Addressing Cancel Culture

As of late, the whole idea of “cancel culture” has received a lot of flack, particularly from some conservatives in the United States political discourse.

But why all the flack, and is it deserved?

As far as I can tell, cancel culture is a term used to describe how, in the eyes of some, too many things get “cancelled” (in other words, boycotted by some people). In a way, the term seems to come from a place of frustration.

And I can understand the frustration. If something I like is cancelled by a group of people, I might feel frustrated as well. I would feel especially frustrated if something I like is cancelled by a group of people, and the reason for cancelling it seems petty or pointless or something I disagree with.

At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that there have been times when cancelling something brought about some form of change. Here are three notable examples:

  • In the mid-1950s, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, there was a bus boycott in Montgomery. A young minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott. This boycott led to an ordinance being passed that allowed people to sit virtually anywhere on the bus in Montgomery. It also put Dr. King on the path to becoming a prominent and successful voice for African American civil rights.
  • The National Farmworkers Association, led by Cesar Chavez, led a strike against grape growers in Delano, California, in protest of the exploitation of migrant workers. Not only did the boycott eventually lead to a settlement, but it also put into the national limelight the issue of the treatment of migrant farm workers.
  • In protest of South Africa’s system of apartheid, there was a movement toward divestment from South Africa until it ended said system. This movement started in the 1960s but gained momentum in the 1980s. Some credit this divestment movement as a crucial component of ending apartheid in South Africa.

There are other, smaller, examples, but I highlight these two because of how much of an impact these particular boycotts went on to have.

However, I also acknowledge that there are many boycotts that are not successful. For example, movements to divest from fossil fuels have yet to curb global warming, boycotts against Chick-Fil-A for certain anti-LGBTQ+ stances company leadership has taken in the past have not been successful in any way, and Jeff Bezos continues to get richer in spite of all the people (including yours truly) who try to boycott Amazon as much as possible. In fact, it is with great frequency that a boycott, a cancelling of something, gets publicity for maybe a day and then fades into the background.

When considering the fact that some boycotts work, but many don’t, perhaps one should find a medium between mocking any boycott as “cancel culture” and thinking that boycotts are always a recipe for success. Instead, I suggest that perhaps the detractors of cancel culture remind themselves of the times in history that cancelling something actually worked, and that its most ardent supporters get smarter about when and how they cancel something (so as to maybe make a lasting impact). Cancelling something does not guarantee change, but it can help create change, if done effectively.