What We Talk About When We Talk About Cancelling People

TV shows get cancelled. Movies get cancelled. Clothing lines and parades get cancelled. Cancelling people is trickier to grasp, but we do it all the time. Someone says something that doesn’t align with our values so we un-follow. We shame, ridicule, threaten a boycott; demand for a swift removal from their jobs and the public sphere. Cancel is a button we hit when shaming isn’t enough. It is, as far as public image goes, its own Thanos finger-snap. Right now, we’re snap-happy. This has attributed to an entire culture on social media that relishes the takedown of anyone remotely problematic, high-profile figures especially. (The bigger they are…) Anyone on any day of the week might get hit with the C-word, but what does it mean exactly? What does any of it mean if James Gunn gets cancelled, while someone like Les Moonves gets the benefit of the doubt

It’s hard to tell when cancel culture dawned on us, but I remember seeing the term post-Harvey Weinstein, well after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the story that left everybody wondering, “Why haven’t Roman Polanski and Woody Allen been cancelled?” This signified what the term meant, the criteria that warranted such a punishment, and the punishment that someone like them deserved. This would arise periodically as more high-profile figures came to light. (Kevin Spacey’s cancellation shined a keen spotlight on Bryan Singer.) This may be whataboutism, but I’m not engaging in Trump’s whataboutism where he diverts criticism by way of absolving his own persecution. James Gunn is guilty, but of a thing completely separate from Weinstein. And yet, Gunn’s been lopped up as another monster in the Me Too era. People, of course, should be held accountable for the things they do and say. This merits the question: if the standard has been set, then why doesn’t it apply to all?

Recently there has been a new focus, or renewed focus on comments. Say something insensitive or “not-woke” and the C-word comes flying. Most recently, Henry Cavill equated flirting with rape which set the internet ablaze. It warranted his shaming for the week, but I didn’t believe he deserved anything more. It was a teachable moment for him to realize how painfully stupid his words were and a cause to educate himself. Nonetheless, the controversy still prompted this: 

This makes me wonder what possible outcome could’ve given people their moment’s satisfaction. Immediately recast Superman? Cancel Man of Steel 2? Boycott the DCEU? What Cavill said was tone-deaf, but comments like that warrant their own form of punishment. Disgrace, yes. (Which I definitely took part in.) Cavill’s comments were EVERYWHERE that day. At that frequency, it was as if he had raped someone. If that were the case then yes, expel him from the DCEU, from Hollywood, and he should be awaiting trial. He didn’t rape anyone. He spoke terribly. We can agree that what he said was beyond bad, that he might even be a bad person (aren’t we all), but to say this is grounds to cancel him is extreme. He may be an actor, he’s also human thus bound to fuck up, which justifies his shaming. But since he didn’t do anything wrong, shouldn’t he be allowed to grow from it?

Why do we regard those in the limelight (whether by choice or by chance) with such high esteem? What prompts this perception that just because someone looks perfect they then have to be perfect or else? Isn’t it dangerous to assume everybody is woke or went to Harvard? (Even Harvard students fuck up.) Cavill’s comments warrant him being dragged for his lack of common sense on the topic, but eviscerated? That’s a bit much. I’ve routinely lambasted James Cameron for the things he’s said, but I don’t think his comments, as much as I may facepalm when I read them, merit his cancellation. Because I think that even at Cameron’s age he can still learn from his error. But I suppose that’s dependent on whether he apologizes and learns duly.

Even when you’re not a celebrity, the punishment for speaking indelicately can be swifter and crueler. In 2013, Justine Sacco sent out a satirical tweet just before boarding a plane to Cape Town, a tweet that would change her life. Justine, up until then, was just like you and me, someone with a meager Twitter following and nonetheless used social media to vent her distaste for air travel. She perhaps never would’ve been in the spotlight, if the spotlight hadn’t wanted her. The tweet read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” 

In the 11-hours it took for her to fly from London to Cape Town, the outrage came in droves with users lambasting her for the very thing she was satirizing – the privilege of her skin color. Her tweet had been taken out of the context of her own insular community and broadcasted to the entire Twitter-sphere courtesy of Gawker’s Sam Biddle. (Literally any tweet is weaponized when taken out of context.) #HasJustineLandedYet went trending, her name the number one topic, her face the only target at a shooting gallery. The calls came pouring at IAC where she worked. She was eventually fired from her communications job.

That Justine worked in public relations was simply too good an opportunity to pass up for Sam Biddle. (Opportunism!) The collective shaming led to her ostracization in nearly every avenue of her life – social media, her career, even her family. (Her family is native South African, and loyal to the African National Congress.) Justine was the 2013 equivalent of being cancelled. Did she deserve what happened to her, all over a joke tweet?

Cancelling someone is the power we wield as a mob on social media. Attention is the only currency we have, so to reign down hatred is like calling down the power of God. But how righteous can we be in a case like Justine Sacco if she wasn’t allowed a teachable moment to learn from her perceived wrongdoing? So many others have said far worse yet still managed to bounce back.

Kanye West infamously said that slavery was a choice. (Along with a rolling list of other stupid and provocative things he’s said that merit at least some consequence for his career.) He walked back those comments, got dragged on social media with calls for his cancellation, yet his album still debuted at number 1. Logan Paul, too, fucked up in a far more colossal way than Justine Sacco. He laughed at a dead body – a thing he actually did on top of other flat-out insensitive shit he pulled in Japan. Aside from a very brief hiatus and a few demonetized ads, he’s doing just fine. Perhaps it was their privilege and fame that saved them. Nevertheless, why does the punishment fit some – ruin a career, taint a brand, lead to one’s ostracization – but exclude others? What does cancelling someone mean when an artist or YouTuber’s base simply doesn’t give a fuck? And is it truly moral righteousness, or woke smugness

Amy Powell, an executive at Paramount TV was recently fired over “racially-charged comments.” The obvious whataboutism is John Schnatter of Papa John’s who used the N-word and subsequently stepped down as chairman. But the difference is that Schnatter had a prelude to this with his own insensitive comments towards the national anthem protests, comments that led to him stepping down as CEO. (Even then, everything might turn out well for Schnatter in the end.) Amy Powell’s “crime” remains vague, nonetheless it was grounds to terminate her as opposed to her being demoted in what to me feels like a genuine teachable moment for her. Have teachable moments been cancelled?

Teachable moments, of course, apply to those who haven’t committed crimes, but have spoken out of line, tweeted recklessly, etc. Separating words from actions is not a gymnastics exercise, and yet we conflate the two as one and the same. What James Gunn tweeted was disgusting. No one is defending his tweets. But what precedent are we setting when disgusting tweets gets a swifter punishment than harassment and abuse? Why hasn’t Alex Jones been cancelled? (For all of his harassing grieving parents and peddling conspiracies, Twitter only sought to put him in timeout.) Why hasn’t Mike Cernovich, or Donald Trump for that matter?

Netflix, despite the promising precedent they’ve set with Kevin Spacey, has essentially undone its goodwill with Danny Masterson and Jeffrey Tambor. Cancelling, of course, is only as good as a company willing to stick to its “values.” Rape allegations came out against The Ranch-star in March 2017. After Hollywood’s watershed moment in October with Weinstein, Masterson’s allegations resurfaced with an entirely new fervor thanks to “overwhelming evidence,” yet the LAPD’s investigation has stalled, and it wasn’t until December that Netflix decided to fire Masterson. (Whereas Spacey was fired within days.)

Jeffrey Tambor, despite allegations that he had sexually harassed his former assistant Van Barnes along with actress Trace Lysette, still got to go on Arrested Development’s promotion tour. That fateful, disastrous NYT interview changed everybody’s tune, with calls to boycott the show and cancel the cast, albeit save for Jessica Walter and Alia Shawkat. As terrible as Jason Bateman’s words were, he hadn’t said anything remotely problematic prior. His “problematic-ness” is something that can be rectified with some educating, which in no doubt was spurred by his shaming. (Another shaming I took part in.) But it’s insane to me that Bateman should be done for or that Arrested Development should be cancelled. How careless is that notion given Walters and Shawkat have starring roles on the show? Burning the whole cast at the stake would result in unnecessary casualties, which is why I think these are questions worth pondering even if there might not be an answer. 

I don’t think James Gunn is innocent. I firmly believe he deserved a demotion, shaming, for the internet to “do its thing.” But that Disney excised him like a tumor (and that we ostracized him like a leper) still rings like a punishment that does not fit the crime, especially considering no crimes were committed. That there were calls to prosecute him over these tweets, terrible as they are, is blowing this out of proportion. Yet, for me to even suggest a different punishment or something other than his cancellation will read to others as me saying he’s innocent, which could potentially prompt calls for my own cancellation. Just like Thanos accruing them infinity stones, perhaps it’s only a matter of time. We are all on a ticking clock. We all have expiration dates. All it takes is a Twitter moment.

That same weekend actor Anthony Anderson, one of the stars of Black-ish came under allegations of assault. A police report was filed. LAPD is investigating. But the James Gunn story dominated the news cycle. Perhaps it was because Gunn works under the Disney banner that it was too juicy to pass up for some people. But Black-ish is under ABC which Disney owns. So where were we? Where was the outrage? What are we even doing?

James Gunn is guilty of his own “crime,” but we treated him as if he were a Weinstein-level monster. Allegations replaced tweets. The more tweets he had, the more monstrous he looked. It has snowballed to the point that whole Guardians cast, just because they can delineate disgusting tweets and actual revolting behavior, they are nonetheless cancelled. By some insane broad definition, supporting James Gunn is endorsing rape and pedophilia. There have been no allegations to come out against him since his tweets surfaced and yet, some don’t think he should come back at all. Why is Gunn considered irredeemable, while John Lasseter gets a “leave of absence,” or Jeffrey Tambor gets an apology tour? This is the culture, and an oddly selective one at that. 

In the case of Weinstein and Spacey, cancellation is the least of their worries. They’ve assaulted and raped countless people, abused the system to enable their continued behavior, therefore rotting in jail seems the proper punishment. They shouldn’t be allowed to come back in any way shape or form because it’s clear they haven’t learned with their non-apology apologies and rehab stints. At the same time, it doesn’t matter what I think they deserve or how they should be perceived; it’s the survivors who deserve vindication.

I would’ve thought that after Weinstein, studios and the public would be harder, swifter on abuse. It’s clear now that we’re dropping the ball. Only stories with the bigger implications seem to warrant our attention. So where does that leave cancel culture as far as what we won’t tolerate and what we, apparently, are willing to drag our feet on? Is that bias or just indicative of our short attention spans in the age of moment-to-Twitter-moment controversies?

Cancelling is the life sentence we dole out in the court of public opinion. On Twitter, any number of proceedings can happen at any given moment, but we shouldn’t be gleefully handing out these deaths by exile as if it’s the only way to hold someone accountable. Anything revealed to be slightly inappropriate or problematic (however blown up or misinterpreted) prompts calls for one’s cancellation. Pete Davidson was attacked for commenting on fiancé Ariana Grande’s Instagram. Dwayne Johnson is now an animal abuser. We may as well cancel soap. Or an espresso machine. Henry Cavill and James Gunn should know better, which warrants their shaming and disgrace for a time, but it doesn’t have to mean that their entire lives be eviscerated. Not everyone is Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, or John Lasseter. If anything, cancel culture proves that celebrities need learning. By and large, so do we.

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