In Defense of Cancel Culture

Culture Current Events Entertainment Features/Columns

Originally published for Broadly as part of my “Extremely Online” monthly column.

When comedian Jess Hilarious (born Jessica Moore) received backlash on her fearful reaction to four Sikh people boarding her flight, her initial response was dismissive: “If I’m scared, I’m scared. Fuck y’all. Fuck how y’all feel.” To the thousands of people who watched, the fear she felt was irrelevant—responding with accusing her of being xenophobic, Islamophobic, “ignorant,” and insensitive to an already marginalized group of approximately 500,000 people domestically.

Shortly after, as the displeasure from her fan base mounted, Jess returned to her Instagram account where she built her fanbase of 4.4 million followers and provided a tearful four-minute apology. The comedian acknowledged the harm in her racial profiling and asking her fans to “bear with me, I’m still growing” and that she “didn’t understand the power that [she] had,” committing to donate $15K to the families of victims of the Christchurch mosque shootings, and sharing the link for her fans to donate as well.

Understandably, there are people who question Moore’s attempt to make amends; given that her initial response was so disparaging, a logical conclusion would be that the plaintiveness behind her latest effort was a matter of self preservation. Fear is a large motivator, especially in the entertainment industry, where the 24-hour news cycle can follow with losing opportunities and further support—commonly colloquialized as being “canceled”—as opposed to true remorse and accountability for the harms committed.

Rationale aside, however, how did Jess get this initial response so wrong in the first place?

“Part of her misstep was failing to realize that part of why she has had recent success is, in part, the result of an allied effort to support Black and WOC comedians by Black women and Black queers,” communications strategist Camonghne Felix tells Broadly. “Those folks are largely anti-homophobia and anti-Islamophobia—and that belief system dictates who they support.”

The moral rubrics that celebrities and public figures are bound to remain in good standing when they correlate to the target audience that is the lynchpin of their support. That may align with a proper code of ethics, but not always: Several PR strategists note President Donald Trump’s ability to inoculate himself from being rebuked for his repeated immoralities show that his target base strongly supports him despite national disapproval ratings staying relatively steady at around 50 percent. A “cancelation” by any aggrieved group is, in essence, largely a calculus of diminishing returns of a public figure’s goodwill to the community that they are beholden to.

Linguist and author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology Edwin Battistella believes that the reason initial apologies for offensive actions fall short, are largely guided by the margins of self-interest: “It’s hard for people to get it right on the first try” he tells Broadly.. “In part it’s people who want to see if they can get away with a lesser offense; if they can sort of say ‘I was misunderstood’ or ‘I was just kidding’ or ‘This is a private matter, let’s move on,’ and if people accept those sorts of apologies that just kind of encourages more of that. So it’s good when groups and individuals push back and say ‘This isn’t the apology we were hoping to see. This apology says nothing.’”

This act of public shaming can seem overwrought at times, especially in the social-media driven news cycle in which scandals change monthly, if not weekly. But in an online space that can be increasingly dictated by active fan bases who create avenues for these figures to move past the bruise to their own political capital, without truly confronting the value systems of the people whose support they rely on, it remains an effective tool. Without this construct, for example, it is conceivable that Kevin Hart’s end-run campaign to return as an Oscars host—after old homophobic tweets were resurrected—by proxy absolution from his celebrity friends, may have worked. As Felix notes, “cancellation isn’t personal but a way for marginalized communities to publicly assert their value systems through pop culture.”

Considering the valid skepticism of the hollow apology statements, what are the key elements evoking authenticity?

“[The person] has to really name the harm that was done,” Battistella points out. “The person has to say what they did wrong and why it’s wrong. The other thing is it needs to say what’s going to be different in the future…with celebrities you don’t see them really doing that, and if you do it’s a short-term thing.”

Take the example of Doja Cat, who continuously failed to grasp the ethics of where she had erred when it was exposed that she had repeatedly used homophobic slurs on social media years before she become a recognized artist. The 23-year-old initially attempted to clear her name and assert her moral standing while repeatedly using the harmful slur in context. When that inevitably backfired, she regrouped and returned with a statement that was better, but still used distancing language: “I’m sorry for anyone I’ve offended.” By the time she landed on syntax that was concise, sincere, and held accountability without excusing herself, there were already diminishing returns due to the series of unforced errors prompted by her inability to reconcile why her fanbase was challenging her.

“Rounds of apologies fail because rarely do they address an understanding of value systems,” Felix explains. “Saying ‘I’m sorry I said this, I promise I’m not racist’ makes no sense to us because we know that saying something racist makes you racist. Apologies that acknowledge structural discrimination and a commitment to unlearning racism, homophobia, etc. do better because it highlights systems, which is what we are all actually fighting against.”

To that end, when your brand becomes indelibly tied to apologies, such as Lena Dunham, the routine of putting out a new set of regrets starts to seem increasingly performative and indicative of a lack of growth alongside the belief systems of their target demographics.

The other end of the spectrum is just as undesirable, as Battistella points out: “Do you remember the whole John Wayne movie line, ‘Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness?’” he asks. “In the movie they were actually using it kind of ironically, but I think people have taken that literally—and now [some] people feel like if you do something wrong and you’re held accountable for it by others, it’s somehow insulting or a sign of their own victimhood.”

What’s important to consider is that these social media callouts are, often, the only space for the general public to hold public figures accountable—but even then, that authority is finite. As PR sources point out, the “canceled” are always allowed re-entry into their respective niches in due time (read: Aziz Ansari), with the timeline dependent on the grievousness of the allegations, industry standards, expectations, and societal rhythms. One doesn’t need to look any further than Mel Gibson’s nomination for Best Director and attendance at the 2017 Academy Awards, years after his leaked anti-Semitic rant during a 2006 DUI arrest and subsequent abusive and racist voicemail to his ex-girlfriend, as proof positive of this fact.

It’s inevitable that redemption will happen for the canceled. But in that space before the comeback, the best tool remains for the court of public opinion to demand apologies and utilize social media for accountability to set a rubric for engagement, for the future people in entertainment who do care about the communities that consume their content.

As it stands, Jess Hilarious has yet to post a link up on her Instagram for her fans to donate to the families of the Christchurch victims as she had committed. While that by no means casts her entire apology into doubt, it should be noted that sincerity goes beyond rhetoric; if promises are made to address large-scale controversies but left behind as soon as the social media fervor quells, then that is merely lip service that may fall under the radar at present—but will manage to rear its ugly head at the point of the next misstep.

While redemption is inevitable for the rich and famous, there is a difference between it coming at the hands of the ruling class as opposed fans, who want nothing more than to enjoy their work.

“How else do we, the public, [who are] largely powerless in the everyday execution of systems of value, moderate society without something like cancel culture?,” Felix asks. Adding, “Where we can point out in real time the attitudes that perpetuate violence and call them out? That said, does cancel culture work? I don’t know, but it’s what we have. I think it helps mobilize people and direct intentions toward better legislative possibilities.”

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