Cancel Culture

The Problem with Apu

Cancel culture (or ‘call-out culture’) is a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles – either online on social media, in the real world, or both. Those who are subject to this ostracism are said to be ‘canceled.’ The expression ‘cancel culture’ has mostly negative connotations and is commonly used in debates on free speech and censorship.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama warned against social media call-out culture, saying ‘People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and, you know, share certain things with you.’

According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, call-out culture arises from what he calls ‘safetyism’ on college campuses. According to Keith Hampton, professor of media studies at Michigan State University, the practice contributes to the polarization of American society, but it does not lead to changes in opinion. Some students are afraid to express unpopular ideas for fear of being called out on social media and may avoid asking questions as a result.

Political scientist Frances E. Lee states that call-out culture leads to self-policing of ‘wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate’ opinions. According to Lisa Nakamura, University of Michigan professor of media studies, cancelling someone is a form of ‘cultural boycott’ and that cancel culture is the ‘ultimate expression of agency’ which is ‘born of a desire for control [as] people have limited power over what is presented to them on social media’ and a need for ‘accountability which is not centralized.’

Some academics proposed alternatives and improvements to cancel culture. Critical multiculturalism professor Anita Bright proposed ‘calling in’ rather than ‘calling out’ in order to bring forward the former’s idea of accountability but in a more ‘humane, humble, and bridge-building’ light. Clinical Counsellor Anna Richards, who specializes in conflict mediation, says that ‘learning to analyze our own motivations when offering criticism’ helps call-out culture work productively.

Historian C. J. Coverntry, however, argues that the term has been incorrectly applied, and that it more accurately reflects the propensity of people to hide historical instances of injustice: ‘While I agree that the line between debate and suppression is one that occasionally gets crossed by the so-called left wing, it is almost invariably true that the real cancel culture is perpetrated by those who have embraced the term. If you look through Australian history, as well as European and American history, you will find countless examples of people speaking out against injustice and being persecuted in return. I can think of a number of people in our own time who are being persecuted by supposedly democratic governments for revealing uncomfortable information.’

The American animated television series ‘South Park’ mocked cancel culture with its own ‘#CancelSouthPark’ campaign in promotion of the show’s twenty-second season. In the season’s third episode, ‘The Problem with a Poo,’ there are references to the documentary ‘The Problem with Apu,’ the cancellation of ‘Roseanne’ after controversial tweets by the show’s eponymous actress, and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Both the Dixie Chicks and Bill Maher have said they are victims of cancel culture.

In 2019, cancel culture featured as a primary theme in the stand-up comedy shows ‘Sticks & Stones’ by Dave Chappelle and ‘Paper Tiger’ by Bill Burr.


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