Author: Sam Seliger
By this point we’re all familiar with it. Somebody digs up an old (or new) obscure tweet, photo or quote from a celebrity that seems, in today’s light, racist, sexist, homophobic or just otherwise in poor taste. Within hours, as the retweets grow, they are a trending topic. Soon people are boycotting their art or media, sponsorships are lost and the person is all but ostracized from mainstream society. They are "cancelled.”
It has happened to a large number of celebrities. Roseanne Barr from her TV show following a racist tweet. Former USA gymnastics president and chief executive Mary Bono resigned after she tweeted negatively about U.S. Olympic sponsor Nike’s Colin Kaepernick-driven ad campaign, drawing criticism from star gymnast Simone Biles, and the general public. Rapper/singer Doja Cat, a rising star in the hip-hop/R&B world, with the viral video single “Mooo!,” was cursed to be a one-hit wonder after old tweets surfaced in which she used homophobic slurs, and in multiple tweets, refused to condemn her language.
This phenomenon can sometimes be a good thing. In the #MeToo movement, social media outrage following each accusation of sexual harassment and/or assault led to quick and appropriately stern punishment for many offenders. Social media outrage was certainly helpful in ousting the disgusting Harvey Weinstein.
The problem with cancel culture, however, is that it is unfair. Just because someone has done something unfavorable in the past does not mean that they should be ostracized. It is important to note that this does not apply to all situations. We have to consider the strength of the evidence, the severity of the action, how the person has grown and changed and the sincerity of their apology. However, there have been a number of efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, to “cancel” people who arguably did not deserve it.
Social media personality Brother Nature (real name Kelvin Peña), known for his videos interacting playfully with cute wild animals, such as deer, was the victim of one such effort. After tweets from 2011 and 2012 surfaced in which he made a variety of offensive comments such as “Wanna hear a joke? Women’s rights,” “When I grow up I wanna be like Chris Brown. So if my girlfriend tried to look through my phone while driving I can choke and punch her :D,” and “F*** that, Im Hitler. Everyone’s a f****** Nazi” (which, should be noted is a lyric from the song “Window,” by Tyler, the Creator).
Some Twitter users were upset and disappointed. Peña, who was 12 years old when he posted the tweets, issued a sincere apology, taking “total responsibility” for his words and reminding people he is “a man asking you to accept the apology of a young boy.” Luckily, the attempts to “cancel” him ended up failing, and he has retained most of his popularity and influence.
Peña, who has used his platform for significant charity work, was unfairly the victim of cancel culture. He should have been treated as a person who said dumb or uneducated things when he was 12 or 13 years old, as many kids his age do. However, some people tried to treat him as nothing more than the statements he made almost a decade ago. Further, they refused to acknowledge his sincere apology, one of the most important steps one can take in growing and learning from a mistake.
Another story, both more serious and far more complicated, is that of comedian Aziz Ansari. During the #MeToo movement, a woman, in an article for Babe.net, accused Ansari of behavior that was at a minimum questionable and at worst harmful. While Ansari did technically respect her desire not to have sexual intercourse, he repeatedly pushed her boundaries without explicit consent, and, as the woman claims, despite multiple nonverbal cues.
Ansari, who had been well-known as a supporter of feminism and the #MeToo movement, issued a statement, agreeing with the woman’s description of events, but saying that all interaction was entirely consensual, and said that he was seriously concerned that their perception of the communication between them differed. Many people on social media were very upset by the events, and rightfully so. Many women noted this type of event is all too common.
But the problem was the all-or-nothing nature of the response. People were quick to entirely cast off Ansari, calling him a rapist and refusing to consume any of his media again. Since that event, Ansari has laid low for a while. His Netflix series, “Masters of None,” which was on hiatus, has remained that way, although it has not been cancelled outright.
Some men cast the blame entirely on the woman, calling it a coordinated hit-job, even though Ansari confirmed the events and owned up. There was far too little of the important discussion that should have come as a result, about what consent is and about how desires and intentions should be communicated in a sexual interaction. But because of “cancel culture” few people were willing to try to bridge that gap.
More importantly, because he was “cancelled,” Ansari was not treated as he should have been. Clearly, he was not free of wrongdoing. I believed his accuser, even before he confirmed the events. But I also believe Ansari, that he did not try to force her to have sex with him, although he may have overlooked signs that he should stop trying to get her to do so willingly. I do not think that Ansari is necessarily a despicable person, nor a rapist. He did something that was either misguided or unintelligent, depending on how you look at it. He hurt someone as a result. And he tried to apologize. While Ansari is a 36-year-old adult, that does not make him immune to personal growth. Hopefully, he learned from the experience, and will make better decisions about consent in the future.
We should give him that opportunity. He, and other “cancelled” celebrities, are, like all of us, people. We all make mistakes and do bad things. In essence, the problem with cancel culture is that it treats people as two-dimensional. They are either good or bad. Once a person has been exposed for doing something bad, they are irredeemable, and we can never enjoy anything they have done. While obviously this is true for some people, such as Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, it is not for Ansari, for Peña, or for others. People do both good and bad things, and it is important to remember that all people do, and that all people deserve to make up for it.