‘Cancel Culture’ or forgive and forget?

Featured Image: Mars Johnson | Marlin Chronicle

The word ostracize finds its roots in the Greek word ostracon, which is a piece of pottery usually broken off an earthenware vessel. These broken pieces had great political significance in Athenian society; Athenian citizens would cast their votes during the political procedure of deciding whether to banish a member of their society, by writing the name of that person on ostracon. If found unfavorable, the person would then be exiled from society for ten years. This procedure inspired the use of the contemporary term ostracism. Dating back to 5th century BCE, the phenomenon of ostracism is, therefore, not a recent one. However, one may find various contemporary interpretations of this old Athenian tradition in our modern society. 

A relatively recent manifestation of ostracism has been observed through the modern phenomenon of cancel culture. Loosely interpreted, cancel culture encourages one or a group of people, especially those who are structurally unfavored, to express disapproval or boycott someone for their scornful actions or speech. 

Avid crusaders of cancel culture often view social media as a platform to practice justice for the citizens, especially the marginalized citizens of the Land of the Free. It is amazing to observe how effectively and efficiently this phenomenon fires up citizens and mobilizes them to deliver justice. 

For instance, three years ago when Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya, the largest owner of Hispanic food brands in the United States, tweeted: “We’re all truly blessed… to have a leader like President Trump who is a builder,” he received severe backlash. Given the hostile view of the Trump Administration towards Hispanic communities, #Goyaway and #BoycottGoya began trending on social media.

Kanye West, affectionately known as Ye, is probably one of the most notoriously “canceled” celebrities of our times. From losing lucrative deals with Adidas and Gap to losing agents and getting his honorary degree rescinded, individuals and organizations have utilized various ways to hold him accountable for his anti-Black sentiments, expressed by wearing “White Lives Matter” tees to fashion shows, and his anti-Semitic comments. 

Such examples have well reflected the impact of this call-out culture or accountability culture, as some moderates would say. People feel empowered to live in a society where they know that they will find support in their pursuit to publicly shun someone and hold them accountable for their disturbing actions, especially if such perpetrators are powerful elites of the society. 

However, it is not guaranteed that the people or organizations canceled are always going to be elites or part of the 1% club. Take a look at this case covered by NPR, for instance: Dr. Greg Patton, a Communications professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, offered a Mandarin word as an example of filler words to his class. Unfortunately, the Mandarin equivalent for the English filler word like, nei-ge, sounded like the N-word to many of his American students. As a result, Dr. Patton became the victim of the cancel culture and was replaced by another instructor. 

Although it is understandable to expect Dr. Patton, a white American, to have been more conscious about his diction, this episode not only cost him his employment but also his reputation, which takes one a long way in academia. It is cases like this that expose us to the dangers of cancel culture: namely, muscle-memory generated responses. I say this because, on a normal day, this example would have indicated the breadth of Dr. Patton’s knowledge in his subject. 

In this manner, acts of canceling people may be viewed as responses to subtle moral panics, consequently robbing society the opportunities to deliberate, as evidenced by the response this episode received from Chinese nationals. In an article, the BBC noted that many people of Chinese origin expressed that Dr. Patton’s resignation was marked as a way to discriminate against Mandarin-speaking individuals; “It was ‘clearly an academic lecture on communication’ and the professor was ‘describing a universal mistake commonly made in communication,’” CC Chen, a student at the USC, said. This common and universal mistake is so cruel that it did not even spare Yao Ming, a professional basketball player from China, who got in trouble for using a word that has been a part of his vocabulary for years, while playing for Houston Rockets in the NBA. 

This case clearly shows that, when implemented rather carelessly, the act of canceling someone has the potential to not only hurt an individual but also be demeaning for a certain group of people. When broadly examined, such ramifications could be viewed as infringing on the freedom and rights of certain groups. As reflected in a comment from a Sina Weibo user, a Chinese microblogging site: “Is it now forbidden to speak Chinese in the United States?” This comment echoes one of the findings of a Pew Research Center study, which reflects the disparity in the understanding of cancel culture among Americans: “[Cancel culture is] trying to silence someone that does not have the same belief as you. Basically, [it’s] taking their First Amendment rights away. It violates the affected people’s civil rights.” 

Despite the fact that  this understanding may be popularly considered a traditionally Republican view of the phenomenon, it may be surprising to some that former President Obama also spoke out in an interview against this expanding culture of calling people: “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’ This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff…You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

So, what is cancel culture? For one, it is  a pretty impressive tool to mobilize support about something you are passionate about, from all across the world within minutes. But like other things that involve passion, it is an equally dangerous tool that can quickly become the bane of public discourse. If utilized cleverly and consciously, it is  a signal of social notions and phenomena that any prudent citizen of the world should pay heed to and deliberate upon.


Kainaat Trehan is a senior political science and international relations major. She is involved in Ethics Bowl and has been a part of several VWU theater productions. She can be contacted at ktrehan@vwu.edu


By: Kainaat Trehan