Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: Cancelling cancel culture

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The practice of “cancelling” is becoming increasingly common. By cancelling, I mean the process by which people mark someone as problematic and withdraw any and all prior support to ignore and exclude this person. To a lesser degree, when I talk about “cancel culture” I’m also referring to the broader habit our society has of simply doing away with those it finds undesirable. One way this manifests is when celebrities’ old, problematic tweets resurface and people decide to cancel them in retaliation. It is important to remember that actions do have consequences, and folks absolutely should be held accountable for disrespectful or mean-spirited behavior. However, we should also think about what it means for us to immediately close someone off. I believe it’s worth thinking about what accountability looks like beyond simply exiling someone. In doing so, we can position ourselves more firmly within the values of social justice.

One reason worth giving cancel culture a hard examination is that it doesn’t seem to be working. If cancel culture is meant to be a tool for social justice, cancelling people and not paying them any mind would compel them look at their actions and take the time to understand why what they’ve done or said might not be in good taste. While the idea of cancelling someone might be well-intentioned and intended to inspire some introspection and critical thought on the part of the individual being cancelled, rarely does this learning manifest on its own. For example, this past summer Roseanne Barr had the reboot of her show cancelled by ABC following a racist tweet she made about Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to former president Barack Obama. As a result, Barr was forced to apologize in hopes of reacquiring a spot in the public’s good graces.

However, in her apologies to Jarrett, it was clear that Barr had not really grasped an understanding of why she had warranted criticism. Further, her apology doesn’t show her raising her critical consciousness or being more mindful with her language. In other words, nowhere in her apology did Barr say that this fiasco prompted a change in her politics, a hard look in the mirror, an interrogation of the ways in which she perpetuated racism or a lifelong commitment to unlearning racial privilege on her part. This is not to question the validity of Barr’s facing consequences for her actions. Rather, I’m arguing that effectively shutting Barr out might provide an immediate band-aid solution to the problem, but it also provides no real impetus for Barr to critically examine and think about why, exactly, her tweet was problematic, why she was criticized and why her show was cancelled.

Recognizing that cancel culture is not resulting in the learning and changed behavior of cancelled individuals is precisely why I propose a shift in how we deal with people who have said or done irresponsible things. Thinking through what it means to hold people accountable is more in line with the social justice ideals that cancel culture is — at its most basic level — rooted in. That cancel culture may simply be brushing aside those individuals who don’t fit into a collective vision of the future is troubling, and may actually be serving as a direct antithesis to the mission of social justice at the end of the day.

I’ll try to flesh this out more. In some ways, cancel culture is exemplified by our prison system. We send people away to prison after they’ve committed a crime. It is somewhat implied that the time individuals spend in prison will turn them into good citizens, the kinds of people who don’t commit crimes. Yet, over a nine-year time period, released prisoners averaged five arrests. Like cancel culture, the prison system punishes people, but doesn’t really provide space for behavioral change. What’s more is that the prison population is disproportionately representative of the black and Latinx population in the United States. Obviously there’s absolutely no moral equivalence between mass incarceration and the efforts by social justice activists to cancel those responsible for bigoted behaviors or statements, and it’s important to recognize that there’s a power disparity between the actors in these situations. But for those of us who seek to uphold social justice ideals, it behooves us to think about what it means for one of the mechanisms we access in the name of social justice — cancelling — to so closely resemble a system that produces negative life outcomes disproportionately for people of color.

Engaging in this thought process and envisioning accountability beyond models evocative of oppressive structures are worthwhile exercises if we seek to live out social justice ideals and frameworks. This is not to say that accountability can’t, in part, look like cancelling. Sometimes, people commit crimes and engage in behavior so harmful and so galling that they don’t deserve a second chance — especially to keep the people around them safe from further harm. But for those who’ve behaved in ways that can be reasonably unlearned, I believe it’s also worth thinking about accountability in terms of restorative justice. In totality, accountability might look like going further than punitive measures to ensure that individuals take active steps to understand the harm they may have perpetuated and develop ways to lead a life in which they’ve given up harmful notions and tendencies. To do this would be to truly commit ourselves to a socially just society.

Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. Calvin Jones says:

    I agree with your central argument, but it might be worthwhile to take your analysis one level up. The question I would ask is: What exactly, is wrong with the joke Roseanne made, and why does social justice require her to be punished for it?

    She made a joke about a person’s appearance. That in and of itself can’t be problematic because everyone does that all the time. (How many jokes have been made about Trump’s appearance?) The person was a woman. She is a person of mixed European and African heritage. It can’t be off-limits to make a joke about a person’s appearance just because he or she is mixed race, or African-American, or any other race. That would be infantilizing a whole segment of the population, as if they are too touchy to be joked about, while it’s open season on all other people.

    So it must be the actual joke that was the problem. But Roseanne’s joke was of a common type, i.e., Person A looks like what you would get if X and Y had a baby. I’ve heard hundreds of such jokes. So it’s not the form of the joke. It can only be the reference to particular characteristics that Roseanne chose for her joke.

    I agree that she made unwise choices in her joke. And I can see why some people wouldn’t like it one bit. But I have to ask, has our society become so super-sensitive to unfortunate jokes that we have to ruin a person’s career over just one such joke? Or short of that, must we consider an unfortunate joke as deserving of punishment at all?

    Or is the most important thing the identity of the miscreant, and whether the person is generally supported by social justice activists? Barack Obama made a joke about how he is such a bad bowler that he should bowl in the special olympics. Various progressive celebrities have appeared in blackface. Dan Ackroyd, Ted Danson, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Jimmy Kimmel, Greg Giraldo, just to name a few. Hillary Clinton recently made a joke about how black people all look alike. None of these people faced any consequences for their “jokes” about the appearance of black people. Sarah Jeong’s tweets did not cause her to lose her job at the NYT.

    Why is that, I wonder?

    • Sodas and Fries says:

      She made a joke about a person’s appearance. That in and of itself can’t be problematic because everyone does that all the time.

      Likening a black person to looking like an ape is not something people do “all the time”, and indeed is insanely problematic. Likening black people visually and in terms of intelligence to apes is a form of racist slander, thinly coding them as savages, that has been around for a long, long time.

      There’s “unfortunate jokes”, and there’s racism. Ignorant or not, there is no such thing as “super-sensitive” when it comes to portraying a race as animalistic in nature, or sub human. And if I know these things, then Roseanne has no excuse whatsoever.

      As for your would-be a-ha moment at the end of your post, a) take into consideration when said people appeared in blackface – not that the era excuses the act, but there’s a degree of ignorance that can be claimed decades ago that one cannot claim now if they were to do it in the ’10’s, and b) didn’t vocal Trump critic James Gunn lose his job as a film director for Marvel a few months ago?

      • Calvin Jones says:

        I wonder if you now think that the “era” excuses Ralph Northam?

        Perhaps you should watch some of the Comedy Central Roasts to see how often black people are compared to apes, and it’s all in good fun, judging from the reactions of the black people so described. At the roast of Emmitt Smith, Jeff Ross compared Shaquille O’Neill to King Kong, as one example that comes to mind.

        • Sodas and Fries says:

          Sorry, I have no idea who Ralph Northam is and I doubt it pertains to my point.

          Speaking of: “all in good fun” for who? I get the feeling you’re putting yourself in the shoes of the joker and not in the shoes of the person that has to wear the joke. Try a bit of empathetic thinking here.
          Because it doesn’t matter what your intent is; you can slap “it’s only a joke!” after all sorts of horrid misguided “jokes” – what matters is how the person you’re aiming the jest at feels, and I can promise you without an inch of a doubt that 9 out of 10 black people will not find being likened to an ape “in good fun”.

          As for your example, I’ve seen a clip where Chris Rock grin and bears Louis CK and Ricky Gervais using the n word (Jerry Seinfeld, also present, classily abstains). Just because Chris Rock ‘allows’ the word to be said there, does not absolve that it’s a terrible thing to say at any time. Same goes with likening black people to apes or other bestial animals, I don’t care what predictably white comedian called Shaquille O’Neill.
          Also King Kong is a movie monster. Key difference.

          • Calvin Jones says:

            Here is the actual joke told by Jeff Ross at the Emmitt Smith roast:
            “Shaq, I noticed your knuckles look a bit scraped. Did you walk here?”

            This was met by a huge laugh from everyone in the mostly black audience, including Shaq, who could hardly stop laughing.

            What makes this joke so powerful is exactly the reason you don’t like it, namely, that it is looking a taboo right in the face. It is saying, “I am going to use the most offensive trope about black people and make a cleverly-constructed joke about it, and because you and I both know this is a roast and it’s all in fun, there is no reason to be offended by it.”

          • Calvin Jones says:

            Ralph Northam is the governor of Virginia who got in trouble because of a year book picture of a man in blackface and another man in a klan hood.

        • Michael Earl says:

          No, Ralph Northram was excused when it became clear there was no way to fire him that didn’t risk a Republican getting his job.

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