(Saphia walks down a NYC street.)
SAPHIA: Good afternoon! Thank you for being here. Thank you for engaging kindly and critically in the comments. And thank you for inspiring the question of this week’s episode, which is: what are we talking about when we talk about cancel culture?
SAPHIA: This is… complicated. “Cancelling” is an old term, but “cancel culture”—the cultural phenomenon of mass cancelling, this societal habit that happens often enough that it warrants the word “culture” after it, “culture” being the customs of a social group—this term is newer. And we have not seemed to land on a universally accepted definition of cancel culture. Merriam Webster has simply pulled various people’s definitions from the web. Wikipedia says that “cancel culture is a phrase contemporary to the late 2010s and early 2020s used to refer to a culture in which those who are deemed to have acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner are ostracized, boycotted, or shunned.” That’s a lot of different outcomes under the umbrella of “cancel culture”—being ostracized, boycotted, or shunned.
SAPHIA: As some of you pointed out, boycotting is an old practice of leveraging the public’s economic power vis a vis attention and buying power to disempower the ultra powerful, particularly when they’ve wielded their power dangerously. But ostracizing, shunning, both of these words imply “voting people off the island”—deciding that individuals who have wronged others do not deserve to exist in society with the rest of us.
SAPHIA: Now, there will always be harmful individuals who have proven they are a serious and immediate danger to others, and the risk of leaving community members open to harm by attempting to reintegrate these harmful individuals into society can sometimes just not be worth it. I’ll leave the determination of justice practices in those often criminal scenarios to the justice experts. As someone engaged in the study of how cultural phenomenons affect our everyday lives, and can therefore be shifted by changes in our individual behavior—which is all we have control over at the end of the day, our individual behavior— I am most interested in how those around me, and myself included, have begun to take on cancelling practices in our day to day lives.
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SAPHIA: I’ve lost count of the number of times my opportunity to form my own first impression of someone has been taken from me because a friend or acquaintance let me know about the one time said person shared a possibly insensitive opinion. In my experience, the offering of this information was often done to warn against interacting, to encourage mutual cancelling—don’t go out with this person, they’re sexist, they said “x,” don’t befriend this person, they’re classist, they said “y,” don’t study with that professor, in 2018 they said “z” in lecture. I often felt pressured to take these often rumors as fact and to cut off the subjects of these allegations. And if I did not, I felt judgement from my peers.
SAPHIA: Again, in those few cases where the subject of said allegations were immediate violent threats to the community, I was truly grateful for these warnings—most notably, warnings about serial rapists on campus who had not been held accountable by my university. But those sorts of warnings were a very small portion of the kinds of warnings I received. And the result was that not only did I not approach others centered in the love ethic bell hooks discusses, I cut off relationships before they even began. I limited my own growth.
SAPHIA: But therein lies the challenge—many of my friends meant well, this I know. They intended to protect me from possibly hurtful interactions. That sentiment underlies many people’s dedication to a practice of cancelling. We want to stay safe. We want to protect our peace. That is completely understandable. I have often shared that very sentiment. But I know it will not create the loving community I want to exist in.
(Saphia has reached her destination—the home of a friend. She knocks on the door and receives a warm greeting. Fade to outro.)