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Author Q&A

Why cancel culture scares the rich and powerful so much

Ernest Owens, author of “The Case for Cancel Culture,” says canceling is human nature and a right we should protect

Alex LaSalvia

I’ll admit, I felt like I’d heard the words “cancel culture” more than enough for one lifetime — then I read Ernest Owens’ new book and realized how much still needs to be said about America’s new favorite buzz phrase.

In “The Case for Cancel Culture,” Owens argues cancel culture is not a new practice, just a new name. It took off after an episode of the reality show “Love & Hip Hop,” when cast member Cisco Rosado uttered the now-infamous words to his ex-girlfriend: “You’re canceled.” The phrase blew up on Black Twitter and was eventually co-opted by political actors, completely divorced from its original tongue-in-cheek meaning.

But what we call “canceling” is just the same act of political or moral accountability that we see throughout history — from the doctrine of original sin, to the fate of Joan of Arc, to the Boston Tea Party, to McCarthyism — now more democratized than ever thanks to the internet.

The reason for Owens’ book boils down to this: He writes, “When you reframe cancel culture—regardless of the platform it exists on, as a matter of reassessing power within society—then it’s easier to understand why so many with influence and control hate it so much and want you to reject it.”

Listen to the audio of our full conversation or read the condensed version below. This interview has been edited for clarity.


Alex LaSalvia: Ernest Owens, thank you for joining us. Welcome to The Emancipator’s author Q&A series.

Ernest Owens: Thank you.

So I’m going to get started with the obvious question, how do you define cancel culture?

For me, I define cancel culture as something that is not partisan, you know. Republicans, independents, conservatives, progressives, everyone cancels.

And it’s basically something that is a phenomenon in which a person decides to cancel something that they believe poses some type of threat to their livelihood. So for example, I like to use what I call the McDonald’s example. If someone says, “I want to not eat McDonald’s anymore, because I think the hamburgers don’t taste good,” that’s not canceling, you know, that’s a matter of taste. If someone says, “I’m not going to go to McDonald’s anymore, because they do not give their employees a fair livable wage,” then that would be cancel culture.

Can you speak more to that difference between canceling and simple criticism?

So throughout history, we’ve seen people cancel. We look at Adam and Eve, we look at Joan of Arc, those decisions to cancel were based upon fundamental ideals that threaten people’s, you know, livelihoods or beliefs or ethics in some type of way. And so I believe that’s how cancel culture operates in my book. It’s not cultural critics not liking something, or disagreeing, or people not having the ability to have taste or opinions, but it’s something that holds a little bit more of a different type of element of concern and issue, even if you don’t personally agree.

So, say you’re a conservative that thinks that the Teletubbies are making people gay and you don’t want to support Tinky Winky, then yeah, that’s cancel culture, because you believe that those Teletubbies hold some fundamental value that is threatening or an existential crisis. But if you just said, “I don’t like the Teletubbies because I don’t think they can sing well,” or, “It doesn’t sound good,” or, “It just doesn’t make me feel happy,” it doesn’t pose that same level of concern.

And in your book you paint cancel culture with, I would say, a wider stroke than most people would — tying it to civil rights, boycotts, Joan of Arc, manifest destiny — what’s your goal in getting readers to view history through that lens?

It’s important for people to understand that there’s consequences, essentially, that cancel culture is about decision-making. And that in our livelihood, when you see people in society that are deciding to boycott books, or stop certain movies from showing because of their ideas, what they mean, that type of extremism has been happening since the beginning of time.

And that’s something that is not too far from what we see today where people want to stop certain music videos from airing on TV or concern that the program is going to do something to children. We’ve seen this throughout history, and this book tries to let people know, well, how is that any different from when people dumped tea at the Boston Harbor? When we look at people who are like, “Look, I’m not buying Russian products because I’m trying to support Ukraine,” make a political statement, those are the same types of ideals. Essentially, cancel culture is a protest, whether it’s done physically, or it’s done verbally.

Before it was the word “cancel culture,” it could have been “PC culture,” it could have been something else by a different name. I think a lot of people oftentimes underestimate how close to cancel culture we’ve always been familiar with.

It seems like when these acts of public accountability happen, more often, it’s only being called “cancel culture” by the target of the act, or the critics of the act. Do you think that this makes it easier for people to malign cancel culture without having to go into the specifics of why they were canceled?

Oh, absolutely. it’s become a scapegoat term by people who are trying to divorce accountability.

‘Not having cancel culture in society will lead to a society that is pretty much dictated by those who are more powerful.’

As your book is called “The Case for Cancel Culture,” are you making the case that even the people doing the canceling should start proudly calling it “canceling” again so that the narrative isn’t just led by the people who are getting canceled?

It’s about reclamation of recognizing what it is. I can’t think of anyone who has been critical of cancel culture who has not partaken in cancel culture themselves.

I’m not running from saying that I cancel things. Of course, I cancel things. Of course, I think there are certain things that are toxic. Like, of course, I’m not a fan of R. Kelly’s music, of course, I don’t think his music should air. Of course, I’m not a fan of Kanye West having a platform to say antisemitic things. And I think that’s what makes us humans, that we do have codes of conduct. We do have ethics, and how do you maintain a society of ethics without cancel culture is beneath me. If you’re against cancel culture, then how do you have any code of morality or behavior?

I mean, when you look at the civil rights movement, when you look at the LGBTQ rights movement, in the end, marginalized voices won because of cancel culture.

Yeah, you actually call the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s in the book, “the golden era of cancel culture.” What are the reasons for that, and the lessons from that era that the modern form of cancel culture can learn from?

People understood that the opposition was going to say what they wanted to say, but they were strategic in navigating how to win in spite of that. I think we’re in a world now where there are people who want to just win without fighting.

For marginalized people, the truth will shame those in power. It will condemn them. And it will in many ways be the tool to leverage, because how else did these people win? We look at the LGBTQ civil rights movement, we look at what happened at Stonewall, these people understood the gravity of their rights, and it was not a peaceful, “I agree, I disagree.” It was a riot.

Since we’re starting to see another resurgence of the labor movement, can you talk a bit about the role that cancel culture plays, and why it’s important for labor organizing?

The labor movement demanded equity. It demanded better working conditions.

What’s happening with Amazon right now is a textbook example of cancel culture that I think is in the positive, that these are marginalized people that are demanding change. And it reminds me of what happened with the Delano grapes and Cesar Chavez and the fight against what was happening in California back then, that people were not getting paid decently, and said look, we’re going to boycott, we’re going to stop working until we get better pay.

You talk a lot about examples throughout history where cancel culture has been used for both good and bad.

In my book, I talk about how cancel culture impacts people differently based on their gender, their race, their social status, their class. And like with all things in society, including the justice system that we continue to fund and support, in spite of its flaws, cancel culture has to be another one of those types of institutions and processes that we just have to just understand that it will not be perfect, right? Not having cancel culture in society will lead to a society that is pretty much dictated by those who are more powerful.

‘I just think people should think deeply about how much our everyday lives are governed by rules that powerful people don’t have to follow.’

Can you talk about the duality where social media has both democratized cancel culture, but also done a disservice by making it harder to tell the difference between that and general criticism?

Social media is another platform where people are able to express themselves democratically. And in many ways, we’ve seen it used to spread messages: #MuteRKelly, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter. These were community concerns that took place on a worldwide platform that allowed for mobilization faster to address decades-long issues.

So I want people to understand that social media did not make these issues, these issues were here before it, it served as a way to amplify. So to an extent, I will always see social media as another opportunity. And especially in digital society, where once again, if you don’t have power in your city, if you don’t have legislative power, if you don’t have political power, you have online power. We look at the Arab Spring, those uprisings, social media played a role in that revolution, internationally. We think about this sometimes in the American context, but internationally, it’s played that role.

But to be very clear, what has happened is that people have weaponized those platforms to do other devious things. Cyber bullying and trolling and doxxing, and people who have used the internet to cyber bully, those are not movements.

The other common argument against cancel culture is that it’s a slippery slope, and “it’s coming for you next.” Can you talk about why you think this slippery slope is not actually an issue?

Absolutely. So, in my book, I make this really strong declaration, and I stand by it: I don’t think that everyday people are getting canceled. I know that’s hard for some people to believe, but I would like to remind people that essentially, it’s very rare.

But what happens when you’re Dave Chappelle and you have the power to say whatever you want, things that certain people couldn’t say at their jobs about transgender people, and you have a company making millions of dollars off of you and they won’t hold you accountable in a way that they might hold an employee accountable for saying similar things? I think if there were employees at Netflix that said the things that Dave Chappelle has said about LGBTQIA people, I believe that they wouldn’t have their job.

And so what I’m getting at here is that the people who should be the most afraid of cancel culture should be institutions and very powerful people …. And the people who fear cancel culture the most publicly often are those who are going to have to be accountable: celebrities, powerful people, rich people, executives, nonprofit leaders, big bosses, these are the people that fear. Big institutions, police departments, the FBI, these groups are the ones who hold the most contempt for cancel culture because they fear that accountability.

Everyday people are told to sign codes of conduct and contracts and behavior ideals, and we get punishments and penalties, we have things in place to keep us in check. But Harvey Weinstein didn’t have that same type of standard. When you’re the boss of your own studio, you hold that much power of Hollywood, who can tell you enough is enough?

I just saw a really great movie called “Tar” that’s starring Cate Blanchett, who plays Lydia Tar. She’s this powerful, influential musician that is like a once-in-a-generation artist. And basically, she begins to face consequences for her actions, which arguably is a critique on cancel culture. But how many people live like Lydia Tar? My neighbors, my cousin, my brothers, they’re not living lives like that. They do something wrong at school, they’re getting suspended. Like, there’s no “Oh, I got canceled at school.” How did you get canceled? Did you violate the school code? You know, like, I just think people should think deeply about how much our everyday lives are governed by rules that powerful people don’t have to follow.

I really like the way you said it in your book. You said, “When you reframe cancel culture, regardless of the platform it exists on, as a matter of reassessing power within society, then it’s easier to understand why so many with influence and control hate it so much and want you to reject it.” Is there any hope we could cancel this constant conversation about the dangers of cancel culture?

Ah, no, because we’ve been arguing about it forever. We just weren’t arguing about the word “cancel culture.” The powerful have a huge campaign about finding 1,000 different ways to divorce themselves from accountability.

While our feelings about the most powerful people can go up and down all around, us holding them accountable, and them being accountable to us as taxpayers and fans, as people who invest in their careers and endeavors, that should never be lost.

In a world where we continue to see people have to fight for their right to exist, we should never compromise and let go of our ability and our metric of accountability. Because the moment we do that, we compromise our power. And taking power from a group of people that already have had the fight for it, it just isn’t right.

Alex LaSalvia can be reached at alex.lasalvia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexlasalvia.