How ‘cancel culture’ quickly became one of the buzziest and most controversial ideas on the internet

Christel Deskins

origins of cancel culture 2×1 Samantha Lee/Insider “Cancel culture,” or the idea that people too often pile onto others for bad behavior, emerged only in the past few years but has become a ubiquitous phrase among English speakers. President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have both criticized a culture […]

origins of cancel culture 2x1
origins of cancel culture 2×1

Samantha Lee/Insider

  • “Cancel culture,” or the idea that people too often pile onto others for bad behavior, emerged only in the past few years but has become a ubiquitous phrase among English speakers.

  • President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have both criticized a culture of relentlessly calling people out for alleged wrongdoing. In an address at Mount Rushmore last month, Trump said it was “the very definition of totalitarianism.”

  • As social-media users decry cancel culture and poke fun at the criticism itself, the phrase has come to describe a wide variety of behaviors and their consequences.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In a congressional antitrust hearing on July 29, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio had a specific question for Apple CEO Tim Cook.

“Mr. Cook,” Jordan said, “is the ‘cancel culture’ mob dangerous?”

“Cancel culture,” which President Donald Trump last month called “the very definition of totalitarianism,” describes the phenomenon of frequent public pile-ons criticizing a person, business, movement, or idea.

The phrase — a surprisingly recent creation — has become ubiquitous in pop culture and reached the highest halls of power, used to describe “cancellations” large and small.

On one end of the spectrum are people like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and R. Kelly who were canceled by the public before their sex-crimes trials. On the other end are everyday people like David Shor, who faced criticism on Twitter after he tweeted a study from an academic journal questioning the political consequences of violent and peaceful protests. Shor, who tweeted the link during the George Floyd protests, was fired, though the company has said it wasn’t over the tweet.

Despite the seemingly positive intentions of many cancellations — to “demand greater accountability from public figures,” as Merriam-Webster’s evaluation of the phrase notes — people tend to call out cancel culture itself as a negative movement, suggesting that the consequences of cancellation are too harsh in minor instances or represent rushed judgment in complicated situations.

Others have criticized that criticism, saying cancel culture doesn’t exist.

With the varied usage and wide debate around the term, it’s reasonable to ask where it came from and how it became a part of everyday speech.

The phrase was popularized only in the past few years. Now it’s everywhere.

“Cancel culture” came into the collective consciousness around 2017, after the idea of “canceling” celebrities for problematic actions or statements became popular.

Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies digital media’s connections to race, gender, and sexuality, told The New York Times in 2018 that cancellation was a “cultural boycott” of a certain celebrity, brand, company, or concept.

Merriam-Webster, the American publisher of dictionaries and thesauruses, connected cancel culture with the #MeToo movement, which coincided with the rise of the term’s popularity online. New allegations seemed to come out daily, and attitudes quickly shifted against the accused.

The trend of calling someone out laid the groundwork for full-on cancellations. It has roots in early-2010s Tumblr blogs, notably Your Fave Is Problematic, where fandoms would discuss why their favorite stars were imperfect, Aja Romano reported for Vox in 2019.

One Direction's entry in Your Fave Is Problematic.
One Direction’s entry in Your Fave Is Problematic.

yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr.com

While “canceling” has been used colloquially for the better part of a decade, “cancel culture” is much more recent.

For example, one of the earliest uses of the phrase on Twitter came from Myles McNutt, a TV critic and assistant professor at Old Dominion University, who used it in a tweet in February 2014 to refer to the cancellations of TV series.

“It’s unfortunate how renew/cancel culture has made ‘not renewed early’ read as canceled — ‘wait and see until pilots come in’ is normal,” McNutt tweeted.

McNutt’s tweet got only four retweets and four likes. McNutt told Insider in an email that he was referring to “renew/cancel” culture and that he didn’t consider “cancel culture” a “legible phrase” at the time.

Before then, the term had been used a handful of times on Twitter, and nearly all had different meanings.

The phrase “cancel culture” experienced notable growth in 2016 and 2017, particularly on Black Twitter, according to research by Insider and reporting by Merriam-Webster and Vox. Insider identified fewer than 100 tweets or threads with the phrase “cancel culture” before 2018.

The writer Shanita Hubbard used the phrase in a tweet about the controversy surrounding Gabby Douglas in November 2017. The Olympic gymnast was ostensibly canceled after she appeared to blame survivors of sexual assault; in response to her teammate Aly Raisman’s tweet about sexual assault, Douglas said that “it is our responsibility as women to dress modestly and be classy.”

Responding to the backlash against Douglas, Hubbard tweeted: “Let’s talk ‘cancel culture.’ Personally, I am willing to give a lot of grace to young Black girls simply because the world doesn’t.” The tweet got more than 6,000 likes.

The phrase continued to gain popularity on Twitter in late 2017, with several people writing “cancel culture” in quotation marks to describe the trend. Insider found that most of those tweets referred to cancel culture negatively.

In addition to Hubbard, other Twitter users made similar arguments that year. “Cancel culture is SO toxic, you can’t even learn from your mistakes anymore because you’re not even allowed to make any,” another tweet in November 2017 said.

The concept gained steam among celebrities and influencers in 2018

Google Trends data indicates that there was almost no search interest in the phrase “cancel culture” until the second half of 2018 and early 2019. The most search interest came in July of this year.

Google Trends data showing search interest in "cancel culture."
Google Trends data showing search interest in “cancel culture.”

Google Trends

The top definition of “cancelled” (the British spelling) on Urban Dictionary was posted in March 2018. The top definition of “canceled” on the website was posted the next year and has less engagement.

A series of fleeting cancellations of celebrities including Taylor Swift and Kanye West brought about more discourse. “Almost everyone worth knowing has been canceled by someone,” Jonah Engel Bromwich wrote for The Times in June 2018 in one of the first news stories to analyze the trend. In a Vice Canada story the next month about the resurgence of the YouTuber and mega-influencer Logan Paul after inappropriate behavior, Connor Garel called cancel culture a “myth.”

The comedian Kevin Hart faced intense online backlash in the fall of 2018 when his homophobic tweets resurfaced after he was chosen to host the 2019 Oscars. Ellen DeGeneres and others defended Hart, who said he shouldn’t be judged based on a statement he made years ago. In the end, Hart stepped down from the hosting gig and refused to issue another apology. He later blamed cancel culture. Though much of the media attention was critical of Hart, he has since found wide-ranging career success.

Still, anti-cancel-culture rhetoric continued on social media. Zolita, a German American singer, said in a December 2018 tweet that “cancel culture needs to be canceled.”

Indya Moore, who stars on FX’s TV show “Pose,” wrote that month that “nobody deserves to be defined by the worse mistakes they ever made.”

“Especially when they aren’t consistently stubborn in complicity,” Moore continued. “We really need to cut down on this cancel culture, it’s drowing everyone and it is unnecessary.”

By 2019, more news articles had analyzed the trend, and “cancel culture” became a piece of mainstream vernacular. A November op-ed article in Time was titled “Cancel Culture Is Not Real—At Least Not in the Way People Think.” Chi Luu, JSTOR Daily’s resident linguist, wrote about the trend in December. Vox’s Romano wrote about it the same month.

Eventually, the term became politicized

US President Donald Trump at Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, on July 3.
US President Donald Trump at Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, on July 3.

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The idea of cancel culture eventually found its way into mainstream politics.

Former President Barack Obama criticized the trend in an interview about youth activism at an Obama Foundation summit in October, though he didn’t use the phrase. “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

Many of the politicians and pundits who have recently come out against cancel culture are conservative. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, whose controversial June op-ed article in The Times led to the resignation of the paper’s opinion editor, said that the critical response to his column showed that cancel culture had gone too far.

“Cancel culture, whether in its Maoist or its Jacobin forms, ultimately is animated by a single idea—that America at its core is fundamentally irredeemable and wicked,” Cotton wrote on his website.

The White House adviser Stephen Miller recently made a similar claim. “Cancel culture is a very grave threat to American freedom,” he said on Larry O’Connor’s radio show.

Trump condemned cancel culture in his Independence Day address at Mount Rushmore, saying it was being used as a “political weapon” by protesters fighting for the destruction of statues of American slaveholders. “It is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America,” he said.

Common conservative depictions of cancel culture compare the idea to mob rule and authoritarianism. In a column last year, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan compared it to China’s Cultural Revolution.

“Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs,” she wrote. “In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.”

Last month, the columnist Bari Weiss wrote in a resignation letter announcing her departure from The Times that “Twitter has become its ultimate editor.” She later described cancel culture as “social murder.”

In her 2019 JSTOR Daily article, Luu said the anti-cancel-culture sentiment was rooted in the negative discourse about groups or movements — and it’s the same notion that has led to criticism of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and other social-justice movements.

“The kind of language that’s used to talk about groups of people assembled together—or their collective actions seeking to change the status quo—often maligns communities as irrational, ‘mobs’ or ‘rioters’ with uncontrolled, invalid emotions, a kind of faceless contagion that presents a threat to civilized, law-abiding society and the ruling establishment,” Luu wrote.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened activism, cancellations have increased — but they’ve been less controversial

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into social isolation, and as activism has spiked around the Black Lives Matter movement, cancellations appear to have reached a high point.

The YouTubers Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star, celebrities like Doja Cat and Lana Del Rey, and figures in traditional media have recently faced waves of criticism of controversial content or bad behavior. Many of these cancellations have had intense consequences, such as firing or brand separation.

But many people online have framed the criticism around accountability rather than cancellation, saying that people in power are finally being asked to address problematic pasts.

Private people have experienced an uptick in public criticism too. Videos of white women — sometimes referred to as “Karens” — going on racist or generally inappropriate public tirades have been massively popular. Many of these women, including Amy Cooper, who called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park in May, faced real-life consequences: She lost her job and temporarily lost her dog after the video went viral. Their defenders have blamed cancel culture, with one op-ed article proclaiming that “Karens” were the victims in these situations.

Hubbard, the chair of a National Association of Black Journalists task force, said cancel culture was the wrong phrase to use for these instances where sleuths on social media identify a person caught on camera acting racist or being offensive.

“I think it’s unfair for anybody to say what happened to Amy was cancel culture,” she said. “What happened to Amy was public accountability, because her actions were harmful.”

Karens
Karens

@jaimetoons/Twitter; Melody Cooper/Twitter; @savsoares/TikTok

It’s important to recognize that cancellations exist to hold people accountable, said Krishauna Hines-Gaither, the associate vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a cofounder of African American Linguists.

Hines-Gaither told Insider that someone’s cancellation is almost always in direct response to “largely unchecked” actions that are problematic or questionable.

Now, Hubbard said, “the term ‘cancel culture’ is being used as a shield” as people try to evade responsibility for their actions and decry any kind of public accountability.

Hines-Gaither said in an email that while “‘cancel culture’ is not the antecedent,” finding ways to engage with one another on these issues despite the temptations of cancellation “continues to be a work in progress.”

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