Over a year ago, I published the article “What Does Cancel Culture Really Mean?” and, as anyone could have predicted, the case study of six ‘canceled’ celebrities is already fairly outdated. In that article, I investigated the controversies surrounding Shane Dawson, DaBaby, Scarlett Johansson, James Gunn, Morgan Wallen, and (notably deceased) Dr. Seuss, concluding that only the first two really lost their platforms. This pretty much guaranteed that my article would age like milk. Unsurprisingly, some of these people have made their return to the spotlight, some have grown as people, and some – well, all – are probably doing better now than when the original article was published. Isn’t this a good thing? Does this mean that cancel culture is working? The short answer is no because as a society we have been looking at cancel culture all wrong.
I now offer a more refined and more 2023-appropriate response to the question, “what does cancel culture really mean?” Although 49% of Pew Research respondents defined it as “actions people take to hold others accountable,” 14% defined it as “censorship” or “restriction of free speech.” Cancel culture through the lens of the latter definition has never been successful. Cancel culture, mostly used as a conservative fear-mongering tactic, has never actually hurt anyone. Instead, the internet has created an environment where people who do genuinely terrible things are effectively called out and rehabilitated with time. No one has been ‘canceled’ and truly lost it all — money will always be made and fans will always be there to defend people who do and say horrendous things. People aren’t canceled by way of ‘censorship’ in the way most people understand the word. Instead, people are given a chance to apologize, make amends, and eventually bounce back. As such, we need to stop looking at cancel culture as an unstoppable social plague and instead as a chance for us to grow and change. However, I also want to be clear about one thing: my opinion on whether some individuals should be de-platformed is not the focus of this article, I instead want to underscore how ‘cancel culture’ in its most extreme form does not exist.
I was fairly confident last year that Shane Dawson would never be seen in the spotlight again, and cancel culture had claimed another victim. After all, how was I supposed to know that Dawson’s first YouTube video after being canceled would gain almost 7 million views? Or that his second channel, where he uploads podcast episodes, would have nearly 3 million subscribers a year later? Or that he would still be selling merch with some items selling out almost immediately? All of this combined showed me that there is effectively no way for a creator to be canceled if people are still willing to support them. Granted, 7 million views is low compared to the 20M+ views he used to get, but naiveté had wrongly convinced me that nobody could support a creator who dressed in blackface or sexualized minors. However, the passage of time proved that no one can ever be truly stripped of their platform or career if they have enough supporters.
The same can be said about DaBaby. A year after his very public homophobic comments led to him losing spots in festivals, he still has roughly 30M Spotify listeners and is on tour. I had mentioned last year that DaBaby was held accountable not by “social media but rather by the music industry itself.” While that is technically true, it made no difference in his public persona. His career was hardly affected and he continues to make music a year later. The gist of the story is that ‘cancel culture’ resolved itself within a year for these two people. Dawson and DaBaby were called out for offensive behavior but were back quickly with a more loyal than ever fanbase. Were either of these men a victim of ‘censorship’ or ‘restriction of free speech’? No, and no one else that has been ‘canceled’ has been a victim of this either.
A Place for Cutting Ties: Kanye West
Sometimes de-platforming people might seem necessary, even if it doesn’t fully occur. Kanye West was recently dropped by Adidas, Balenciaga, and his talent agency over antisemitic remarks on Twitter and various podcasts. ‘Good!’ You may be thinking, stopping him from using his enormous platform to push hate is vital to curb antisemitism – except he hasn’t lost access to any social media platforms or been removed from Spotify. So, as West tweets about ‘cancel culture’ (and implies that Jewish people created it!) keep in mind that him losing money and sponsorships is in no way restricting him from spewing more hate. After all, this isn’t about who deserves to be censored, it’s about how nobody ever truly loses a platform. Moreover, another reason we can say that West isn’t being censored or that his free speech isn’t being restricted is because cancel culture wouldn’t have waited until now. It would have brought him down numerous times before.
Some of West’s other offenses, for which he has been called out already, include insisting that slavery was a choice for enslaved people or that George Floyd’s death was self-inflicted. The former was said in 2018 – before the New York Times listed his album ‘Ye’ on the “28 Best Albums of 2018.”
Just like with Dawson and DaBaby, West’s story proves that no one loses a platform as long as there are people there to support them. West may have been de-platformed financially (never mind the fact that even if he lost every single avenue of income, he’d still be insanely rich) yet there has been a very clear uptick in anti-semitism clearly inspired by him. West’s legacy may not be his anti-Blackness or slavery denial, but it will give white supremacy and antisemitism a platform as long as people know his name.
On the topic of Twitter, now that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and self-proclaimed savior of free speech, has bought the social media app, it has been interesting to see how toxicity and racism have skyrocketed since Musk advocated against the restriction of tweets. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate “found the use of racist, homophobic, transphobic and antisemitic slurs increased significantly under the new ownership, compared to the 2022 average.” Moreover, the same group discovered that the use of the n-word tripled on the app after Musk bought it. At this point, I might advocate against Musk’s approach, but again, it’s not about who deserves to be restricted — it’s about the fact that as long as the political right can use canceling as a rallying cry, hate will continue to spread in the name of protecting free speech.
Perhaps Adidas and Balenciaga did the right thing by cutting ties with West (although probably more for self-protection and not as advocates for censorship), but he still has a platform and an intense following, with over 30M Twitter followers. Obviously, anything I say about Kanye West may have the same fate as my last article on the topic and may be outdated even a week from now. Who knows whether he will continue to lose money, or if he will be back in the limelight and on the Forbes billionaires list again in no time.
Just like last time, I can conclude here that cancel culture is nothing but a buzzword used by (mainly) conservatives. It is even being used to justify a slip into fascism by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stated: “They are now trying to cancel our country. I’m talking about the progressive discrimination of everything to do with Russia.” Why is this dangerous? Well, if political leaders (including Former President Trump) can simply say their ideas are being ‘canceled,’ it takes the phrase from social media rhetoric to something slightly more legitimate. Plus, if it can be argued that cancel culture doesn’t exist in the way we’ve been led to believe it does, using it as political hyperbole creates a slippery slope of what’s real and what’s not. Putin also said that “right now, they’ve bridged an absurd situation when any alternative point of view is declared to be a subversive propaganda and a threat to democracy.” While we can assume that “they” means people who oppose Putin’s politics, this also means that cancel culture can further divide the liberal-conservative rift and alienate anyone who opposes someone’s beliefs. The word ‘cancel’ cannot equate to ‘disagrees with me’ or else we jeopardize what free speech means; especially for political leaders. Not to mention Putin cannot even try to say anyone is ‘canceling’ his political beliefs when he literally poisons his opponents.
It is ultimately the prerogative of businesses like Twitter or Adidas to decide how much of a platform to give, not the people who are actively advocating against the words of a celebrity. The people only have their voices, they don’t actually have the ability to ban someone or drop them from their label. Maybe instead of focusing the debate on whether cancel culture exists or whether Kanye West is the new face of antisemitism, we need to cultivate a social media culture that exists in a realm of common decency. Who cares if the uptick in the use of the n-word on Twitter resulted from Elon Musk’s calls for free speech when we can instead focus on what is persuading these users to use words like that in the first place? Focusing on whether cancel culture exists feels comical when things like the alt-right pipeline exist, pulling innocent users into a world filled to the brim with hate — but maybe that can be saved for my next article. Every social media user from both sides of the aisle should come together to build a community filled with love and acceptance, creating an environment where hate is not welcome.
All in all, a lot has changed in a year, yet almost nothing has. Cancel culture is still fear-mongering, hardly anybody is truly affected, and Shane Dawson is still working with Jeffree Star (who we didn’t even have time to address!). Social media is still a great place to hold our faves accountable, but we all need to keep in mind that no matter how many people try, a million calls for accountability is no match against a merciful fanbase and a stacked bank account.
See y’all next year!
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