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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Malbreaux: Cancel Culture, Not Canceled

Cancellation, while not perfect, gets some things right.

The term “cancel culture” is the latest euphemism for political correctness. Often a term lobbed leftward, cancel culture refers to the online public shaming, usually of a celebrity, for some past action now deemed inappropriate. The intention is to encourage others to “cancel” consumption of the celebrity’s work.

 The most recent example of cancel culture’s relevance is in the firing of Shane Gillis. Saturday Night Live hired Gillis for this season’s run, only to fire him pre-premiere when racist jokes about Asian Americans from one of his podcast episodes resurfaced.

 Gillis’ firing is what critics of cancel culture consider speech policing gone rogue. A young comic made some bad comments, from which he later distanced himself (although he stopped short of apologizing), and has possibly lost his biggest career break. Gillis, in other words, has been cancelled.

 Gillis may make a compelling case for critics, but it’s worth considering how cancel culture normally works. Cancel culture is actually much less effective in most cases, and the concerns of its critics are vastly overinflated.  

That is because many celebrities, like Kevin Hart, often continue to be stars despite cancellation. Hart, despite using homophobic material in his standup bits for years, still could have hosted the 2018 Oscars, provided he issue an apology at the Academy’s request. He refused to do so, the Oscars went on without a host, and his stardom remained comfortably intact.

 And as for lesser-known talents like Gillis, it’s hard to believe his SNL firing is career-ending. He’s already back to headlining comedy clubs and has received public support from the likes of Bill Burr and Rob Schneider. His cancellation, paradoxically, has given him more attention than he might have otherwise enjoyed.  

We have already seen this same ironic effect of cancellation in other cases. Some moved to cancel Michael Jackson after the release of “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary which profiled two men who claim that Jackson molested them as children. Yet, upon the film’s release, Jackson’s album sales actually rose in the Billboard charts. Similarly, while Kanye West laments that he too has been cancelled, his album, “Ye,” debuted at No. 1, not long after he insinuated slavery was “a choice.”

 If cancellation is often ineffective and detrimental to its own aims, then does it merit serious attention? One could dismiss cancel culture as a loud megaphone for regular people to announce their regular, inconsequential opinions. But that overlooks some very real instances in which cancellation has transcended rhetoric. Bill Cosby, R. Kelly and Kevin Spacey have all been cancelled, leaving permanent damage to their careers and their legacies.

 Rightfully so. Celebrities should not retain such privilege in a society — the privilege to be lauded, to be revered, to be paid — while also committing abhorrent acts against ordinary people. True, celebrities are also real, fallible humans who work to make a living. But unlike the manager of the local Kroger’s, their work performance — their actions, their opinions, their song lyrics, their standup material — is judged by the society in which they are heralded. Such is the privilege of celebrity status, and such are the strings attached to it.

 Therein lies the real power of cancel culture. While the actions of Hart and Gillis are not as atrocious as Cosby’s or Kelly’s, their work, even if it’s comedic, cannot and should not be immune to the evolving norms of decency and respect. Because jokes can hurt too. Because racism and homophobia guised as comedy is not art. It’s barely comedy.