here. How do you define the phrase cancel culture?
Meredith: The way that cancel culture is being used now, I see, as a useful means of conflating accountability and public opinion and the new cycle, frankly, to dismiss often credible complaints or grievances from people who otherwise might not have an opportunity to make a petition in a way that matters.
Kai: Where did this originate? You note people who might not have an opportunity to petition in a way that matters. That's part of the roots of this idea, right?
Meredith: Absolutely. Canceling someone, the act of canceling someone is a language that was used primarily in Black queer communities to express disapproval, to divest from someone, a person, place, or an idea. As it's mashed up in cancel culture, it indicates an omission of some of the actual cultural context via its appropriation.
Kai: It's, obviously, then become part of these broader culture wars. What's its role now in this broader culture war conversation?
Meredith: Exactly. You nailed it, as did so many of your listeners, the phrase cancel culture is like that terminology that harkens back to the southern strategy and southern politics, from Nixon to Reagan. Instead of being able to say out-and-out what you're talking about, especially if it has racist or racial connotations, you use a different phrase. Instead of talking about welfare programs, and, really, job theft, as some people thought of it, you talk about affirmative action. Rather than talking about ghettos and barrios, you talk about the inner city. There's so many ways that political elites and media elites find terms that they can use that do the heavy lifting for them of signaling to their groups, while also creating an other of a group that they disagree with.
Kai: Then it becomes this coded language. It's so interesting that you trace its origins to Black queer communities, and then it ultimately is something that a governor of New York accused of sexual misconduct would then pull on to save himself. That's such an interesting etymological journey that this race has traveled.
Meredith: That's the impact of social media and the overlap between journalists on social media and those underrepresented communities in news media. You've got people who are listening to neighborhoods of folks that they ultimately wouldn't have the opportunity to come in contact with or would not seek out as experts. They're taking that language, repurposing it, and using it in ways that communicate it to a broader American public. We've got social media to thank for the rise of the so-called cancel culture.
Kai: Let's look at some of the actual ideas here. Some people think that you should be calling people in, that's the phrase people use, call people in, contact them directly, rather than calling people out publicly online. Do you agree with that or is that even the right way to talk about it?
Meredith: I think that it's a useful phrase. I think it's a useful idea, but we have to recognize what power dynamics are at play. To call someone in means that you have to have an existing relationship with them, and that that person has to respect you. I can't call the governor of New York and say, "Governor Cuomo, here's where you're wrong about this." He doesn't care about what I have to say. I'm not a voter in New York. I'm not a public figure. I'm not another politician. That doesn't work. It's very limited, the idea of calling someone in. We've got to come up with something else that works, public accountability.
Kai: What is the distinction between cancel culture as it's being discussed and accountability? Why do they get conflated?
Meredith: They get conflated because it's useful to powerful people for them to be conflated. When we talk about cancel culture, we really need to pay good attention to that word, "culture." Culture in 2014 was a word that Merriam Webster chose as word of the year because there were so many people looking it up. I find it interesting that they say that culture conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and, really importantly here, allows us to isolate an idea, an issue, or group. Anytime someone uses the word, "culture" to describe something, you want to pay attention, that's a bit of a red flag.
Kai: It is the case that so many people outside of these elite circles have taken in this idea of cancel culture as a threat, as something that is dangerous, and has devolved our public discourse, even amongst friends in private circles. How do you think about that? What do you say to folks who feel that way?
Meredith: I think, at its very base level, what the idea of cancel culture appeals to is our sense of belonging and our need for belonging. Whether we are everyday people, we're going to work, we're not in the public eye, or whether we are celebrities who have money to lose or politicians who have influence to lose, we all have a fear of losing our sense of belonging. That is what politicians, celebrities, and other public figures are playing on when they invoke cancel culture. If I can be canceled, so can you, and the risk is simply not the same.
Kai: Because of the difference in power dynamics?
Kai: I want to get your response to something that was brought up by one of our callers.
Lynn: This is Lynn in San Antonio, Texas. I think that the trend of cancel culture simplifies complex issues and makes public figures want to simply toss out an apology without actually digging into the meat of the issue, and really doing the uncomfortable growth that is required to become a better person.
Kai: How do you respond to what Lynn had to say?
Meredith: I think Lynn has made a sage and astute points. I think this is exactly the problem, but it's not only politicians who need to do that investigating. It's also journalists who need to think about discernment and whether they quote politicians who are using the phrase cancel culture and how they frame that use. The public is relying on journalists to make the translation between the language that politicians and other public figures use and what it means for us in our everyday life. For those in positions of power who use that phrase, it is a protectant, it keeps them from having to investigate themselves and look and see what they have to lose, how they stand to benefit from using this term, and why they use it in the first place.
Kai: One defense that people often pull out when they criticize cancel culture is the importance of free speech. Here's what one of our callers had a thought on that as well.
Kate: This is Kate from Harrisonburg, Virginia. I think the right-wing has always been fine with cancel culture, with everything from McCarthyism to the Dixie Chicks, to books bans in our public libraries. They only complain about it now that they're facing consequences for bigotry. It really should be looked at as consequence culture and not cancel culture. We may have the freedom of speech in America, but we don't have the freedom from social consequences to our bigotry.
Kai: Consequence culture. I like that. What do you make of that?
Meredith: I love it. I want to say thanks to Kate from over the mountain in Harrisonburg for coming up with that turn of phrase because digital accountability practice, as I've called, just doesn't have the same ring, but consequence culture, everyone immediately understands what consequences are. Culture, just signifies that we are using this broad term to talk about what's happening when people call for accountability.
Kai: How do you think we move forward from here? All these terms are being thrown around. People are carrying so much emotional weight with them. They're being manipulated by politicians and others who have power. What do you think could help us move forward in a productive way?
Meredith: I'll go back to the idea of journalistic discernment. As a journalist myself, I really do place the onus on journalists to do the work of unpacking, of translating, of being very clear about these terms. Journalists are intermediaries between public figures, between government figures and the public. They are the ones who have the ability to frame the narrative in a specific way, to present the narrative so that people have the opportunity to see what is real and what is spin. I really want news journalists, news media journalists to take on some responsibility there and not simply repeat this term.
Kai: Meredith Clark is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's department of media studies. Meredith, thanks so much for joining us.
Meredith: Thank you, again, for having me.
Lynn: This is Lynn in San Antonio, Texas. I think that the trend of cancel culture simplifies complex issues and makes public figures want to simply toss out an apology without actually digging into the meat of the issue and really doing the uncomfortable growth that is required to become a better person.
Denise: This is Denise McQueen, Dallas, Texas. Cancel culture is a ridiculous term manufactured by right-wing pundits and politicians to describe any change they feel threatened by, not to mention they protect all others exactly what they are doing. The [unintelligible 00:12:57] freedom [unintelligible 00:12:58] their lies are tiresome. Intelligent people see right through their tactics.
Participant 2: The term cancel culture has been invented to cover for the consequences that happen following specific actions. We can have a conversation about how far back in time an action that has taken place should generate current consequences, but, in truth, the whole idea of cancel culture is simply a way to attack those who want to see consequences for specific bad behavior.
Kate: Kate from Harrisonburg, Virginia, I think the right-wing has always been fine with cancel culture, with everything from McCarthyism to the Dixie Chicks to books bans in our public libraries. It really should be looked at as consequence culture and not cancel culture. We may have the freedom of speech in America, but we don't have the freedom from social consequences to our bigotry.
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