“Cancel culture” had its moment in 2020.
Perhaps the most prolific wielder of the now heavily politicized term was then President Donald Trump. Following the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests and unrest than ensued, Trump and his fellow conservatives time and again categorized calls for change—whether successful or unsuccessful, real or overblown—as “cancel culture.”
At the same time, however, cultural elites—long a foil to Trump—also pushed back on the concept. Following a wave of high-profile firings and resignations within the worlds of journalism and academia, Harper’s Magazine published a missive critical of what it called “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
Some 153 academics, authors, journalists and other public figures endorsed the 532-word “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” including “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood; linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky; and CNN host Fareed Zakaria.
Also on the list was J.K. Rowling, author of the world-famous “Harry Potter” series and—less than one month earlier—a more than 3,600-word essay expounding her thoughts on “trans issues.” Writer and social commentator Roxane Gay described the lengthy work as a “spectacle of transphobic bigotry under the guise of feminism.”
The piece, posted on Rowling’s personal website, came on the heels of several similar controversies, including in the days directly leading up to its publication. The essay itself references a December incident as the writer’s “fourth or fifth cancellation.”
Within this explosive environment, interest in “cancel culture” soared last summer. The week Rowling published her essay, Google searches for the term shot to a then all-time high, according to Google Trends. Harper’s published the “open debate” letter four weeks later, days after Trump decried “cancel culture” as the “very definition of totalitarianism.” Though it made no mention of “cancel culture,” searches for the phrases bounded even higher, reaching a level unmatched until this winter, when the Conservative Political Action Conference used “America Uncanceled” as its rallying cry.
Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Media Studies, published a five-page article on the etymology of “cancel culture” last October. The piece—drawn from a chapter of a book she’s writing on Black Twitter—in part responds to the Harper’s letter, then little more than three months old.
“The problem with so-called ‘cancel culture’ does not rest with the formerly disempowered, seemingly faceless public that the letter critiques, but with the signatories and their peers, ‘… the institutional leaders,’ who, ‘in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms,’” Clark wrote, in a direct reference the wording used in the Harper’s letter.
What is cancel culture?
Clark distinguishes “being canceled” from “cancel culture,” describing the former as “a matter of digital accountability practice.”
“So where people who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to hold, say, a brand, a celebrity, a public official accountable—their email gets discarded or not even read, they don’t have a phone number where they can call that person and complain and even if they did complain, nothing would come of it—people are able to take digital and social media tools and address that person as directly as possible,” Clark told Rivet.
In voicing that experience, she added, others can join in, share similar stories and bring further attention to the issue. Vindication—the ideal outcome—can take the form of an apology or even just acknowledgement, she said.
Where someone may choose to use the term “canceling” to describe their own actions, rarely does anyone voluntarily identify with the phrase “cancel culture.” When one does use the phrase, it is meant “pejoratively,” Clark said. “It’s essentially pathologizing people who are using digital and social media to make their voices heard.”
“The difference between canceling someone and cancel culture is that the language of canceling a person has been extracted from online communities—primarily queer, Black, digital communities—and it has been exploited, so that it becomes this messaging that signals to people who for whatever reason have a fear of being canceled—quote-unquote ‘canceled’—that this is not legitimate criticism, that this is mob behavior, that it’s something that is both a threat, but also something that should be ignored or ridiculed,” Clark said.
The messaging works. A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll survey made headlines in March when it declared that 64 percent of Americans view “cancel culture” as a growing threat to freedom. Responses to the question—“Do you think there is a growing cancel culture that is a threat to our freedom or not”—were largely uniform across gender, age, locale, income and education. The only major outlier arose when tabulating for political party and ideology, with Democrats opting for “not a threat” by a margin of 52-48 and Republicans choosing “a threat,” 80-20.
By those metrics, it would seem there is a general, though not absolute, consensus on cancel culture. However, a study from public relations giant Porter Novelli complicates the matter a little—at least for brands and corporations.
What do consumers want when they cancel?
Porter Novelli’s report—based on its December 2020 online survey of 1,004 U.S. adults and weighted to U.S Census estimates—found just 20 percent of Americans believed cancel culture was “bad for society,” meaning that they believe companies or individuals can’t do or say anything without being cancelled. Though only 34 percent considered it “good for society—it gets companies/individuals to recognize bad behavior,” a middle 30 percent dubbed the practice “effective, but overused—too many companies/individuals are being canceled.”
Importantly, Porter Novelli defined the terms “cancel culture” and “cancel” for its respondents, describing the former as “the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something that was considered objectionable or offensive” and the latter as “withdrawing support or discussing that topic negatively online,” according to senior vice president, marketing, research and insights, Whitney Dailey.
Though the word “cancel” may elicit ideas of some permanent punishment, Porter Novelli found the most popular reason to cancel a brand, with the support of 38 percent of Americans, was for “a company to change its ways.”
Other top reasons included getting a company to change its political policies and stances (27 percent), persuading businesses to fire individuals responsible for an offensive statement (26 percent), and influencing corporations to sever ties with a celebrity or spokesperson who caused offense (22 percent).
Just 18 percent said they would cancel a company to get it to change its branding or external representation. Even fewer, 14 percent, said they wanted a company to “‘go away completely.”
“This isn’t really about obsolescence,” Dailey said. “This is more about having a constructive dialogue with companies to hopefully get them to a better place.”
Fashion on Blast
Fashion has provided ample fodder for recent attempts—successful or otherwise—at cancellation.
Though he initially denied what he called “grotesquely false accusations” against him, Alexander Wang eventually apologized after a male model, backed by S-t Model Mgmt and Diet Prada, accused the designer of sexual assault. After meeting with his accusers and the lawyer representing them, Wang said he regretted “acting in a way that caused them pain,” adding, “life is about learning and growth, and now that I know better, I will do better.”
In the wake of the March Atlanta spa shootings, a Change.org petition demanding Chinatown Market rebrand received renewed attention when Diet Prada picked up the cause. A March 25 post decrying the “white-owned streetwear brand’s appropriation of a historic and culturally significant neighborhood” garnered tens of thousands of likes and the petition attracted thousands of signatures. The brand announced it would change its name on March 29.
Like many brands, Man Repeller responded to last year’s protest movement by posting a letter in support of Black Lives Matter. When readers responded with criticism, reading the letter as hollow signaling from a fashion blog lacking in diversity, founder Leandra Medine Cohen announced she would “step back.” The publication never seemed to regain its footing, however. It attempted a rebrand as Repeller in September, but it announced its closure less than two months later.
Shortly after Reformation shared its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, a post accusing the brand of passing over Black employees for advancement went viral. The former employee called for founder Yael Aflalo’s removal and little more than a week later the CEO resigned. In its 2020 sustainability scorecard—now with goals and metrics on diversity and inclusion—Reformation dubbed its “people focus” as a low point for the year and said it is “doing the work to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion.”
In 2018, the ever-controversial Dolce & Gabbana rankled the Chinese market by releasing a marketing campaign that was quickly deemed racist by those in and outside the country. The label took down the videos within 24 hours and nixed a scheduled runway show. Co-founders Domenico Dolce and Steffano Gabbana later apologized, vowing to respect Chinese culture. However, while the broader world seems to have forgiven the brand—revenues grew 4.9 percent in the year ending in March 2019—its products still can’t be found on platforms like Tmall, JD.com and Secoo.
How can brands respond when canceled?
Margot Bloomstein, the author of “Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap,” frames cancellation—or at least, what companies complain about as being canceled—as “natural consequences of their choices.”
The difference between the boycotts of yesterday and cancellations of today, she said, is a matter of scale and visibility. That scale, she added, follows from a belief that if something is “a problem at a local level, that’s oftentimes a symptom of a problem on a much larger corporate level.”
“I think what has changed is that people feel empowered to raise those issues to demand better,” Bloomstein said. This view lines up with Porter Novelli’s study, which found that 72 percent of Americans “feel more empowered than ever before to share their thoughts or opinions about companies.”
Bloomstein offered Old Navy as an example of authentic accountability. In early 2018, a customer, James Conley III, walked into a West Des Moines, Iowa, store where an employee then accused him of stealing the jacket he was wearing. The customer then posted videos of the experience on Facebook, claiming he had been racially profiled. “I was accused that I didn’t pay for my blue bubble jacket that I got for Christmas that I wore into the store,” he wrote.
Less than a week after Conley posted about the incident, Old Navy had publicly apologized to him by name and fired three employees who were involved.
“Then they continued to dig in, they weren’t going to simply just sacrifice the local manager,” Bloomstein said. “They said we need to keep digging into this, figure out how this happened here. So, they conducted a broader investigation and they continued to update the media saying, ‘Yes, this is a problem here, here’s what we’re still doing about it.’ So, they kind of kept the story in the news.”
Clark noted that it’s not always the immediate controversy at issue when a brand gets canceled, pointing to Gucci as an example. In February 2019, the luxury label came under scrutiny for a roll-up collar sweater that appeared to mimic blackface. The incident came a few months after Prada pulled a charm that customers said resembled blackface and shortly before Burberry apologized for sending a hoodie with a noose around the neck down the London Fashion Week runway.
“And it wasn’t just about the fact that they were using these images of blackface,” Clark said. “But it was also a matter of the ways these labels have co-opted Black culture in the past, the way that they have failed to hire and meaningfully position and promote people from marginalized groups… And it was about the fact that, in that instance, [Gucci] was representative of the practices of extraction that the fashion industry, that the entertainment industry has been known for.”
To avoid facing these sorts of public repercussions, Bloomstein said brands “should be self-policing, whether it’s how they’re treating employees, how their employees are treating customers, how they are creating a culture that supports good behavior. Brands can get out ahead of PR nightmares if they solve them when they are HR problems.”