‘Cancel culture’ is in the title, so will it even make sense?

hanging signs that say no trespassing

My 1000% scientific, infallible, don’t-even-bother-to-question-it methodology tells me that often the answer is “no.”

Wednesday evening I watched the short video for singer JoJo’s new track “Joanna.” The self-titled track (JoJo is the nickname and stage name for Joanna Levesque) quietly showcases JoJo’s brilliant vocals and introspection with lyrics that air out the “unsolicited advice” and criticisms the 28-year old has received throughout her career. Lyrics like: But these days you don’t sound the same. Do you still have the same range? Yes! Show them! They better KNOW you, Joanna! It’s a gorgeous, smart song delivered with soul and wit by one of my favorite singers.

But I didn’t come here (but really, I did a little) to stan JoJo. I come here because in the process of stanning JoJo, I saw a tweet from MTV that said “@jojo puts an end to cancel culture with her powerful new song #Joanna.”

And I said to myself, “What?? What are you… This don’t make no sense!”

Once upon a time canceling was known as holding people accountable. It was a term that meant “You have trespassed against a person/people, I’m not for it, and you need to face consequences for your actions.” Maybe that accountability meant a withdrawal of support, de-platforming, a formal boycott, protest, legal action. That’s perfectly reasonable because in society people form agreements on what is acceptable behavior and what is not. When said agreements are broken – for instance with acts of racism, ableism, misogyny, cisheterosexism, abuse, sexual predation, or assault – then we are tasked to respond to said violation in a manner that makes it clear the behavior is unacceptable by anyone in society. This serves to discourage or disincentivize the behavior and protect those who would be harmed by it.

But “cancel” as it was used (by Black people, honestly) got away from us. It crawled out into the world and became symbolic of throwing people in an active volcano or shooting them out past the edges of the galaxy, while the reality for violators was far more hospitable even years after knowledge of their violations spread. They still had access to opportunities! They still had (often a lot of) money! They still had power and people willing to hide their abuses, play devil’s advocate for them, defend them, celebrate them, and die on the hill of them! So much for a volcano.

Rather than wrestle fully with the cognitive dissonance of holding the thoughts “this person did positive things/things I like(d)” and “this person did things that are detrimental to society”, fans/contrarians/trolls defaulted to disbelief and blaming a “culture” that would cause them the mental anguish of considering their fave’s misdeeds/fave misdeeds (or full on illegal behavior!) for a moment. Then it was “cancel culture has run amok” and “cancer culture is out of control” and “everyone is getting canceled.” So mainstream discourse devolved to the point where any criticism/critique – valid or not, necessary or not – with even the slightest momentum was deemed cancel culture coming to chuck someone into the void.

But now you see, Ebenezer, the true meaning of cancel culture isn’t that at all. It’s a response to socially destructive action. It aims to halt injury and mend wounds. It’s a collective “I got somethin’ for that.” For, indeed, in a healthy society we ought have somethin’ for that.

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