I Thought Cancel Culture Was Something Else

The term “cancel culture” became mainstream in the summer of 2020, when many of us were very online. The term gained momentum in 2019, as media outlets like Vox began to ask, “What is cancel culture?”

Cancel culture, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” The “mass” part means several people feel the same way about the behavior in question. It doesn’t mean a majority feels this way. But there’s enough people to bring attention to the issue.

And like so many catchy and forceful phrases — af, throw shade, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter — cancel culture can be traced back to Black creativity. Jolie A. Doggett wrote a piece on Black excellence, in which she declared, “We are the people who make culture pop; we set the trends.” (Word.)

However, since moving beyond the realm of Black Twitter, cancel culture has been politicized as a catchall for any call-out or faux pas or social misstep. It’s becoming so ubiquitous, it’s on the border of becoming meaningless.

Is cancel culture even real? Or is the phenomenon getting muddled and distorted, like so many topics confined to online discourse? Is this another distraction keeping us from meaningful progress?

I’m not active on social media, so I didn’t witness cancel culture, as it was developing online. In 2018, the idea of canceling people was somewhat foreign to me. I thought “cancel culture” was something else.

Long before the pandemic forced us to cancel our plans, we were experts at canceling plans. I’m a socially-anxious introvert, and I was as guilty as the next person, but the behavior was pervasive. Even hypersocial friends would cancel — because they triple-booked their calendars.

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Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein poked fun at this cultural trend with their skit “Cancel It!” on the final season of Portlandia in 2018. That’s when I started to think of “cancel culture” as people canceling their plans, usually at the last minute, quickly, easily, via text message.

As part of the ongoing debate about cancel culture, Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote:

So many critiques of “cancel culture” are missing the disease for the symptoms. The actual problem is that we’ve been given faulty technological tools with which to have a digital conversation.

If you read those two sentences, my original understanding of cancel culture still fits. These new technological tools — mobile devices for instant communication — have allowed us to be nowhere and anywhere at once. We no longer need to physically show up for our friends; we can simply send a text message saying, “Sorry, I can’t make it.”

Like Abdelmahmoud, I’m intrigued by Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. The “self-help” book is a balm and a wake-up call. And even though it was written before the pandemic, it’s the manifesto we need right now. Odell emphasizes the need for context, when grappling with social issues — something we can only acquire with time and space.

With all of us online, context is getting squeezed harder than ever. Time and space are shrinking, not expanding. We are doom scrolling. We have revenge bedtime procrastination. And we are canceling ourselves (and each other) in the process. Odell wrote:

Friends, family, and acquaintances can see a person who lives and grows in space and time, but the crowd can only see a figure who is expected to be as monolithic and timeless as a brand.

So what happens when we keep canceling on each other? We cancel plans to meet up with friends, replacing physical experiences with virtual ones. And then, we spend so much time online, we gain notoriety for our internet persona. How long does it take to build a personal brand, before we garner mass attention, so that when we make a mistake, someone tries to cancel us?

If you’re prominent enough to be canceled online, it probably means that you’re actually doing fine. I think individuals should be more concerned about a different cancel culture — the one where we stop meeting, where we stop having real conversations.

Writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

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