“This dude needs to be canceled,” said I wish no one.
“This is cancel culture run amok!” said nobody ever again, if I had my druthers.
Folks, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but time’s up on “cancel” in all its forms. It’s got to stop. I’m not usually one to ban words and phrases, but if that’s what it’ll take to get people to stop using the term, then I say everyone better beef up their find & replace hotkeys in Word, because “cancel” has got to go. I’m not saying it’s the new n-word or anything (because nothing will ever be the new n-word) but still… every time someone talks about being canceled on social media, it’s causing more harm than good. So with all the moral gravitas I can muster, I’m begging you… all of you…
Knock it off.
If this sounds like a desperate solution, I was pushed over the edge by two stories in the news cycle that people (mostly conservatives, but not exclusively so) have been trying to attribute to cancel culture.
First, the issue of the six books being discontinued by the estate of the late Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, because of racist imagery. “Dr. Seuss is being canceled!” said Fox News, in a link that I’d rather not share.
This cancellation claim is ridiculous and nonsensical for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is that this supposed cancellation wasn’t the result of pressure from libraries and civil rights groups, but from the representatives of Geisel’s own estate.
Here’s a bit of their official statement on the matter (emphasis mine):
We are committed to action. To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.
Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.
If anything, the statement reads as an admission that the six books that Geisel wrote at that time are anomalous and somewhat antithetical to the dominant themes in his subsequent work.
This is not cancellation, it’s a step to protect the brand.
The company that controls his estate wants to make sure readers can continue to enjoy the other Dr. Seuss books that don’t contain the same level of offensive content. From my vantage point, that looks like a wise business decision.
The other story that earned some major side-eye from me had to do with The Veritas Forum cancelling a discussion on critical race theory after a series of scholars and theologians rightly pointed out the dishonest nature of promoting both presenters as “leading experts on the topic of race and Christianity.” Dr. Willie James Jennings is an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School, while his supposed ideological opponent, Dr. Neil Shenvi, has blogged extensively on the subject, but his PhD is in theoretical chemistry. Though he’s participated in several discussions on the topic, he has no formalized training on the subject.
As someone with a sore spot about not having more academic credentialing myself, I’ll be the first one to proclaim that plenty of our society’s most articulate, passionate and insightful people made their name from their hustle rather than their credentialing. But we live in a society where expertise is too-often conflated with elitism, where public officials routinely disregard the professional expertise of health professionals. In this context, there’s value in knowing where your lane is and, at the very least, being willing to acknowledge the limitations of your qualifications. Shenvi admitted that he’s not an expert on race, but not until after his invitation was revoked.
After the news broke, it wasn’t enough that folks who support Dr. Shenvi lamented the cancellation of the discussion, but many of them held up the decision as an example of “cancel culture,” and referred to those who called out the inconsistency in The Veritas Forum’s messaging as a “Twitter mob.”
(Lest you think I’m exaggerating, just Google “Neil Shenvi” and “Twitter mob.” You’ll see what I mean.)
But this wasn’t cancel culture. It was an organization being humble enough to admit their own mistake. Take their own word for it:
“We failed to live up to our values. We did not pair one scholar with relevant subject-matter expertise with another of equal expertise, and we did not describe their credentials accurately. We also recognize that there are deeper racial dynamics at play, and we lament any pain that we caused. We apologize.”
It’s worth mentioning that canceling the event was not their only option; they could’ve postponed it in order to find another participant on more even intellectual ground. As a matter of fact, several people offered alternative suggestions, including one of my Facebook friends, George Yancey, Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University. I’ve never met Dr. Yancey in person but in my numerous interactions online he strikes me as someone who is moderate politically, though closer to the conservative side of things, and he’s been critical of both critical race theory specifically and elements of antiracism more generally. Even when we disagree, I generally respect both his demeanor and his reasoning. So I was grateful to see a post of his offering to replace Dr. Shenvi in the discussion on critical race theory and its intersection with Christianity.
But even Dr. Yancey seemed to repeat an argument that I’ve heard a lot about these kinds of stories. This is from his post:
Dr. Shenvi has offered an interesting perspective that deserves to be tested in discussion with the dominant paradigm of antiracism in our society. If his ideas are weak, it will be evident in discussions with someone like Dr. Jennings. Unfortunately we will not see a testing of these his ideas against that paradigm and individual can now rightly assume that proponents of antiracism are not willing to have their ideas challenged in the realm of ideas.
This is only partially true. Yes, by uninviting Dr. Shenvi we will not be exposed to his ideas in this particular context. But Dr. Shenvi has already participated in a series of similar discussions — for example, this one with Rasool Berry, teaching pastor at The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, NY. After the debate, Pastor Berry took the time to outline in a Medium post a series of fallacious ideas about faith and race, including some of Shenvi’s, that he entitled “UnCritical Race Theory.”
So it’s not like nobody’s ever gotten a chance to hear what this dude has to say. Over and over, either in blog posts, Twitter threads, or more formalized discussions, many of Dr. Shenvi’s outdated ideas about race have already been examined and been found lacking. But that doesn’t stop him from believing them and propagating them, which— it’s important to remember — is his right to do.
But that brings me to my big problem with “canceling.”
I’m tempted to blame Suey Park.
Back in 2014, she was offended by a tweet by Stephen Colbert. It referenced an insensitive racial heritage program by the NFL squad now known as The Washington Football Team. Mocking team owner Daniel Snyder’s baldfaced attempt to curry favor with first nations people, Colbert tweeted the following:
I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.
In response, Park, the academic and occasional Twitter activist, started the hashtag #CancelColbert, which went viral and forced an apology from the late night host. It was an important inflection point in the evolution of the word “cancel” as we know it today, undoubtedly accelerated by the #MeToo movement and the long overdue exposure and prosecution of sexual abusers Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein.
But it’s important to remember — when Park tweeted “cancel Colbert” she was referring to his television show. She wanted his show to be canceled. Part of the reason why the hashtag spread so quickly was not only the outrage she and others in the Asian-American community felt, but because there was also a clear objective inherent in the hashtag — to get Colbert’s television show off the air. So I guess it’s not really Suey Park’s fault either.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, it’s important to remember. No matter how often people use the word in this way, people cannot be canceled.
People cannot be canceled.
That’s not how life works.
Now, events can be canceled. Creative productions like feature films can be delayed indefinitely (which is Hollywood for canceled). Products can be removed from shelves, and articles can be deleted from the public record.
And people can be disinvited, or censored, or sued, or have their business boycotted, or have their membership revoked, or maybe even deplatformed from a particular venue like YouTube or Twitter. But it’s extremely rare for a person to be fired, prosecuted, deplatformed, pilloried in the press and transformed into persona non grata all at the same time. No matter how much the “woke mob” decides they want to, they can’t simply remove a person from the public record. They can’t remove all of their work and instantly erase all their influence from the popular culture. After all, whichever celebrity we’re talking about, there’s a reason why they were popular in the first place.
So when people refer to someone being “canceled” or refer to “cancel culture,” you have to remember that whatever particular repercussion they’re referring to exists on a continuum of possible outcomes. It could be as mild as a tweet that gets ratio’d or as serious as a criminal conviction that leads to jail time, or possibly even capital punishment. So when it’s all under the general umbrella term of “canceling” then those differences are obscured.
My man Greg McKelvey, Jr. captured this dynamic recently:
The elegant koan-like quality of this tweet belies an important difference in the way both characters are using the word “cancel.” In the imaginary discussion between Greg and his (probably conservative) adversary, they’re not talking about the same thing. When somebody uses “cancel culture” as a way to express their displeasure for being held accountable for the hurt their actions cause, that’s one thing. When another person uses the word “cancel” to refer to a person being completely deplatformed and removed from public discourse, that’s a totally different thing.
It’s just like what happens a lot with “racism.”
When people use the same words to mean different things, the conversation suffers.
It devolves into an infinite loop of chaos and oneupmanship that only vaguely resembles actual dialogue.
Now, I realize that some of the issues I’m describing are inherent to social media and can’t be solved just by changing your vocabulary. But I think, in this case, it would truly make a difference if we stopped using these vague terms and instead spoke specifically about the things we’re experiencing, the objectives we want, and the problems we’ve identified.
Because the concept of cancellation I don’t necessarily have a problem with, even if I think we ought to be a little more careful in how we go about holding people accountable. But it’s in the execution that things get a little too sloppy for my tastes. If I can’t tell whether you want someone to be investigated, censored, or simply dunked-on with funny memes, then perhaps you share a portion of the culpability in being misunderstood. And an easy way to avoid this, is to avoid terminology like “canceled” that seems to have lost most of its meaning.
So if you’re conservative and you’re concerned about where the culture war is leading, then by all means… talk about censorship, talk about deplatforming, talk about bias in instituations of higher learning, you can talk about religious persecution… hell, you can even drop a “snowflake” or two as long as you don’t do it too often (otherwise I can’t take you seriously).
And if you’re a progressive and you want to hold powerful feet to the fire, then talk about defunding the police (but only when it makes sense), or talk about recalling a political candidate. Talk about boycotting an offensive talk show host, or appealing to that show’s advertisers. Talk about sharing your stories and living your truth. But spare me the “So&So deserves to be canceled” because … well… it’s just not helping.
And if one of you readers is offended enough by this column to try to cancel me?
Well, I’m not famous, so … good luck with that.