Editorials, Opinion

Is it cancel culture or accountability?

Cancel culture.

Defined by Dictionary.com as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

Sen. Josh Hawley’s book contract with Simon & Schuster. Country singer Morgan Wallen. Gina Carano’s character on Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian.” The Dixie Chicks’ music career for the last two decades. Colin Kaepernick’s football career.

All “canceled.”

The reasons for being canceled vary, and illustrate the wide range of actions that can receive the  scorn of  public opinion: Encouraging the Capitol riot; using the n-word; anti-Semitic social media posts; speaking out against the Iraq War; kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.  But one thing they all have in common: Powerful — through politics, wealth or fame — people said or did something the public found unacceptable.

That’s not cancellation. That’s accountability.

Words and actions have consequences. No one has stopped them from saying or doing the objectionable thing, but their public influence or platform — and in some cases, the ability to monetize that which has been found offensive — has been revoked. Of course, that isn’t always the case. For example, after Sen. Hawley lost his book contract with Simon & Schuster, another publisher picked him up and he was able to go all over cable news to talk about how he’d been “canceled” — and to promote the book that was still going to be sold. 

What if we stopped thinking about it as “cancel culture” — where every word and action is policed — and started thinking about it as “accountability culture”?

Talking about it as “cancellation culture” gives anyone who was “canceled” the ability to deflect culpability. It allows them to frame themselves as blameless victims. Whereas if we think about it as accountability culture, we open the door to a dialogue, where discussions can be had about what was wrong and why, and how life should continue from there.

Most everyone dislikes cancel culture, but we can’t seem to agree on what it means. Where is the line between being “canceled” and being held accountable? Where is the line between an overreaction to an honest mistake and a justifiable reckoning for bad behavior?

Sen. Hawley continues to tout false claims of election fraud even after the insurrection that caused him and the rest of Congress to flee the Capitol. Morgan Wallen issued an apology, promising to do better. Gina Carano said she was the victim of a double standard and Disney bullied her. The Dixie Chicks apologized for the delivery of their anti-war sentiment, but stood by the message. Colin Kaepernick listened to a veteran who told him sitting down during the anthem disrespected troops, and Kaepernick altered his protests to kneeling instead, so as to still honor the men and women in uniform.

When we hear someone complain about being “canceled,” we need to ask ourselves: Has this person actually been canceled? Is this person an innocent victim of internet overzealousness? Or is this person just trying to avoid accountability?