Pulling the (white) hood off "cancel culture"
Examining the discourse for what it truly is. Inspired by Sarah Silverman.
I’ve ranted about cancel culture on Twitter repeatedly and how crappy it is, but the discourse just don’t go away. It makes it all the more fitting that Twitter has inspired me to revisit this yet another time. I originally wrote about it just for patrons, but the below tweet convinced me to write a public version.
Sarah Silverman @SarahKSilvermanDipping my toe into a take on cancel culture in episode 2. #SarahSilvermanPodcast eps 1-5 Here: https://t.co/qNnHEngHbF… https://t.co/9v65pd9nIV
Sarah Silverman claims to be “dipping her toe” into cancel culture discourse, but this is a lie. She dove into it years ago and has been swimming in that rancid pool ever since, which is why she was the focus of my Patreon post about cancel culture back in July.
Honestly, the discourse is so tired. It’s always the same old talking points rooted in faux victimhood repeated every time. Her clip isn’t worth a close examination or a line-by-line takedown. The important thing to know is this that Silverman conjures the cancel culture spectres to launder a fascist talking point. As Seth Simons of Humorism aptly summarized:
An interesting choice to make as people cast their ballots for or against the fascist in the White House, Black people are being murdered in the streets and by the pandmic, militias prime for a race war, and police officers attack and kidnap anti-racist protestors with impunity.
Fortunately, a brief etymology of cancel culture by University of Virgina professor Meredith D. Clark was just released and it’s worth a read. Dr. Clark explains in Drag Them: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture” (emphasis mine):
Canceling a person, place, or thing is socially mediated phenomena with origins in queer communities of color. Black Twitter—the meta-network of culturally connected communities on the microblogging site (Clark, 2015)—made the language of being “canceled” into an internet meme (Shifman, 2013). The reference was subsequently seized upon by outside observers, particularly journalists with an outsized ability to amplify the(ir own) white gaze. Politicians, pundits, celebrities, academics, and everyday people alike have narrativized being canceled into a moral panic akin to actual harm, adding a neologic twist on the origin of the practice by associating it with an unfounded fear of censorship and Canceling a person, place, or thing is socially silencing. But being canceled—a designation, it should be noted, usually reserved for celebrities, brands, and otherwise out-of-reach figures—should be read as a last-ditch appeal for justice.
I posted a few excerpts on Twitter:
Cancel culture—as discussed in the “public square”—isn't real.
Originally a practice of Black women ‘signifyin,’ [the callout] has occasionally been mistaken for Twitter’s ‘mob mentality,’ but it is qualitatively different: it is often a critique of systemic inequality rather than an attack against specific, individualistic transgressions” — André Brock, Jr., Distributed blackness: African American Cybercultures
Don’t take “cancel culture” discourse at face value
Cancel culture is a rhetorical device strategically use to gaslight people who make valid complaints about discrimination and oppression. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation meant to undermine the subjectivity of an other. The gaslighter's target doesn't have to feel crazy—they just need everyone else watching to agree that their target's position is so completely without merit that it doesn't warrant a good faith argument. Gaslighting is about (1) manipulating the circumstances; (2) avoiding real, effective engagement with the argument; and (3) preserving the (unequal) status quo. Intent is irrevelant when labeling gaslighting; it’s about gaslighting as a strategy and its impact.
Being “cancelled” doesn't have an official definition; that’s part of the problem. The vagueness gives the term more power, allowing more people to appropriate it for personal means. Addressing cries of cancel culture at face value is a losing game of whack-a-mole where a million different people with a million different visions of what cancel culture is keep popping up—you may hit a few on the head to make them disappear, but you never actually win the game.
Look at who believes in cancel culture: celebrities, abusers, people with wealth and large platforms—and the people who sympathize with them. We live in an unjust, kyriarchal world where race, gender, geography, ethnicity, class, ethnicity, and other factors out of our control play a large part in discrimination and systemic oppression. It's no coincidence that people on top of the privilege pyramid are the ones who complain about cancel culture the most.
The powerful use “cancel culture” to claim victimhood.
It can be used as the RVO of the gaslighting tactic DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender Roles), which is commonly used by people who commit harm, especially sexual abusers.
For example, when a celebrity like Sarah Silverman complains about "cancel culture" after being fired for wearing blackface, she turns herself into the victim of the specific situation, moving focus and concern away from Black folks who are harmed by blackface and others who (rightfully) found it inappropriate, offensive, and completely avoidable.
The people who believe blackface is wrong are suddenly "scary" and worthy of scorn instead of sincere consideration. When she was fired from a film for an old blackface sketch, Silverman could have taken the high road by acknowledging that the sketch is wrong, it is unacceptable even in context, and that she understands that there are consequences for those actions that she won't be able to control. Does it suck to keep apologizing? Yeah! But if you are sincerely sorry, you will keep doing it.
Look at the feature photo closely: it leans on imagery associated with a childhood innocence: pigtails, overalls, oversized chair, disheveled clothing, and a "what did I do?!" look more appropriate for getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Add the element of fear + depiction of the young white girl (under threat!), and we have some loaded implications—especially when Silverman's controversy is specifically about blackface. So got so cancelled she got an LA Times feature. 🙄
Silverman denouncing "cancel culture" is complaining about the consequences of her actions. That is not true accountability and the nature of her platform compounds on the racist harm she is done because she is basically saying "a little bit of racism is ok and people who don't like it are harming people like me."
The powerful complain about “cancellation” to punch down
Cancel culture harms the so-called cancellers. The allegedly cancelled and allies often refer to a faceless "mob," which dehumanizes individuals into a single group that is only connected by harm they want to cause. What can you do with a mob except hope it disperses and minimize any damage? Calling "cancellers"—folks who tend to decry abuse, racism, transphobia, and other oppression—a mob is a convenient way to avoid considering that maybe a lot of people don't agree with you.
It’s about silencing dissent
Claiming cancellation is a convenient way to avoid acknowledging a sizable consensus from actual individuals who may be just as (or more) informed then you. It does not advance the conversation; people just argue past each other repeatedly with no resolution in sight. And that's exactly what people who have committed harm want—a confusing, draining conversation that doesn't go anywhere yet affirms their claims of victimhood. Abuse thrives in chaos.
It’s ultimately an exertion of power
The people who evoke it aren't fighting fair—nor do they want to. I avoid engaging with every evocation of cancel culture because I know facts will not sway them. It's about manipulating the argument until they win by encouraging a power-neutral analysis that obscures the injustices that lead to the conversation in the first place.
Cancel culture is a rhetorical device that's solidified itself in the culture wars discourse. I refuse to legitimize it—and I hope you will, too.