“If this is what being canceled feels like, I love it.”
There are a couple of questions implied in Dave Chappelle’s statement to his audience at the Hollywood Bowl. What does being canceled actually mean? What does it look like? The truth is, as Chappelle’s statement reveals, none of us really know.
The term has come to be used most commonly by people lamenting the supposed infringement on the free speech of their favorite creators. Can people not enjoy things anymore? Is everyone just that sensitive these days? Even so, it’s important to push through the knee-jerk assumptions that come with the term and consider its meaning, even if only for the sake of mutual intelligibility.
The first and most widespread working definition of cancel culture can be roughly summarized as “intense negative reaction to a ‘politically incorrect’ comment.” This is the definition with which Chappelle was working in the Netflix special that first sparked his recent controversy. Chappelle was likely referring to the criticism he received for transphobic comments made in his Netflix special “The Closer.”
This definition is perhaps the most riddled with contradictions. Being “canceled” in this way is a popular talking point among centrist and right-wing content creators. Commentators like Kaitlin Bennett and Katie Hopkins frequently bemoan being “silenced” by liberal media. It is the digital age manifestation of the decades-old “free speech” rhetoric used by conservative commentators to scaffold their right to make incendiary and insensitive comments. The contradiction, however, lies in appearing on a major television program to complain about your voice being silenced. These commentators haven’t been deplatformed — they’ve just been met with negative criticism.
It is this situation in which Chappelle found himself when pronouncing his supposed love for being canceled. Chappelle had certainly become unpopular in some groups, but he had not been deplatformed or met with any material consequences. He was by no means silenced. Netflix painted a clear picture of what that would actually look like — a Black trans employee was fired for speaking out against Chappelle’s comments and transphobia at the company.
The second, more nuanced definition of cancel culture can generally be summarized as “the deliberate deplatforming of someone exhibiting problematic behavior.” This can be either to prevent that behavior’s proliferation or as a symbolic indicator of one’s values.
The most distilled instance of this definition of cancelation, both its causes and effects, is arguably that of R. Kelly. Following confirmation of the singer’s repeated sexual abuse of young girls he worked with, masses of people swore off his music, largely because they were personally disgusted with his actions.
However, the consequences of this operated on a much larger scale. The widespread contempt and rapid decrease in royalties for R. Kelly culminated in his inability to secure proper legal representation for his trial. He was faced with significant legal consequences as a result and was disenfranchised from harming more people. It was the Platonic ideal of what cancel culture seeks to accomplish.
This sentiment can be found distilled in smaller “cancellations” of artists that have said and done problematic things. People don’t want their money, time and digital streams supporting artists whose politics they disagree with. This drop in popularity often leads to companies dropping sponsorships and removing other means of fiscal support from artists. A recent example is the swift removal of DaBaby from many music festival lineups following his homophobic comments at Rolling Loud.
Optimistically, it’s because those corporate entities are truly structured on a platform of equality (unlikely). Realistically? When people get canceled, they become unpopular. That could severely impact those companies’ bottom lines. The digital age has provided a means for coordinated manipulation of the free market, and cancel culture is the product of that.
It is this second definition of cancel culture that Dave Chappelle is now grappling with. Following backlash to his transphobic remarks, film festivals are now pulling support for his upcoming documentary. Chappelle complained about this treatment in a standup video addressing the Netflix controversy. “Not a film company, not a movie studio, not a film festival,” he complained. “No one will touch this film.”
Of course they won’t.
That’s what being canceled is like.
Caelan Reeves ’24 is a literature and history dual major from Chicago, Illinois. They love everything to do with music, movies and books.