Life

I Did Not Come Up With the Phrase “Cancel Culture”!

I wasn’t even actually using it that one time in 2014. Really.

A collage of torn excerpts of pieces mentioning Myles McNutt and cancel culture
Photo illustration by Slate

As I arrived at my regular Monday afternoon tennis session recently, my hitting partner greeted me, and we began rallying to warm up. We often take this time to engage in small talk—e.g., he asks if I’ve seen Mank yet, I explain I have not—but this week, he had something else on his mind.

“I read something about you this weekend,” he said. I froze, because I knew exactly what he was about to say. “I hear you came up with the phrase cancel culture, and then things got out of hand.”

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I did not come up with the phrase cancel culture. I swear. However, through an unfortunate and ongoing misadventure, I have found myself inscrutably linked to the term’s history in ways that serve to distract from its true origins—and ruin more than just my tennis warmups.

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If my hitting partner had made this claim before last summer, I would have been exactly as confused as I’d been in July, when I was contacted by a journalist who suggested that I had been one of the first people to use the phrase cancel culture on Twitter. When I received her email, I initially presumed that the writer had to be mistaken. But I did a search of my old tweets, and sure enough, there it was: In 2014, I posted the following tweet that does in fact include the words cancel and culture next to each other.

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It takes only a passing glance to realize that this tweet has nothing to do with “cancellation” or “cancel culture,” as in “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure,” or so Merriam-Webster puts it. The journalist herself acknowledged as much in her original email. In her research on the term, the University of Virginia’s Meredith Clark traces cancel culture from “its roots in Black vernacular tradition to its misappropriation in the digital age by social elites,” a trajectory that does not include my tweet about the online discourse surrounding weekly television ratings. As I explained in my reply to the writer, I was referring to “renew/cancel” as a decision rendered by television networks about future seasons of TV shows and to “renew/cancel culture” as the online conflicts between fans of certain shows and the operator of a ratings website who used a character called “the Cancel Bear” to torment them when their favorite show was underperforming.

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While my online battle with this ursine pest—immortalized here by the Atlantic—might imply that I was trying to “cancel” the Cancel Bear, at no point did I consider cancel culture to be a phrase in and of itself. And while I offered my services as a media scholar to reflect on how the idea of cancellation resonates in television culture if it was relevant to the journalist’s story—it wasn’t!—I thought we agreed that my tweet about television ratings was not a part of the history of cancel culture.

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And so I was once more confused when I read the story in question in Insider and discovered my tweet was now immortalized as part of the history of cancel culture. Or, rather, it was strangely immortalized as being irrelevant to that history: The story emphasizes that the tweet “got only four retweets and four likes”—which, harsh—and I am quoted as saying I did not consider it a “legible phrase” at the time. Although I hadn’t explicitly asked to be left out of the narrative, I had figured these facts—the tweet was not widely read, and I flat-out didn’t use the phrase cancel culture in a way that connects to its current meaning—would leave me on the cutting room floor. But there I was anyway, proof that other people have indeed put these two words together before.

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At first, I found this all to be a funny quarantine anecdote to share with people I couldn’t see in person. But in the intervening months, unbeknownst to me, my purported role in this narrative spread elsewhere. Although thankfully no other major media outlets chose to include my tweet in their reporting about cancel culture, a selection of random online articles that clearly cribbed from the original reporting included me as a critical part of this history. My tweet became “one of the first mentions” of cancel culture, and I “first used the term ‘cancel culture’ in a tweet on February 14, 2014,” as if it were a milestone moment in internet culture instead of me spending Valentine’s Day in a feud with an anthropomorphized grizzly. One piece asserted I was one of the first to use the phrase and went even further by suggesting that cancel culture “sans ‘renew’ grew in popularity during the mid-2010s,” as if the actual term were somehow an evolutionary branch of my original usage.

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Most importantly, none of these stories include that I was not actually talking about cancel culture. The consequences of this game of journalistic telephone were likely slim—much like my original tweet, these articles were likely not widely read. But with cancel culture continuing to make headlines as its etymological journey devolves into Seussian gibberish, the potential consequences have nonetheless come into focus. I desire no association with the powerful people who have weaponized the term to protect themselves from accountability, nor do I want to distract from the actual accountability practices of marginalized groups who first brought the term into the mainstream. While as a media scholar I have thoughts about cancel culture, there are scholars of color like the aforementioned Meredith Clark, André Brock, and Lisa Nakamura who are investigating it in much more detail and are better qualified to comment on it even if they didn’t accidentally put the two words together in a tweet seven years ago. For all of these reasons, I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, to use the words of an artist whose recent tweet about television was—unlike mine—relevant to cancel culture.

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Recently, I received an email from another journalist writing about cancel culture who saw my tweet in the original article and wanted to follow up, and I thought this was my chance. Pleased that she had reached out instead of just perpetuating my inclusion, I explained the whole situation in my reply: “renew/cancel,” the Cancel Bear, not a discrete phrase, etc. After I sent my email, I thought this was done and dusted, and the cursory thank-you I received in response had me breathing easier, knowing I had set the record straight.

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I had not set the record straight. As my encounter with my hitting partner demonstrates, my tweet somehow lives on as part of another retelling of this history, despite the fact I am once more quoted to the contrary, insisting I was “absolutely baffled (and remain baffled)” by why this is the case. Twice I told journalists writing about cancel culture that my tweet had nothing to do with cancel culture, and twice it was for some reason simply reported that I had told them this, and now my tweet is embedded within that history to the point an acquaintance found the article, failed to register how the reporting misrepresents my involvement, and good-naturedly confronted me about my role in an increasingly calamitous discourse.

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When I took to Twitter to tell this story, several compared it to an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm; one likened my failed efforts to clarify the situation to Charlie Brown trying and failing to kick a field goal, anxious to see my third attempt, which I suppose is this article. I’ve been trying to decide what I could have done differently. Perhaps I should have insisted that my tweet not be included, but that would have been rude, I had no real standing to ask that of a public tweet, and it never occurred to me that my insistence it was not relevant would be relevant. Maybe it wouldn’t have been included if I hadn’t replied to the emails at all, but as a scholar, I do want to offer my assistance to journalists writing about media culture—although the fact that I’ve been unwittingly turned into part of cancel culture’s history might help journalists understand why other scholars might choose to leave such emails on read.

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But beyond hoping that this article clarifies once and for all that my tweet is not a part of the history of cancel culture and can be cited in opposition to any future attempt to add my tweet to the “cancel culture” Wikipedia page, I think there’s another lesson here. While this is a tragicomic anecdote on the tennis court for me as a white male scholar, it’s important for all journalists to understand that a similar situation could have had grave consequences for others in less privileged positions, given the poisonous online environment around this term. I hope, at least, that my misadventure can help ensure someone else doesn’t go through a much, much worse experience in the future if—or when—their own incredibly loose connection to this topic somehow becomes part of the story, despite their repeated and verifiable insistence that it’s not.

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