Cancel Culture Is the Modern Boycott


On Oct. 5, Dave Chappelle released his new comedy special “The Closer”’ on Netflix. In the days since, he’s received backlash over homophobic and transphobic jokes that targeted the LGBTQ+ community. The criticism falls not only on Chappelle’s comments but also on Netflix, who commissioned and distributed the comedy special. Some have called on Netflix to pull the special from its site, and one showrunner decided to quit after Netflix promoted and produced this transphobic content.

Less than a week later, another celebrity flew too close to the sun. Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned after an unrelated investigation uncovered a trove of homophobic, transphobic, racist and sexist emails. 

While Gruden has slunk away from the public eye, some fans have taken the opportunity to criticize the National Football League (NFL) for its failure to put its newly progressive message into practice.

We’ve heard about cancel culture a lot over the past few years. Every so often, a celebrity is caught saying or doing something tasteless and offensive. People take to social media to express their disapproval, and the celebrity reemerges to blame cancel culture rather than take responsibility for their words or actions. It has become a pop-culture bogeyman: Don’t say anything too spicy, or you’ll be canceled.

Perhaps the most famous piece decrying cancel culture is an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine in July 2020, signed by J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” series and self-proclaimed trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). By no coincidence, Chappelle defended Rowling in his recent special and claimed to be on “team TERF.”

Cancel culture is a bit of a misnomer. When we cancel a celebrity, we choose not to participate in whatever kind of media they make. Maybe we publicly disagree with their comments on social media. 

However, we are not actively ruining their lives in the process — Chappelle, Gruden and Rowling have more than enough money to cushion their falls. And being canceled is not necessarily the end of the road: There is room for a celebrity to come back through a meaningful and sincere apology.

When we look at the phenomenon of cancel culture and the media buzz that surrounds it, we have to remind ourselves of the root cause: Someone has done something that is hateful or offensive.

Considering that, is it bad if we take a step back when we hear someone say something blatantly hurtful? Are we snowflakes if we express our hurt or disgust at someone’s comments? Are we in the wrong if we choose not to engage with someone’s media — their music, their movies, their football games, their comedy specials — when we hear them spout homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism?

The truth is, no. It is well within our rights to abstain from some celebrity’s work because we disagree with their behavior. In fact, it’s a reasonable response to want to distance ourselves when someone shows their true colors. We should not surround ourselves with people who say hurtful things. 

Further, we have no obligation to continue consuming media from those who do so, especially when the person in question makes a profit off of your viewership.

An NPR journalist reviewing Chappelle’s comedy special points out that canceling someone who makes homophobic remarks is not only about hurting someone’s feelings: “It’s about keeping the anger and prejudice behind those words from becoming widely acceptable or turning into action.” 

This is the role we play when we participate in so-called cancel culture: We hold people accountable for their actions, and we remind everyone that acting like that is unacceptable in our society.

What we’re doing here is a modern form of boycotting, a method of protest that has been around for decades. 

We put pressure on the people and organizations we disagree with by not giving them our money and time. Even if we are unable to make them change their views or strip them of their platforms, we bring attention to their hurtful comments and, more importantly, explain that they are hurtful. 

Both Chappelle and Gruden masked their remarks with humor; in calling them out, we remind them that not everyone is laughing.