If you spend any time on social media, you’ve heard of cancel culture. It’s when a group of people—sometimes famous, but often not—call out someone for past actions (or alleged actions) or comments that they find offensive. Often viewed as a weapon of the “woke left,” cancel culture is now being criticized by everybody from centrist Democrats to former President Barack Obama.
So is cancel culture really out of hand? Or are privileged people just angry about the fact that they’re suddenly being held accountable?
Loretta Ross, my guest on this week’s episode of A Word, has thought a lot about this issue. She teaches a class called White Supremacy, Human Rights, and Calling In the Calling Out Culture as a visiting associate professor at Smith College. You can listen to the full episode or read a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation below.
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Jason Johnson: In your class, how do you define these things? What is calling in? What is calling out? And what is cancellation?
Loretta Ross: Well, a “callout” is when you publicly shame somebody, throw shade on them, humiliate them for something you think they’ve said or they’ve done. It’s always done publicly, either with social media or in real life. But the point is to humiliate the person because you’re seeking accountability.
Now, “calling in” is the opposite. You’re seeking accountability, but you’re doing so usually privately. And you’re doing it with love and respect. So a calling in is a callout done with love. You have to act like you’re holding the other person’s heart in your hand, and you don’t want to squeeze it too tight because you’d want somebody to treat your heart the same way too.
Part of what can happen is that if somebody is called out, the consequences include the potential of them getting canceled. So what is it to be canceled?
People get canceled all the time because they’ve done stupid things, whether or not they deserve to be canceled. I asked the question of, should we ever watch Bill Cosby anymore? He did things that were horrible and he’s in prison for them, but at the same time, I have to acknowledge that if [his show] came on, I’d watch the show because there’s a whole ensemble of cast members. But if he produced something new right now, probably not. We have to nuance these things. You have to be able to see that it takes complicated people to produce complicated art. And nobody’s perfect.
But when you are threatened with cancellation, there’s a recovery process you can engage in. First, acknowledge that you’ve done something wrong. Own your stuff. And then make reparations for the harm you’ve done and figure out a way not to do it again. Everybody makes a mistake. The people that I call out are the people who make mistakes and then won’t admit they made a mistake. In fact, they double down on it and then they do it again.
I am a skeptic of cancel culture. The term cancel comes from television: “OK, this show is canceled. It’s never coming back.” But if people can come back, are they ever really canceled, or are they just facing consequences?
Powerful people who have a large platform rarely are going to suffer from being canceled. They’re still going to be rich. They’re still going to be powerful. They’re still going to have a platform. I question whether that’s a working strategy for us who want to hold them accountable. But we can engage with them.
Most people who get canceled are the most vulnerable people because most of the punching in the cancel culture is punching down, not punching up. And nobody complained about the cancel culture until the people who were previously being punched started punching up. It’s a real question of how we have to nuance this. Most people who make mistakes—and that’s everybody—are capable of redeeming themselves, if they choose to. But you have to be able to look your mistakes in the eye without shame so that you can say, “I can do better.”
We’ve reached this point where the people who primarily are concerned about cancel culture are powerful libertarian and/or conservative white people. You hear Bill Maher complaining about cancel culture. You hear Milo Yiannopoulos, Jim Jordan. It’s almost as if they have co-opted concerns about cancel culture as a way to defend themselves so they can continue to be hostile to people. How do we reclaim the damages of cancel culture to actually protect the people who are usually getting screwed over?
People on the right are nothing but imitative. They don’t invent anything. They try to co-opt civil rights. They try to co-opt women’s rights. They try to co-opt the whole calling-in, calling-out thing. They try to rebrand it as if they’re the primary victims of all this stuff. I’m calling bull on them. The whole cancel culture comes from the right. Do we remember them protesting The Passion of the Christ or Harry Potter or even going back earlier, saying that we couldn’t teach evolution in schools? Get off my last nerve.
If someone today is saying, “I’m afraid I’m going to be canceled, I’m afraid that if I wear a T-shirt by this band and I’m on Instagram and we find out that band did something wrong later, then I’m going to be canceled,” what do you say to that person who lives in fear of cancellation?
You need to worry more about the right thing because your reputation is what everybody thinks they know about you, but your integrity is what you know about yourself. And you have to sleep with yourself every night. Protect your own integrity; screw the reputation. Wear what you want to wear. Do what you want to do. Stand in your truth. Be kind to people because that’s what you’re going to get in return. But if someone wants to call you out for wearing a T-shirt, or something like that, and you don’t think that T-shirt is offensive to somebody, tell them to go get a life.
Listen to the rest of our conversation for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
A Word is Slate’s new podcast offering real conversations about race—ones that shine a light on the facts, the history, and the reality of how race plays out in our politics and society. Listen to new episodes every Friday.