Cancel Culture? Or Compassion?

This week Saturday Night Live announced three new cast members that will join the show this fall. Among them was a local comic who has lived in Philly and is big in the scene here. It’s always amazing when someone local makes it big, and there was a lot of excitement about their casting on the show.

And then a video came out.

It was a video of a podcast they had recorded a little over a year ago in which they used racial slurs in the context of making a joke. Then it emerged that there were other videos of other podcasts where they used more racial slurs in the context of making a joke. And then stories began to emerge of their live sets and how they used even more racial slurs, along with homophobic and misogynistic language. A general picture began to emerge of the kind of comedy this entertainer offered.

And then the backlash began.

But not necessarily the kind of response you would think. Many in the local comedy scene sprung to this comic’s defense. “It’s comedy!” “This is what we do. We push boundaries!” “If you listen to the slurs in context they were trying to make a point!” “If we can’t challenge the status quo, what good is the art form?” And just as immediately everyone coalesced into two opposing sides… The side of embracing and defending this comic for using slurs, homophobia, and misogyny in their act as an integral part of the experience, and the side that says it’s not necessary to use the words to make your point. And by using the words you are perpetuating the very stereotypes you are trying to tear down. Each side made their case, with each side labeling the other “snowflakes” or “nazis” depending on who was on which side.

And then they were fired.

SNL put out a statement that they were not moving forward with hiring this comic to be on the show. Which spurred even more arguments online about how “the haters got what they wanted” and “no one can make a joke anymore” and “this isn’t comedy”. I was especially drawn to these kinds of comments. Are audiences being too sensitive? Is it possible to craft jokes using slurs and charged language to make a point and elevate the discourse? Was “cancel culture” just a bunch of whiny snowflakes who don’t understand humor? I think it’s important at this point to examine what “cancel culture” really is.

The staggering majority of opinions about this topic fell into two monolithic camps… one that is completely and totally against “cancel culture” and feel that it unfairly targets those who are attempting to generate discussions and elevate debate, and the “cancellers” themselves who are calling attention to past thoughts and actions and demanding accountability and acknowledgement. Where was I on the subject? As a human being with thoughts, feelings, and emotions, I was definitely finding myself squarely on one side of the argument. But I realized as a coach and someone who has trained to be an objective observer and questioner I was falling short of what I needed to be doing. Looking beyond the emotions and arguments to examine what (I believe) was the real issue. And then as I scrolled through Twitter I saw it. Someone (and I apologize to the author as I didn’t catch their name so this thought is not mine originally) had tweeted the simple phrase ‘What if cancel culture = compassion?” That was my in. What was “cancel culture” and how did it become something so toxic to some and so important to others? So that’s where this article will attempt to find meaning.

Wikipedia defines “cancel culture” as follows…”a form of boycott in which someone (usually a celebrity) who has shared a questionable or unpopular opinion, or has had behavior that is perceived to be offensive called out on social media is "canceled": they are completely boycotted by many fans, often leading to massive declines in celebrities' (almost always social media personalities) careers and fanbase.” Semíramis, an author on Medium, goes into detail about the history of cancel culture and how it wasn’t always used by the masses to call out bad behavior. She writes ”Before black Twitter users started cancelling morally wrong behaviors, culture and media had long been practicing the complete erasure of certain people and ideas. The only difference is that they weren’t erased because they were racists, or homophobes, or abusers, or rapists. Quite the contrary, the people who were erased were often minorities, their only fault was to be black, or female, or trans, or gay, or all of the above. Their contributions didn’t matter because they, as a person, couldn’t matter. They weren’t allowed to take space; they were, to all intend and purposes, cancelled.”

So as cancel culture was used historically to erase those deemed less than, it has been repurposed to hold accountable those who are acting or speaking in a morally egregious way. It has become a tool for the masses to defend the minority, call attention to, and demand action from. But as is always the danger this kind of mass action can be used in a way that wasn’t intended. And the term “cancel culture” can become a negative term for overacting, oversensitivity, dramatics, and attack. But who are the people so vocally opposed to “cancel culture” and why do they care so much?

To revisit the online posts and messages about this particular comedian, it becomes clear who the prominent and most vocal defenders are… men. Especially white men. Those who have had the power and leeway to use any words they want, reference any group of people they want, and make any kinds of jokes they want without repercussion or reprisal. A recurring theme in many of the posts was of “how times have changed” and “everyone has gotten too sensitive”, and the most telling “cancel culture has gotten too powerful.” But knowing the history of “cancel culture” and how it is being used today, why would the shift in power dynamic matter so much to this part of the population? As we all know, when someone calls us out on something we’ve said or and action we’ve taken, our ego immediately takes the blow. I’ll dare you say I was wrong! You don’t understand! You’re just being sensitive! I’ve heard some variation of these phrases too many times to count in my life. And every time it was meant as not only salve for the ego being bruised, but as a weapon to hurt back. And when we are challenged and our ego bruised, the last thing we want to do is open ourselves up, connect, and start a discussion about what happened and how we can be better. So we close ourselves off and circle the wagons with others like us who feel attacked as well. The need to protect the status quo is a strong one. Especially for those who have the most to lose in the change.

And that brings me to the question, “Why do the words matter so much?” If the term “cancel culture” is so tainted and negative, what if were reframed as an aspect of what it was meant to embody… compassion? What if calling attention to racist quotes or homophobic jokes in a set weren’t seen as trying to “cancel” someone, but rather calling for more compassion and forethought? To examine the specifics of comedy, when a stand up or comedic actor take the stage they have a captive audience who are listening to everything coming from that stage. Not just the words, but the body language, the emotions, and all the subtle cues we give off with every thought we relay. The thoughts we put out there matter. The words matter. And as we all know from living in America in 2019, the words people in the spotlight use and the thoughts and beliefs they share can and will influence large groups of people. And comedy has long been the vessel through which subversive ideas and oppositional thinking has been delivered to the masses. It’s because of this that comics and comedic actors have a higher obligation to their audiences. Comedians can be positive change agents, but that requires a full and complete examination of what we’re really trying to say, the change we want to enact, and the words we use to make it happen. And when a smarter and more compassionate audience gets a whiff of insincerity, that’s when more attention and scrutiny begins.

I don’t think audiences have become more sensitive, they have become more aware. They are more informed and more connected, and as a result they expect more from their entertainers. And viewed objectively this isn’t a bad thing. Resting on your laurels or becoming lazy with your writing or acting can and does happen to everyone who takes the stage and puts themselves out there every night. But we should take this as a positive challenge and examine how we can improve our message every time to make ourselves better comics and actors.

Comics do have a responsibility to their audiences, to not only be funny but to make them think. The great comics always made their audiences think. I would offer that the best way to do that is to examine yourself. Don’t just use the words, but ask yourself why you have to use them in the first place. The payoff is in the examination and discovery. Because it’s through that process that the comic finds out more about themselves, and the audience questions more about themselves, and everyone gets incrementally more curious. And then we all begin to talk to each other to learn more about each other. And eventually we discover we don’t really need to use the slurs anymore. At least in a perfect world.