“Cancel Culture” Is Canceled

The impact of mass petition weakens when we cancel in excess

Sylene "SylJoe" Joseph
6 min readJul 14, 2020
Art: Sylene Joseph

When I was a child, I was taught this song: “Be careful little lips what you say…”, the penultimate line cautioning that God sees everything we do.

But when it comes to social media, we’re more concerned about another all-seeing eye.

Enter Stage Left: Black Twitter.

Black twitter is the parallel universe you do not want to get trapped in, the maker you do not want to meet, and the judge, juror and executioner of our fates. By “our” I mean anyone who has ever published or been published online through video, photo or text. The fear of being publicly dragged and shamed online is one that resonates with many persons.

Source: Evelyn From the Internets via YouTube

This is because social media possesses a ‘group think’ of sorts. Once you hit “publish,” prepare to be praised or scrutinized. If enough twitter handles have re-tweeted a thought or shared their opinions on a particular subject matter, the consensus moves like echolocation. If the general populous agrees that relatively plausible evidence points to someone’s misdeeds, they’re effectively canceled. That person’s voice is rendered mute. And their brand no longer worthy of patronage.

But sometimes, we don’t cancel the right people. Other times, we are too quick to cancel them. Many a time, we are inconsistent on the “why” behind cancellations.

To clarify, I’m not speaking of instances where instigators of racism, sexism, misogyny, abuse, or microaggressions are axed. No. These are CANCELLABLE offenses. I’m specifically talking about times when someone’s opinions are weaponized because the impact of their words doesn’t match the intent. Or, because we as a society read to respond, not to understand, and cancel persons who’ve actually taken time to articulate thoughts that may juxtapose the thoughts of the majority of society.

Sidebar, if you ever find yourself the aggressor, don’t bother to apologize, or explain; that only makes it worse. And please, hold the tears and runny nose, red eyes and congested sobs. Black twitter ISN’T a place of mercy.

While I agree on the cancellation of many public figures and faces and have joined in the mass cancellation of several offenders, there are times when we have not been prudent in our methodologies.

Whenever I engage in conversation about cancel culture, I lead with the example of Chrisette Michelle vs. Kanye West.

2016 and 2017 were the years these black cultural icons committed seemingly unpardonable sins. And twitter-verse and the inter-webs lost their minds and wigs, later found next to their edges.

For summary: Kanye endorsed then President-elect, Donald Trump and Chrisette Michelle agreed to sing at Trump’s inaugural ball. For the latter, it was a PR disaster. Leading up to her performance Chrisette was borderline bribed by concerned peers to not sing at the inauguration. Her fellow recording artists warned of the irreparable damage she would cause her brand, image and character. Yet, in January 2017, Chrisette Michelle crooned alongside gospel artist Travis Greene, who, to my knowledge, has not been canceled. Christians operate by a different set of principles when it comes to cancellable offenses.

The point is, Chrisette Michelle was canceled; Kanye West was put on time-out.

While often dragged and mocked for his ideologies and ill-founded statements, we have not truly canceled Kanye West. At least, not in a way to damage him as mass media consumers have punished others. His music and brand continue to thrive. We treat him like the crazy uncle, with a fat wallet, who we continue to invite to Christmas dinner and entertain conversations on matters he is willfully ignorant about. We aren’t really bothered with his presence because there’s history there — a sense of nostalgia and familiarity.

On the other hand, Chrisette Michelle is still floating in cancel orbit, and may or may not be tethered to her black culture space ship — no one’s bothered to check. While Kanye has said and done many questionable things that harm black identity, history, and cultural continuity, Chrisette erred once and was indefinitely relieved of the pedestal that sits between India Arie and Jill Scott.

Kanye apologized for some of his mishaps. So did Chrisette— on several occasions. She was clowned when she sat sheepishly on The Breakfast Club — again, another PR disaster I have difficulty reconciling with. Nonetheless, Michelle has not bounced back the way Kanye has.

Besides gender (the bias of which would need a separate article to dissect), the key difference between Kanye and Chrisette is seniority. Chrisette, though a veteran, doesn’t have as many stripes.

But this is my gripe with cancel culture — shouldn’t we hold persons like Kanye more accountable, and be more forgiving towards the “Chrisettes” for a single blunder?

I admit, we must consider the facts, the glaring one being Chrisette was warned countless times, and borderline bribed to not sing at the inaugural ball. Her suspension is one big “I-told-you-so” wrapped in a bow. Another fact would be that Kanye’s consistent and public mental health struggles make us softer and more empathetic towards his judgment and poor word choices #slaverywasachoice.

Yet, Chrisette’s punishment of solitude (though seemingly self-inflicted at this point) is uncomfortably different to Kanye’s. The scales are off-balance; we pick and choose who to cancel.

And yes, it has been four years since Chrisette’s cancellation, but J. Cole’s recent tone-deaf, ill-timed song and the subsequent call for his cancellation stirred this discomfort within me again.

This time I wondered whether we weaponize this crowd-funded judicial system that sometimes misses the mark.

Black twitter is articulate, well-read, educated and opinionated. We are also unforgiving and quick to draw swords.

The J. Cole faux pas did not require cancellation. Cole needed to be chastened, not canceled. I was proud of the black women who quickly and bluntly addressed his infantilism, then excused themselves to continue fighting Breonna Taylor’s cause.

Black women recognized that there are bigger fish to cancel. There are racists, bigots, sexists, misogynists and rapists who need to be axed, online and in real life.

Performative cancellation is an injustice to victims of traumatic, life-altering offenses who suffer long after social media’s three-month attention span expires. When we use callout culture excessively, we weaken the impact of mass petition. As stewards of the inter-webs, we should monitor our part in its excessive use. When someone really needs to be muted indefinitely, the effect won’t stick. Remember, an excellent PR agent can unweave any twitter prison if we allow it to become a triviality.

To create change, we must be intentional. What we choose to exert energy towards today affects what happens tomorrow.

It is essential to understand what issues require attention, and which deserve indifference; in other words, fanning a flame to out a spark may create a wildfire instead. This is how we’ve created and given a platform to countless social media stars who should have vanished by a news cycle or two.

Other persons are canceled without much thought, especially regarding topics that aggregate emotion. Instead of listening to understand, we hear to respond. Some twitter users enjoy “reading”, “dragging” and embarrassing others merely for the thrill. Canceling becomes more of a sport and less of a mechanism of change.

Here lies the truth. Social media has become both a weapon and a beam of justice and hope. But ultimately, discernment decides whether someone is canceled or takes “several seats” instead.