Illustration by Taylor Callery for TIME
Ideas
By Sarah Hagi
November 21, 2019
IDEAS
Hagi is a writer based in Toronto

“Has cancel culture gone too far?” The question felt impossible to ignore this year. Google it and you’ll see pages of op-eds, often concluding, yes, it has gone too far, and the Internet mob is out of control.

Cancel culture became so central to the discourse in 2019 that even President Obama weighed in. The idea is that if you do something that others deem problematic, you automatically lose all your currency. Your voice is silenced. You’re done. Those who condemn cancel culture usually imply that it’s unfair and indiscriminate.

The problem with this perspective is cancel culture isn’t real, at least not in the way people believe it is. Instead, it’s turned into a catch-all for when people in power face consequences for their actions or receive any type of criticism, something that they’re not used to.

I’m a black, Muslim woman, and because of social media, marginalized people like myself can express ourselves in a way that was not possible before. That means racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to. This applies to not only wealthy people or industry leaders but anyone whose privilege has historically shielded them from public scrutiny. Because they can’t handle this cultural shift, they rely on phrases like “cancel culture” to delegitimize the criticism.

Since the #MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017, more women have spoken out about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. While many people have applauded this movement, some men now say they fear even casual interactions with women will get them canceled.

Only that’s not what’s happening. While some powerful men may not have the status they once did, they have hardly been canceled. Louis CK admitted to masturbating in front of female comedians. He was dropped by his agency, and HBO and Netflix cut ties with him, but he recently sold out five shows in my home city of Toronto. Harvey Weinstein—who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women (he has denied the allegations) and charged with predatory sexual assault, a criminal sexual act and rape (he has pleaded not guilty)—lost his job, but when he showed up at a young artists’ event in October, a comedian who called him out in her set was booed and two women who confronted him were asked to leave. When political journalist Mark Halperin, who denied allegations of unwanted sexual contact but acknowledged that his “behavior was inappropriate and caused others pain,” faced pushback over a new book, his publisher spoke to the New York Post decrying “this guilty-until-proven-innocent cancel culture where everyone is condemned to death or to a lifetime of unemployment based on an accusation that’s 12 years old.” That criticism is being compared to death tells you a lot about some of the people arguing that cancel culture has run amok.

In September, comedian Shane Gillis was fired from Saturday Night Live after videos of him making racist jokes surfaced. Comedian Bill Burr condemned the firing saying, “You f-cking millennials, you’re a bunch of rats, all of you,” and “None of them care, all they want to do is get people in trouble.” But having a job at SNL isn’t a human right. And although Gillis’ defenders have fretted about the sanctity of free speech in comedy, the audience of a comedic TV show should get to speak out about whether they want to watch someone who has espoused this type of humor. That’s actually the marketplace at work. Why should Gillis be able to utter racist things but those affected by hate speech shut their mouths? Gillis is still a touring comedian. He will be fine.

 

Although use of the term spiked this year, the idea of cancel culture has been bubbling for a while. In 2016, Kim Kardashian shared clips revealing that despite Taylor Swift’s claim that Kanye West didn’t warn her about a provocative lyric, he actually did give her a heads-up and she thanked him. Swift said she was “falsely painted as a liar.” But soon #TaylorSwiftIsCanceled- was trending.

“When you say someone is canceled, it’s not a TV show. It’s a human being,” Swift told Vogue this summer. “You’re sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or it could also be perceived as, kill yourself.” There aren’t many people who can understand what Swift went through. To have so many people turn on you is surely upsetting. But how exactly was she canceled? Though many people believed that this white woman had disingenuously portrayed herself as a victim of a black bully and made clear that they didn’t find that acceptable, Swift has remained one of the highest-paid celebrities in the world.

The conversation reached a new level in October when Obama expressed concern about the way people are called out on social media. “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,” he said at a summit. He didn’t use the term, but the assumption was he was condemning cancel culture.

Now I am certain Obama wasn’t talking about Louis CK in his call for us to be less judgmental. He was pointing out that people are complicated and make mistakes, though I’m not convinced they are being written off in the way he thinks. It should also go without saying that Swift’s perceived offense should not be lumped in with Weinstein’s alleged crimes. But that’s another problem with the conversation about cancel culture. It oversimplifies. The term is used in so many contexts that it’s rendered meaningless and precludes a nuanced discussion of the specific harm done and how those who did it should be held accountable.

Rather than panicking that someone might be asked to take a seat, we would all do well to consider the people who are actually sidelined: those who lose professional opportunities because of toxic workplaces, who spend years dealing with trauma caused by others’ actions, who are made to feel unsafe.

I write frequently about racism and Islamophobia and have received more death threats, calls for my firing and racist insults than I can keep track of. But when people who believe cancel culture is a problem speak out about its supposed silencing effect, I know they’re not talking about those attacks. When they throw around terms like “cancel culture” to silence me instead of reckoning with the reasons I might find certain actions or jokes dehumanizing, I’m led to one conclusion: they’d prefer I was powerless against my own oppression.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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