What I Talk About When I Talk About Canceling Platforms

Around this time last year, I had the opportunity to discuss Cancel Culture on NPR’s 1A Podcast and on MSNBC, covering topics as far ranging as the role that cancel culture has played within journalism to the Republican National Convention. While Summer 2020 teemed with these conversations, I assumed that Cancel Culture would eventually be canceled, fading away like a washed up social media platform, just one of many fleeting fads or trendy terminology that we would all look back on and laugh.

Yet, one year later, Cancel Culture lives on in the cultural lexicon.

No matter how much time passes, I continue to get inquiries to discuss the term and its resonance. Each week this alliterative phrase gains traction as celebrities and everyday citizens continue to find themselves in the category of canceled. But, before I get into why this might be and the potential of this cultural phenomenon to critique corporate platforms, I wanted to first define my terms for those who may not have been tuned into the news and social media recently.

What I talk about when I talk about Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture generally refers to the idea that there is a now popular and well understood custom of “cancelling” which is a call to mobilize or boycott, incite public shaming, or critique of someone or something based on a perceived harm that was done to a community or individual by that particular person or entity. Usually Cancel Culture is mobilized against corporations, celebrities, politicians, and other public figures, but in this day and age anyone can be canceled.

To me, the concept of being canceled is very popular within the discourse of Black Twitter, and the term represents years of colloquial Black language use around cancellation. The first time that I actually heard the terminology of being canceled was in the film “New Jack City” (which is almost 30 years old), in which the protagonist Nino Brown gets rid of his girlfriend by telling her that she’s canceled. Very akin to Donald Trump’s catchphrase “You’re Fired” in “The Apprentice” the terminology of cancellation is always closely tied to losing one’s position or platform. As many people have stated, Cancel Culture is not as effective as people like to believe that it is, because cancellation does not equal consequences. One can easily be canceled and suffer no concrete or punitive repercussions for the actions or comments that incited the call.

Due to the lack of consequences, even the use of the term “canceled” has become a joke on social media platforms, and even Buzzfeed released a quiz based on potential scenarios or statements that would get you canceled on Twitter. Especially for individuals in power, like celebrities, there is a sense that cancellations come and go, because the 24 hours news cycle doesn’t really maintain the momentum needed to truly hold an individual accountable. And to some extent, cancellation, like any call to action, is only effective in so much that a community mobilizes around an outcome. So many times, there is a call to cancel, usually through a hashtag, and community members heed that call by agreeing, sharing the content, and creating consensus around the cancellation, whether or not there is actual change. Therefore, a truly successful cancellation requires specific demands. For example, the online and offline campaign to #MuteRKelly wasn’t just a general outcry or consensus gathering within the social media sphere, the action grew into a petition, and organized movement and mobilization towards a just outcome.

What we Should be Talking About When We Talk About Cancel Culture

And this is what fascinates me about Cancel Culture, because while there are some people who are for Cancel Culture and some people who are against it,

I think the real question is: What does justice and accountability look like within the online and offline realms? And is online or public shaming, in and of itself, a useful mode of holding people accountable to their actions?

To some extent, cancel culture can be a very egoic impetus, because canceling someone does not tend to operate within a framework of justice and restoration as much as it can reinforce narratives of blame and shame, which don’t hold space for accountability or making amends and sometimes just assumes that people are acting from a place of intentional harm or malice (which isn’t always true).

Especially when thinking about the possibility for redemption, there is that Oscar Wilde quote “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” So the concept of canceling seems to erase the idea that people do change and develop. Although, of course, the conversation changes for people who are actively harming and abusing others or people who refuse to take accountability for their actions, this is particularly important in situations where people are canceled for youthful indiscretions or honest ignorance.

Especially when we think about the Movement for Black Lives, and the many Black people, especially Black women and femmes, who experience abuse and discrimination at some point in life, there are ways that we have seen cancellation used as a way to achieve a form of justice. Cancellation for many people is one way to speak truth to power and to have one’s voice heard when it’s not being heard. For survivors of trauma and abuse, as well as for those who did not survive, social media has created a platform for reclaiming one’s power and mobilizing other community members in solidarity around an individual.

Therefore, we should start thinking about Cancellation as less about who is being canceled and more about what is being canceled in our society when individuals speak up. Because when Cancellation is done from a place of accountability and justice it is really speaking less about an individual and more to the systemic oppression and marginalization that individual represents by the fact that we live in a society where anybody with a platform can speak racist, homophobic, sexist, and trans-phobic comments with impunity. And while we do have freedom of speech, there is no freedom from criticism, so it is so important for those who have been dis-empowered in society to cancel the ideologies and discourses that only reify these systems of oppression. By speaking out against discourse which reinforces who is in power, and who is dis-empowered in our society, intersectionally marginalized community members create space for the conversations that we need to have around many of these issues.

Why we Should Talk About Canceling Platforms

One such conversation that continues to be of concern to me, is why we are expected to allow so many statements to pass by without criticism because they’re “jokes”, especially within the realm of comedy. As a communication and media scholar, I know that anything that someone says, every utterance is embedded with meaning. To reference cultural critic and theorist Stuart Hall, all of the messages and discourse that circulate within our society are encoded with meanings that reflect the norms, beliefs, and values of the person speaking that discourse and/or the society that person exists in.

For Example, I think back to Bill Cosby, who was making jokes about drugging women decades ago, and that there was a sense that it was just a joke, and we shouldn’t criticize that joke. Or when Donald Trump is engaging in Locker Room Talk, it’s boys will be boys. Yet, for people who are the butt of those jokes, these problematic statements and points of view only reinforce the reality that the world we live in isn’t safe for everyone.

I especially think about this with Dave Chappelle’s Netflix comedy specials, where he gets all of this criticism for the first special and essentially doubles down on trans-phobic discourse in interviews and other media. Then he’s rewarded, he wins the Mark Twain. And this is not to say that Dave Chappelle hasn’t had an award winning career, but what does that say to queer and trans people who spoke out?

And for me, as a scholar of media and platforms, what does that say about Netflix that they continue to pay exponential amounts of money for this type of content (with Chappelle’s work only being one of many comedy specials on the platform with this type of punching down “humor”), only for Netflix to turn around and release a documentary like “Disclosure”, which speaks to trans issues in media representation. This lack of discernment and critical thinking when it comes to community standards and care for diverse audiences is only one of many common issues that occur within corporate platforms.

And this is where much of my research on the YouTube platform and online comments sections comes in, because over the years I have seen multiple iterations of canceling various content creators on digital media platforms. From Jeffree Star in the makeup community to long-time YouTuber’s like Shane Dawson, there have been calls from within and outside of the public constituted by specific online platforms to hold certain people accountable for their actions. This could be as simple as content they have created which may be offensive or discriminatory, to the behind the scenes relationships and interactions that an individual has with others.

Especially when it comes to platforms, there is a very slippery relationship between how a community holds an individual accountable, how the platform holds someone accountable, and our expectations of both. In the case of Netflix, YouTube, and Twitter, we see people who have made racist, sexist, trans-phobic content which has incited public critique and a call for cancellation continue to maintain their status within those communities as well as the right to produce content on that platform for years whereas less popular content creators might never be invited to those platforms or can have their content demonetized and removed almost immediately by an algorithm or complaint for use of the wrong words.

Looking at YouTube specifically, for many people who want to push for justice and accountability, there is a discussion of deplatforming (i.e. actually having the platform taken away or choosing to step down from the platform) or creators being demonetized (in which case you retain your platform but you no longer reap the financial rewards of it) as a needed consequence for bad behavior on and off the site. However, when you look at the YouTubers who have been canceled or publicly called out by other community members and then you examine who is most commonly demonetized on YouTube, that Venn diagram is not a circle.

It’s generally not the Youtubers who have huge platforms and are known to make problematic statements and content that get demonetized, its people like YouTubers in the trans community who are creating resources to walk people through the process of transition who get their content flagged and taken down or demonetized time and time again. And now you have LGBTQIA+ YouTubers suing the platform for discrimination because there is a difference between how accountability works for intersectionally marginalized communities versus individuals with power, privilege, and platforms behind them.

We see this same thing on platforms like Twitter, where many Black women on the site also mobilized to leave the platform after being constantly and consistently harassed without the platform making changes to address that harassment even in light of studies that show the disproportionate amount of harassment that women, femmes, and especially women and femmes of color receive on that platform. Therefore, we shouldn’t only be thinking about how individuals are mobilizing to cancel celebrities and politicians, but how do we mobilize to cancel platforms, to hold them accountable for doing what they need to be doing in a more equitable fashion? This could be as simple as holding users accountable for the type of content that they produce and actually doing the work of upholding community standards to bigger changes like creating platforms that are actually created with diversity, equity and inclusion in mind. Either way, if cancel culture is here to stay, we should be talking about what changes it could truly bring about within the realm of social media and society.

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