What is cancel culture? Meaning explained

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What is cancel culture? Meaning explained


Many celebrities have been ‘cancelled’ online, like comedian Dave Chappelle and Harry Potter author JK Rowling

Language is something that is forever evolving, and many words and phrases that have been around forever have take on new meanings in the past couple years – such as the term “cancelled”.

Once used to describe something like a show not getting another season or a concert no longer going ahead, “cancelled” and “cancelling” has taken on a new meaning.

What does it mean to be “cancelled” – and what exactly is “cancel culture”? This is everything you need to know.

What does cancel culture mean?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines cancel culture as “the practice or tendency of engaging in a mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure”.

It usually refers to when a person or business is called out publicly – often on Twitter or other social media platforms – for something they have said or done that exhibits racism, sexism, or misogyny.

‘Cancelling’ is a way for people – often marginalised groups – who have been historically silenced, to call on celebrities, businesses, and people in positions of power to be accountable for their actions and words, whether recent or in the past.

In many ways, cancelling is similar to boycotting (Photo: Shutterstock)

Speaking to the New York Times in 2018, Lisa Nakamura, a Professor at the University of Michigan who studies digital media’s connections to race, gender and sexuality, described cancellation and cancel culture as a “cultural boycott” of a celebrity, brand or company.

Generally, cancellation refers specifically to celebrities rather than regular people, although online public shaming does still happen to non-celebrities.

Those who align themselves with anti-cancel culture often claim that cancel culture infringes on free speech.

However, critics of this position would argue that the right to free speech simply means a person is protected from legal ramifications when expressing their opinions.

It has also been argued that the right to freedom of speech does not make a person immune to criticism or backlash, and does not entitle anyone to a platform to express views that could be considered offensive or oppressive to certain groups.

Cancel culture critics also tend to blame cancelling, or perceived cancelling, on “woke” people, as these people are more aware of and actively attentive to important social justice issues.

Where did the term ‘cancel’ come from?

The concept of “cancelling” can be traced back to 1991 film New Jack City wherein a character called Nino Brown, played by Wesley Snipes, dumps his girlfriend by saying: “Cancel that b**ch. I’ll buy another one.”

Fast forward to 2010 and rapper Lil Wayne makes a reference to the scene in his song I’m Single, in which he raps; “Yeah I’m single / N***a had to cancel that b**ch like Nino.”

People hold up placards in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as they take part in the inaugural Million People March march (Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

However it wasn’t until 2014 that the term became widespread in mainstream discourse. In an episode of the VH1 reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York which aired in December of that year, Cisco Rosado tells Diamond Strawberry “you’re cancelled” during a fight.

Soon after this episode aired, the idea of cancelling began to spread on Twitter, and specifically on “Black Twitter” in 2015.

Black Twitter refers to the network of Black Twitter users who are responsible for a lot of modern slang and social justice movements, like #BlackLivesMatter.

Speaking to The Atlantic, Meredith Clark, a professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas who conducted research on the culture of Black Twitter, said that she defines it “as a temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a Black frame of reference”.

Black Twitter initially used the idea of cancelling someone in a much more lighthearted way than nowadays. It was used as a reaction to someone, usually a friend or acquaintance, doing something you didn’t approve of.

However, as language tends to do, it evolved into a much more serious reaction to much more serious offences.

From JK Rowling to Dave Chappelle – a number of celebrities have been ‘cancelled’. (Picture: NationalWorld)

Speaking to Vox, Anne Charity Hudley, Chair of Linguistics of African Americans for the University of California Santa Barbara, said: “While the terminology of cancel culture may be new and most applicable to social media through Black Twitter, in particular, the concept of being cancelled is not new to Black culture.”

Hudley described cancelled as “a survival skill as old as the Southern Black use of the boycott”.

She explained that cancel culture promotes the idea that, specifically Black, people can feel empowered to reject something or someone that communicates harmful ideas and messages.

Hudley said: “If you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate.”

For example, she said: “When you see people cancelling Kanye, cancelling other people, it’s a collective way of saying: “We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you in the way that we once did. I may have no power, but the power I have is to [ignore] you”.”

Who has been cancelled in the past?

Despite claims from those who are anti-cancel culture stating that people face losing their jobs or reputations over cancel culture, very few celebrities or public figures have actually experienced any career ending repercussions from being cancelled.

Dave Chappelle speaking onstage during the 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

Chappelle went on to be nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards and a Grammy Award for a different special of his called 8:46.

His former school, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC, has also moved forward with plans to name its theatre after him.

The school said in a statement that it would “celebrate one of our most distinguished alumni, Dave Chappelle, by naming our theatre in his honour”.

Harry Potter author JK Rowling came under fire for controversial tweets she posted about transgender people in 2020. Her comments caused outrage among fans, and even prompted Harry Potter stars like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint to speak out against her.

J.K. Rowling has continued to release successful books after she was ‘cancelled’ (Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Since 2020, Rowling has continuously added fuel to the fire, however book sales for her Harry Potter series actually increased, and a book she released after the controversy, Troubled Blood (published under her pen name Robert Galbraith) spent weeks at the number one spot of the UK Official Top 50 bestseller chart.

Her 2021 Christmas book, The Christmas Pig, also claimed the coveted number one spot of the UK Official Top 50, selling 60,010 copies in its first week alone.

Louis C.K, whose cancellation was in response to a much more criminal nature, saw his career suffer setbacks after admitting to years of sexual misconduct in 2017 – however, 10 months later, he returned to stand-up comedy and was able to perform a number of sold out shows.

Louis C.K. at the Tribeca TV Festival (Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Tribeca TV Festival)

Earlier this year, C.K was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album for his 2020 special Sincerely Louis C.K.

YouTube stars like Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, James Charles, David Dobrik, Logan Paul and more have all experienced public cancellations, some of them multiple times, and they all continue to enjoy success on the platform.


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