Cancel Culture: A Complicated Shortcut in Communication
Living with two teens in the thick of pop culture and internet on-goings, I vaguely follow Cancel Culture. Some incidents my kids share with me seem like justice being done, some feel unfair and horrific, like public stoning. This essay attempts to make some sense of it all and provide a starting point for further discussion.
When my 13-year-old wanted to celebrate a victory with a trip to Chuck E Cheese, Cancel Culture threatened to directly impact our plans. Seems Chuck E Cheese suffered an internet smear campaign for allegedly re-selling leftover pizzas. My research proved these claims false, but it may have been one factor leading Chuck E Cheese to file bankruptcy and restructure, in addition to other factors, such as the pandemic. The Chuck E Cheese nearest my home closed, but the location one town south survived, so En and I took our celebration there, where I literally took notes, interviewing him on the Cancel Culture phenomenon.
The personality that seemed to influence the greatest reach in debunking the re-used Chuck E Cheese pizza claims was MatPat, the creator and host of Game Theory, a popular series on YouTube. I’ll discuss him more later. I perceive that his experiences with Cancel Culture highlight how ambiguous the movement may seem.
I began drafting a multi-piece post in the spring but tired of the theme. Cancel Culture feels unwieldy, hits too many subgroups with which I’m unfamiliar. Most discussions I engage in about Cancel Culture become polarized, as in it’s good or it’s bad, or get bogged down in one of its many tangential themes — fame, the responsibility of celebrities, bestiality (now called zoofilia), the pitfalls of social media, generational differences… What interests me in Cancel Culture, or in general irl culture, are questions of forgiveness; an individual’s ability to change and to what extent one might expect grace from others upon doing so, and to what extent art might or ought be evaluated separate from the artist (think a more general application of Death of the Author). Something of some of those might appear in future posts.
Beyond which, with blows Americans have received this week, Cancel Culture feels relatively unimportant. Although I suppose those who effect change through Cancel Culture or those who have been canceled may disagree.
When I told my kids that I was tabling my Cancel Culture blog post, my son seemed disappointed by my lack of follow through. Well, I can’t have that! So in way of presenting some overall explanation of Cancel Culture, I will highlight some examples and share some illuminating bits from already published articles.
While my examples will address personalities that hold interest for my family, Cancel Culture may be exerted on anyone from any segment of society, including actors, comedians, bureaucrats, politicians or anyone at all. In The New York Times article, The Long Tortured History of Cancel Culture, Ligaya Mishan describes some complexities of the concept. “...cancel culture is not a movement — it has neither leaders nor membership, and those who take part in it do so erratically, maybe only once, and share no coherent ideology… Left unanswered is what explains the urgent need to not just call out but condemn — the resurgence of ancient beliefs in scapegoating and human sacrifice; the shift in American society from guilt to shame…”
One of my favorite singer songwriters, Ryan Adams, received criticism for manipulating women, both in terms of controlling under the guise of “helping” female artists, as well as inappropriately texting with an underage girl that he says he did not know was underage. I link the NY Times article from 2019 and USA Today article of 2021, below, in which Adams reflects on his canceled career. I feel empathy for these women. But after tens, if not hundreds of hours, driving to the music of Ryan Adams, I’ll straight up say that I’m not about to judge his art unfavorably, even in light of his personal failings. Off the top of my head, it’s easy to list several rockers in that same category. It’s a debatable point and I respect that many, including my daughter, might disagree with my position. But I think it’s possible to separate the artist and their flaws from the art they create.
Another case that lives in the realm of my reality (i.e. older musicians and writers) is J.K. Rowling, against whom there is a movement to cancel based upon transphobic comments. The most enlightening piece of media I’ve consumed in this research is a 2021 video by ContraPoints. J.K. Rowling | ContraPoints At an hour and a half long, watching this video is a time commitment, but presents an impressively balanced view of bigotry against trans people while placing J.K. Rowling’s social media comments, essay and books in context.
Returning to the complicated world of online influencers and younger personalities, MatPat, who I referenced before, has been canceled, or almost canceled, at least a couple of times. In 2020, there was a campaign to cancel MatPat following a video he posted speculating which video game characters might best be equipped to survive Covid-19. Some considered this insensitive or even offensive. Others spoke on Twitter, where most of this cancel business occurs, in defense of MatPat, saying that critics misrepresented the video.
In 2021 MatPat participated in a Live Streamed event, Color the Spectrum, with other celebrities, hosted by Mark Rober, an inventor/engineer who posts entertaining YouTube videos, and tv host Jimmy Kimmel, benefiting NEXT for Autism. From what I can gather in much time spent, it seems that some people have criticisms of NEXT for Autism, and some consider Autism Speaks a hate group, an organization that NEXT for Autism used to have some cooperation with. MatPat received significant push back for “donating” to Autism Speaks, although it’s unclear that he actually donated and the fundraising show that he appeared on was not for Autism Speaks.
I’ve included a link to the Autism Speaks mission statement below in the bibliography. I wonder to what degree their focus may have shifted over the last fifteen years, based on new knowledge and understanding, as well as public feedback, and to what extent that may or may not be perceived by the public on Twitter. I may need to take a deep dive into understanding the various organizations established to support individuals with autism because it seems my understanding may be out of sync with more current ideas. My strong urge to delete these two paragraphs, however, alarms me, and seems poignant in this post. I sincerely welcome dialogue on any of my comments but my sense that if I say something disagreeable, it may as readily become cause for vilification as a point of discussion…
That itself says something about the climate of online communication, which seems meaningfully on point. So I leave those paragraphs and proceed to one more example I find difficult to fully embrace the strong reactions over, namely TheOdd1sOut.
TheOdd1sOut is the creator of funny story animations, largely from youthful experience, about things like working at “Sooubway,” spelling, and terrible Poetry teachers. There were calls to cancel the Odd1sOut when he used a sarcastic Tone Tag “/s” in a sarcastic way. Tone tags are abbreviations used after statements of text to show intent or tone. They originated to help neurodivergent people understand the tone in text but may be beneficial to anyone. TheOdd1sOut tweeted, “I think putting /s to show sarcasm is a really great and useful tool! /s”. He experienced a backlash from that tweet, others piled on tweeting that he be canceled. He removed the tweet, issued an apology, and seems that he pulled through without being canceled.
I sought examples of personalities who were blatantly in the wrong, people that I might clearly get behind canceling. It was recommended that I look up SkyDoesMinecraft, changed to SkyDoesEverything. He was canceled under accusations of abuse and is reportedly selling his YouTube channel. Maybe he’s abusive. He certainly says some “wrong” (offensive, politically incorrect) things. But I won’t take the hours that would be necessary to try to tease it all out. Seems as bad as the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial. But there’s no trial. There’s a long stream of damning Tweets from Elizabeth @Lizbuggy. Pictures of his arrest after she called the police. Apparently he ripped through his roommate’s mattress; his roommate didn’t want to press charges. And police took him to the hospital, concerned about his mental state. A lot of information that makes him look pretty bad, but I can’t help but think Elizabeth @Lizbuggy is at least as horrible — posting a pic of the guy cuffed at probably his lowest point; posting personal texts, that she probably knew she’d be posting, so likely guarded her tone, posting accusations. It’s all very gross.
In a last ditch effort to get behind an example of Cancel Culture without a shadow of a doubt, I was told to look up ZeRo Super Smash Bros player allegations. And with that, I give up. ZeRo faced accusations of sexual misconduct through text with underage girls to which he confessed in 2020. He was canceled. Good. Following that, however, he attempted suicide and in 2021 he recanted his confession, explaining that his depression led him to self-sabotage in way of a false confession.
If nothing else, perhaps these examples offer something of the flavor of Cancel Culture. For more perspective, I’ll share some insights from articles that helped me build context on Cancel Culture.
Mishan provides history, and an analysis of the complex ways to perceive Cancel Culture in her New York Times article.
Once we spoke of ‘call-out culture,’ but the time for simply highlighting individual blunders for the edification of a wider audience, as in a medieval morality play, seems to have passed. Those who embrace the idea (if not the precise language) of canceling seek more than pat apologies and retractions, although it’s not always clear whether the goal is to right a specific wrong and redress a larger imbalance of power — to wreak vengeance as a way of rendering some justice, however imperfect; to speak out against those ‘existing mechanisms’ that don’t serve us so well after all; to condemn an untrustworthy system and make a plea for a fairer one — or just the blood-sport thrill of humiliating a stranger as part of a gleeful, baying crowd.
A student of mine (8th grade) summed up a recent representative example of Cancel Culture well. He explained that a guy said something bad; he was tired or aggravated or whatever, said something wrong. The student observed that the comments then made to the guy were cruel and also wrong. The guy offered what seems a genuine apology but people continue to criticize him.
Pew Research Center offers summaries of attitudes toward Cancel Culture based on demographic information such as party affiliation and education, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/05/19/americans-and-cancel-culture-where-some-see-calls-for-accountability-others-see-censorship-punishment/ The article indicates that fewer than half of Americans have heard much about Cancel Culture. So, who knows? Perhaps shedding some light on the issue in this blog post will be worthwhile to someone.
I conclude with a thoughtful quote by Amanda Koontz, an associate professor of Sociology at University of Central Florida. “The instant nature of social media means that very large, complicated social issues get condensed into one sentence, one minute for TikTok [videos] or just a photo on Instagram. Everything is becoming very succinct, and it both discourages nuanced discussion and encourages all-or-nothing stances. Cancel culture is ‘You’re all good, or you’re all bad,’ and human nature is much more complicated than that.”
An Open Letter to Matt from an Ex Fan, Reddit, 2021 https://www.reddit.com/r/GameTheorists/comments/qeuvwz/an_open_letter_to_matt_from_an_exfan/
Autism Speaks, https://www.autismspeaks.org/our-mission
Coscarelli, Joe and Ryzik, Melena, Ryan Adams Dangled Success. Women Say They Paid a Price.
The New York Times, February 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/arts/music/ryan-adams-women-sex.html
Deangelo, Daniel, Former Pro Smash Player ZeRo Says Confession was a Suicide Note, GameRant, November 17, 2021 https://gamerant.com/smash-pro-player-zero-confession-recant-suicide-note/
Dawson, Shane, “Conspiracy Theories with Shane Dawson - Chuck e’ Cheese,” 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np9Xo6Dvx28 (29:15) (Clips from this video appear in other 2019 videos, despite the date here being 2021. Could not find older link to the entirety of this video. Probably okay. I do not suggest time spent watching.)
Dudenhoefer, Nicole, Is Cancel Culture Effective? Pegasus: The Magazine of the University of Central Florida, 2017 https://www.ucf.edu/pegasus/is-cancel-culture-effective/
Fairfax, Zackarie, SkyDoesMinecraft Puts YouTube Channel Up for Sale After Abuse Allegations, Dexerto, May 16, 2022 https://www.dexerto.com/entertainment/skydoesminecraft-puts-youtube-channel-up-for-sale-after-abuse-allegations-1824880/
The Food Theorists, “Chuck E Cheese Pizza: Should You Be Scared?” 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdypKKKQ8uA (16:35)
Ligaya Mishan, The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture, The New York Times, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/t-magazine/cancel-culture-history.html
Marcus, Ezra, Tone Is Hard to Grasp Online. Can Tone Indicators Help? The New York Times, December 9, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/09/style/tone-indicators-online.html
(Note: Ethan points out that this article incorrectly ascribes use of Tone Tags mainly to Twitter or specific communities on Tumblr. They may as likely be used through all social media and in texts as well.)
Matthewloffhagen, Why MatPat Got Canceled: COVID Charity Stream Makes People Upset, Elecspo, December 2020 https://www.elecspo.com/games/matpat-cancelled-covid-charity-stream-upset/
Matthewloffhagen, Why the Odd1s Out Got Canceled on Twitter for Being Too Sarcastic, Elecspo, November 24, 2020 https://www.elecspo.com/news/odd1sout-cancelled-twitter-being-sarcastic/
The Mighty, Why the Autism Community is Speaking Out Against “Color the Spectrum” Campaign, April 26, 2021 https://themighty.com/2021/04/color-the-spectrum-autism-campaign-pushback/
Rober, Mark and Kimmel, Jimmy, Color the Spectrum LIVE, April 30, 2021 https://www.autismspeaks.org/our-mission
Ryu, Jenna, Ryan Adams says he lost 'who I am' after emotional abuse claims from Mandy Moore, Phoebe Bridgers, USA Today, August 9, 2021 https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/music/2021/08/09/ryan-adams-sexual-misconduct-claims-mandy-moore-phoebe-bridgers/5542642001/
Tone Tags and Their Meanings https://tonetags.carrd.co/#masterlist
Twitter thread, Elizabeth @Lizbuggy https://twitter.com/Lizbuggie/status/1485280124467486722?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1485280124467486722%7Ctwgr%5Ehb_2_10%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.dexerto.com%2Fentertainment%2Fskydoesminecraft-puts-youtube-channel-up-for-sale-after-abuse-allegations-1824880%2F
Twitter thread, MatPat and Autism Speaks, 2022 https://twitter.com/OratorioPicaro/status/1514669251772231688