A Few Thoughts on Cancel Culture

I’ve got a big old jumbled mess of thoughts kicking around my head when it comes to cancel culture, and I’d like to get them down into some sort of an order. What better way to do that than with a blog post? This is in part inspired by my response that I wrote yesterday to Harry Potter. JK Rowling has become at least one of the focal points around cancel culture ever since she spoke out so strongly against trans rights. (Well, she insisted that wasn’t what she was doing/saying, but when the group you’re antagonizing is actively saying “What you’re saying is hurtful to us,” you don’t really have the right to say, “No it isn’t.” That’s not how hurt works.)

In any case, my mind started off on this train of thought with Rowling, and then it continued further down it with Ken Jennings of Jeopardy trivia fame. (Who has come out to apologize for joking on twitter about disabled people. Which was clearly a terrible idea in the first place, and no justification for it really passes muster, though yay for acknowledging it was a bad idea and apologizing for it, though more on that later.) Ken Jennings in turn came to the defense of a friend of his who was being criticized for the way he treated his nine-year-old daughter when she came to him asking for help using a can opener. (That seems like one of the stranger sentences I’ve written in quite some time, but here we are.)

(Side note to Ken: when you’re already in hot water for things you’ve done and said in the past, perhaps playing the white knight to come to the rescue of someone else in similar water temperature isn’t exactly the bestest idea. Kind of like someone who can’t swim jumping in to help someone who’s drowning . . .)

So those news stories have all been banging around in my head for a while. And here are some of the current conclusions I’ve made. (Note: these might end up changing as I think more on the subject. That’s where you might potentially come in.)

First, I am against the idea of giving up on art because of the nature of the artist. In other words, I don’t feel obligated to evaluate the character of every artist, musician, director, etc. before I decide whether I can like a piece of work. Likewise, I don’t feel obligated to like a piece of work simply because I like the artist, musician, director, etc. That said, there are clearly limits I have for this. I am, for example, unable to really enjoy the Cosby Show anymore, despite the fact that I once enjoyed it, and a lot of talent and effort went into it. The actions and allegations against Bill Cosby just make me unable to watch a light hearted sitcom and have a good time doing it.

On the other hand, I still have some of the old Bill Cosby stand up routines, and I have listened to them and continue to enjoy them, though not quite as much as I used to, because at the back of my head there’s the constant “what was he doing then?” question playing over and over. This is similar to the way I still listen to Michael Jackson songs and enjoy them, even though I don’t enjoy them as much because of the fallout with Jackson later in his life. (For that matter, it counts for the Jackson 5 songs, too.)

Basically, my knowledge of an artist/creator’s personal history might inevitably bring down my evaluation of their work (or bring it up, I suppose). If I liked the original enough, I might still stick with it. Something that was a 10/10 might still be worth consuming now that it’s an 8/10, for example. It all depends on the case in question. Who made it, what it is, and what else that person did. I will likely still continue to recommend Harry Potter to my kids, because it’s a fun series (though we’ll likely have a conversation about Muggles and how they’re treated . . .)

This is a personal decision, and I would never hold it against someone who made a different decision. I can totally understand other people who were hurt enough by Rowling or Cosby or Jennings or anyone to feel like they can no longer enjoy whatever those people made. And that’s perhaps where cancel culture really loses me as a supporter. The call for people to stop watching or buying or enjoying or having anything to do with something someone else made because of actions people deem to be reprehensible.

I guess some of it comes down to what’s reprehensible. Date raping a series of women over decades definitely seems to fit the definition. Making jokes in poor taste on Twitter? Not good, but also not in the same ballpark as the other. And yet somehow the online mobs end up calling for the same pitchforks in both cases. That doesn’t seem to match up to me.

Worse yet, people who have made mistakes and publicly apologize for them seem to be in a no-win situation. If they apologize, they’re accused of only apologizing because they want something else out of it. That Jennings is only saying he’s sorry now because he wants to host Jeopardy, for example. As far as I’m concerned, people deserve to be forgiven for mistakes they’ve made. (Though they should suffer the legal consequences of those mistakes, because that’s why we have laws.) In other words, Jennings has apologized publicly, and so I think he should be given another shot. However, if he continues to make jokes in poor taste, then one can very easily give up on him. At that point, he would have proven his apology was nothing more than hot air.

Then again, even then, it might be a case where he just is clueless about what is poor taste. I don’t like using specific examples, because I don’t know all the specifics of each example. But I do believe people should be allowed to try and improve and become better. That’s not something that can happen if “The Internet” decides someone’s irredeemable no matter what they do.

Still, there are cases where people are forgiven. James Gunn (of Guardian of the Galaxy fame) made terrible jokes online about 10 years ago. When they came back to light, Disney fired him, despite the fact that it seemed like he had truly changed since then. Since that firing, many came to his defense, and he was eventually rehired. But that simply shows what a mess this can be. Who’s to say if someone’s changed? Is there a statute of limitations on when you’re still accountable for what you’ve said online?

There are certainly times I wonder if something I’ve written will come back to bite me eventually. I write enough that I’m sure there are things I once thought that I no longer agree with, even though I did at the time. It can be tempting, with that looming over your head, to never saying anything to anyone about anything, for fear that what you say will eventually be used against you later on. Obviously I don’t fear it enough to stop writing, and I’d like to think that anyone who comes to point fingers at me will find plenty of self-doubt and “I’m struggling through this problem” thinking to show that I’m changing all the time, and that I’m honestly trying to be a better person through that process.

If I believe I need that benefit of the doubt, shouldn’t that same benefit be extended to other people?

That’s why for me, I will let the individual circumstances of each case decide if a work still works for me or not, in light of the actions of the creator. But I don’t have any plans to publicly call for anyone to be ignored or canceled.

And that’s all I have time for today, though I’m sure there are tons of things I’m forgetting. It’s at least a start. I’d be interested to hear other takes on this subject, especially by people who disagree with me.


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