“Cancel culture” and “call-out culture” have become a way of life. There are two sides: one that destroys innocent people and the other that holds people accountable for horrific acts they commit.
The two cultures have some subtle differences, one of completely shutting people down and the other of educating people. Cancel culture is when a person rejects or stops supporting someone famous for something they said or did that offends them. Call-out culture is publicly criticizing someone for their actions or words and then asking them to explain themselves, giving them a chance to change their views and make amends.
This are not new phenomenon, but the internet magnifies what a person says and, in no time, the information is going into thousands or even millions of homes.
A negative aspect of these cultures is there are people who appoint themselves as judge and juror and feel the need to punish. They have to “save” us from something or someone they feel is a threat. The worst part is that people can say awful things about someone in total anonymity. Things they would never say face to face. How brave people can be when they fear no consequence for their actions.
The positive aspect of these cultures is their effectiveness in fighting racism, sexism, and abusive behavior. Social change can be achieved by addressing true inequities in society.
Cancel culture isn’t new by any means. In the 1950’s, it was Joe McCarthy and his hunt for Communists in the government, the unions, and the film industry. A Congressional hearing was televised for the whole country to witness. A great many professionals lost their jobs and were put on what became known as the “blacklist.” They never recovered from the unjust accusations that were made.
Charlie Chaplin was banned from America, Orson Welles had to move out of the country, and Leonard Bernstein was watched by the FBI for 30 years, banned from CBS and unable to get a passport. In 2020, Lance Morrow wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal where he stated, “The current climate of the “cancel culture” is indeed evocative of McCarthyism, but it is more frightful and destructive. Where the threshold for condemnation in the McCarthy era was alleged affiliation with “communist sympathizers,” sufficient unto today is the mere failure to publicly join in the denunciation of the latest societal construct or historical figure to be branded as racist, fascist, sexist, homophobic, etc.”
Cancel culture was also prevalent at the beginning of the black activist movement in the 1960s. The FBI went after black leaders like Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael by discrediting them and that resulted in people being imprisoned or even killed. At a time when our country was already divided by racial lines, the FBI attempted to discredit and disrupt the civil rights movement with little or no evidence of any criminal behavior. They would disseminate lies about civil rights leaders and generally treat black activists like terrorists and gangsters. This inspired fear in the populace that countered what the civil rights movement was rightfully trying to achieve.
Fast-forwarding to the culture we live in today, six Dr. Seuss books have been taken out of production due to racist images. Books are written using stereotypes from the timeframe they were written. There was more prejudice 50 or 100 years ago, so why wouldn’t books reflect that prejudice? We can judge these books by today’s cultural standards, yet stop at banning them.
Parents who choose to read an old classic to their children must then be prepared to talk to them about it. They need to explain how the stereotypes used don’t jive with how we should think and act today. The past is the past, although going forward we do need to make changes for the good of the children we are educating now.
We have the opportunity to change the old stereotypes, but we don’t have to destroy the past, we just need to learn from it.
Look at how Disney and Looney Toons evolved with the times. Their cartoons were filled with stereotypes of different cultures but as time progressed, they learned from it and stopped. By calling Dr. Seuss books out publicly, it has tarnished a name that the world holds dear and brought so much attention to these books that they’re selling for thousands of dollars instead of being tools to teach us to do better, to be better.
Another non-human character, Pepe Le Pew, has recently been called out in a New York Times op-ed piece by Charles Blow. He asserts that Pepe’s behavior has “normalized rape culture.” He isn’t wrong about the love-at-first-sight mentality of the character. Pepe hits on women aggressively by grabbing them, kissing them even though the female character is struggling to getaway. If Pepe were a human, he would be arrested.
With this revelation came the firing of Pepe from the new Space Jam movie. The fans feel this firing is going too far as Pepe has been this way for 75 years and the sassy skunk NEVER prevails. The scene Mr. Blow is referring to showed Pepe as a bartender, instantly falling for a customer and, in his typical way, hitting on her by placing kisses up her arm. The girl slams Pepe into the chair next to hers, pours a drink on him, and slaps him so hard he is spinning in the chair. Bugs Bunny and LeBron James stop the spinning chair. LeBron tells Pepe he can’t grab other Tunes without their consent, so Pepe gets his comeuppance, but that doesn’t satisfy some people.
Most adults understand the sexual harassment is wrong and understand the negative outcome for Pepe. However, young people might see his aggressive behavior as cool and that “no” doesn’t really mean “no” while ignoring the outcome as just being funny. Romantic gestures can be seen as harassment if carried too far.
Take for instance the women who are coming forward after being silent for years and accusing famous men of sexual harassment and assault. In the past, such accusations did nothing as famous, powerful men had impunity and kept their power while women were considered hysterical liars. The calling out of Harvey Weinstein changed all that. Since then, more famous men, public officials (US Senator John Conyers), entertainers (Marilyn Manson, Kevin Spacey), heads of large companies (John Lasseter Pixar/Disney), and educators (Howard Kwait, high school principal) have finally faced repercussions for their actions. Call-out culture made it possible for men like Weinstein and others to lose their position of power.
However, there is another side to these types of accusations; people who make false allegations. If that false accusation is put out to the world on the internet, the person being accused ends up with a life in ruins.
Actor Johnny Depp had a short and turbulent marriage to Amber Heard. She now makes allegations that he was abusive and is looking for a hundred-million-dollar settlement. That is all it took for the media to cancel Depp, causing him to lose credibility and become a pariah in the film industry. He was asked to resign from his role in the upcoming movie Fantastic Beasts 3 and Disney is no longer interested in continuing the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Most Hollywood experts feel his career was waning before the abuse allegations, but now it is definitively over. Depp denies the allegation, yet he is deemed guilty until proven innocent.
Nowadays, something as simple as a joke could potentially ruin someone’s career. Look at James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy; he was fired from Marvel for making jokes about controversial topics like as pedophilia and rape, yet there are people going viral online on apps like Tik Tok by cracking dark humor jokes about abortions, death, and other controversial topics.
South Park has been at it for years and even Family Guy has an old pedophilic neighbor who tries to get with Peter Griffin’s 14-year-old son. James Gunn made a career out of making movies and telling jokes that were outrageous and taboo, yet something he tweeted years ago caused him to lose his job in 2018. It wasn’t until 2019 that he was rehired by Marvel after issuing a public apology and the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy spoke out about wanting him back.
Skip forward to 2020 and Disney bought Fox, the company that owns Family Guy with the old pedophilic neighbor John Herbert, yet he has not been removed from the show.
The call-out culture can help or hinder depending on how it’s used. It can give a voice to the less powerful people of the world to express true issues of importance such as injustice or discrimination. If used correctly there is a possibility of bringing about social changes that help everyone.
If used incorrectly, it becomes unproductive and nothing changes. The year 2020 showed us how the internet can be used for good and for bad. We have seen it incite rioting and violence like the January 6th attack on the US capitol. We have even seen it pull people together with the Black Lives Matter movement. We just can’t continue calling out everyone for every little thing. It’s too much for most people and amounts to nothing but cyberbullying.
In a 2019 New York Times opinion piece, Loretta Ross, an expert on women’s issues, racism, and human rights, wrote, “Call-outs make people fearful of being targeted. People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes, feeding the cannibalistic maw of the cancel culture.”
With cancel culture and call-out culture being so prevalent today, hopefully, people will become more cautious of what they say and do. In some cases, we need to be more tolerant and forgiving and in other cases, we need to charge forward to right an obvious wrong. What we say can be ugly or inspiring and we should ask ourselves where we fit into the mix.