Everyone Practices Cancel Culture | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Ernest Owens during a Newsweek debate about cancel culture. You can listen to the podcast here:

In my eye, cancel culture is not far left, far right, democratic, or Republican. It's a tool that every human uses, and we all cancel in our livelihoods. I define cancel culture as an act in which a person decides to cancel a person, place, or thing that they view as being detrimental to their livelihood. It's not like food critics or movie critics, it's not an issue of taste. This is something deeper. I love to use what I call the Amazon example, which is basically cancel culture in this regard, and what is not cancel culture. So, it would not be cancel culture if you said, "I would not support Amazon because they are bad with their service and I didn't get my package on time". That's a personal matter of taste and preference and its objective. But if you said, "I don't support Amazon because I don't think they give their workers a fair livable wage, and I support unions", that's cancel culture.
And it's not a bad thing or a good thing, it's objective in how we view it. So many powerful people have hijacked what cancer culture really is about, which is seeking accountability and being able to actively express dissent. Conservatives treat this like it's the boogieman and a dog whistle for anyone who wants to speak out because it's about values and symbolism. It's subjective about what those values and symbols can mean, especially at the time. In my book I talk about reading the room, and knowing the time and place of what those symbols mean. A Donald Trump poster in 2005 would've meant something different than what it meant in 2016, so there are statements to be made about them in context. Rudy Giuliani was Time's person of the year this year. It would mean something different about Time Magazine than what it would mean in 2001.

A stock photo shows a sign saying 'cancel culture ahead'. A new study believes that parenthood is linked to an increase in conservative values. JimVallee/Getty

We victimize people who are canceled in ways that I feel like isn't always warranted. That person who made that decision, are we stripping them of their agency? Didn't they make the decision? Didn't they make a choice? Are we acting as though they didn't take a bold stride? When Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee, I don't pity him for what he did because he knew what he was doing and he took a bold stance. Paul Robeson, that famous black actor back in the 1930s and 1940s, what happened to him in his career was upsetting. But he decided to take a risk. Sometimes when we talk about cancer culture, we act as though those people are being canceled in that way that we should pity them. But sometimes people make deliberate decisions and there's consequences for those decisions whether we like them or not. I look at cancel culture as being something that is subjective in that way, where we can't always say it's a bad thing, or this person or this innocent person, or it's a mistake. We use these words, and that's the human in us to do that. But some of these are not mistakes. People make deliberate choices.

Ernest Owens is the editor at large for Philadelphia Magazine, and author of The Case for Cancel Culture: How This Democratic Tool Works to Liberate Us All.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.