Nicki Minaj is cancelled. Benedict Cumberbatch is cancelled. James Gunn is cancelled. Taylor Swift is cancelled. Ilana Glazer is cancelled. Cardi B is cancelled. Rowan Atkinson is cancelled. Everyone is cancelled. And we need to stop saying that people are cancelled.
What does that even mean? Who says that?
When someone is cancelled, it means that they’re no longer worth time or energy, that they should be boycotted or ignored, that no one should be a fan of them, that no one should support them. It means they should be removed from public influence, that their contributions to public works should be removed, that they should never be cited as an authority on anything. People who declare that a celebrity is cancelled disinvest from that celebrity, and usually, try to get their friends and internet sphere to disinvest as well.
This comes up when a celebrity who was previously thought of as an ally to a marginalized group, or even just not actively harmful, says or does something harmful. The responses, usually from young liberal people online, is that person is cancelled.
The problem with saying that a person is cancelled is that a) it doesn’t differentiate between a mistake and a harmful belief or set or behaviors, b) it doesn’t allow people who aren’t perfect to continue to contribute to the common good, and c) it forces fans of a celebrity to ignore some of their worst traits by making supporting them a binary choice.
People say deeply stupid things all the time. It comes of being uninformed or thoughtless, or from speaking from passion and not logic, and there’s no one who hasn’t done it. But celebrities bear the brunt of the negative fallout from those stupid things.
Most of us say stupid things in private, or to one or two people – the response is easy. We apologize, hopefully we do some personal work to ensure that we don’t carry the same harmful misconceptions that we previously did, and we move on. The people we say stupid things to are usually people we know in person, and they know that we are deep, multi-faceted people who have character traits other than the one mean or bad thing that we said, and they can weigh our mistakes against our good work.
Celebrities, however, have both a larger audience and a larger effect size. When celebrities say something harmful, everyone hears about it; the people who hear about it are usually not personal friends with that celebrity, so they don’t know about the complicated internal workings of that celebrity’s life. This is not to say, “ignore the harmful thing this celebrity said because I’m sure they’re nice to their friends,” but rather “recall that celebrities are real people, and their existence is not boiled down to the statements that someone happens to catch on camera.
Many famous people have microphones regularly shoved in their faces, and they don’t get the time to think before they speak. They often get asked curveballs during interviews and must answer without having weighed their words. Their statements are taken out of context. Their private conversations (which we are all entitled to) get broadcast to the public.
And when a celebrity is recorded or alleged to have said something harmful, they get cancelled. Even if what they said was just a stupid or poorly thought out sentence. Which we all do.
Now, a lot of the time when someone is recorded as saying something harmful, that does accurately reflect what they believe! But that still doesn’t mean that person should be completely brushed off. If someone believes something racist or sexist or ableist or classist or anything else that’s genuinely harmful to marginalized groups, someone in that person’s demographic should reach out and educate them. Celebrities have a huge audience, so when they say something harmful, they can affect the behaviors and beliefs of their fans. They do need to work hard to make sure that they’re not spreading stereotypes or harmful misinformation. And they do perhaps have a more pressing responsibility towards voicing healthy and non-damaging beliefs. But they are human, and saying they’re “cancelled” doesn’t give an opportunity for education, or to rectify the harm they’ve caused. It just shuts them down.
Even people with harmful beliefs can still positively affect the world around them.
No, I’m not going full on “but can’t we appreciate the artistry of Hitler’s tree paintings???”, but I am saying that a fuck up, even a deeply problematic belief, doesn’t mean that the rest of someone’s contributions to the world are invalid, unhelpful, no longer beautiful, forbidden, or otherwise without use. If an actor says something sexist in an interview, that doesn’t make their philanthropic contributions not worth noting. If a musician collaborates with another artist who’s shitty, that doesn’t mean that all the music they made before that can’t be deeply inspiring or meaningful.
We’re not obligated to praise or reward people whose beliefs we don’t agree with or who cause harm to us, but by labelling them as cancelled, we make it clear that anyone else who does praise or appreciate that celebrity’s philanthropy or work is also causing harm. Which contributes to…
When we have concepts like “cancelling” in our awareness, it makes each conversation about a celebrity’s behavior a binary discussion: keep consuming that artist’s work and tacitly endorse their bad behavior, or entirely disinvest from an artist to show disapproval for what they’ve said or done.
Why does this become a binary choice?
If someone is a die-hard fan of a celebrity and then that celebrity shares or does something harmful, that fan has only two choices:
1) agree with popular opinion that the celebrity is cancelled, stop consuming content by that person, and decry them when asked about their opinion.
2) refuse to believe or listen to what negative thing that celebrity has done and defend them against “attacks” by others.
The culture in which cancelling occurs doesn’t allow anyone to hold an opinion between these two options, but there must be a middle ground. There must be a way to say “wow, I’m really disappointed in this artist. I love all of the movies they’re in, but I think they’ll always be somewhat colored now that I know that person holds such harmful beliefs.” *
And sure, people could literally say that exact sentence, but there’s nosocial room for that conversation in a culture that moves to wipe problematic people off the map. When people try to have that nuanced conversation, others treat it exactly as if they’re explicitly endorsing the harmful behavior that they are in fact calling out. No one has the space to say, “hey, I’m not cancelling them because I love some aspects of their life and work,” so they default to defending that artist or celebrity, or refuse to acknowledge the harm that the celebrity has done.
Now, a lot of people reading this are probably thinking to themselves, “well, I’ve said that more nuanced thing before, it’s totally an okay thing for anyone to say!” but if you’ve also ever said “so-and-so is cancelled,” then your followers and friends don’t know that they’re allowed to have that mixed opinion around you. It’s socially dangerous to try and have a careful conversation about loving an artist while being disappointed in their actions, because young liberal culture is violent towards those that don’t explicitly and precisely. We need to wipe the concept of celebrities being cancelled entirely off the map, and that will allow us to foster a culture in which we can have more nuanced conversations about the behavior of public figures.
Now, why is it so bad to cancel someone anyway? Why can’t we penalize people for their poor behavior, or show the world that there are consequences to having bigoted beliefs or for sharing harmful jokes or for working with or defending harmful people? Isn’t voting with our attention exactly how celebrity should work?
But the court of common opinion isn’t fair or regulated, and it consistently works against people in marginalized groups far more violently than it does against men and white people.
While doing research for this article, I found people cancelling woman artists for collaborating with abusers, but found no such vehemence against the men artists who collaborated with the same abusers. White women could get away with harmful jokes or statements that had women of color cancelled. Jewish women were cancelled for misspeaking in ways that they immediately apologized for, where non-Jewish women were given the benefit of the doubt. The online outbursts of women of color, especially, while not polite or kind, generated exponentially more hate and disinvestment than did similar tantrums from any men.
People in demographics of power are frequently given the opportunity to apologize or learn in ways that people in marginalized groups are not.
It’s not that we can’t voice our displeasure when celebrities cause harm, but that we as a culture are only forming a mob and going after people in marginalized groups. We’re cancelling people who have done or said dangerous or harmful things, yes, but it’s only being used as a tool against some people.
We should absolutely call in or call out celebrities when they use their platform in ways that harm others. We can vote with our voices, we can vote with our dollars, we can express displeasure. But when we disinvest from a celebrity and use the word “cancelled” to insist that other people disinvest as well, we’re not reducing the net harm that goes around. We don’t allow celebrities – who are real people, who screw up as much as anyone else does! – to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. We try to erase people from the public sphere in ways that makes it impossible to acknowledge their positive influence in the world. And we force fans into a tough spot, by insisting that they cut out from their life something that they may love or label them enablers.
Cancelled isn’t productive, other than to express our anger and betrayal as fans. Which is valid – yelling online is one avenue that we have to express our feelings. But consider cancelling “cancelled,” and have a more nuanced, more careful conversation about celebrities and the harm that they cause.
* The one place where I’ve seen this conversation occur successfully is around the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling has made some really harmful statements about gay people, Jewish people, people of color, victims of abuse, and more, but many people have found the careful but healthy ground where they can decry what she says and how she affects what Harry Potter has become, while still finding love in the source material, and all of that without shame for that love