Culture

Obama Wants To Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’. Does He Have A Point?

Obama said it's probably a good idea.

Obama cancel culture

Cancel culture is making headlines again after former President Barack Obama stepped in to have a dig at the way people are acting online.

Obama said that call-out culture wasn’t a great form of activism and is way more about making people feel self-satisfied than actually making change.

He’s received a lot of mainstream support for his comments, including an entirely unironic slow-clap from MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough.

But was Obama right to say what he did?

Look, it’s complicated.

There Are Some Great Reasons To Say That We Should Pump The Brakes On Cancelling People.

After all, cancel culture is a super binary term that ignores the very real shades of grey in the world — as well as the possibility of personal development. But through a different lens, cancelling can also be seen as a great tool for marginalised and disempowered communities to affect sweeping social change.

So, why is cancel culture making headlines now?

Well, to be fair, the criticism of cancelling has kind of been piling on this year already. Activist and actor Jameela Jamil said in a recent interview that she thinks cancel culture silences people before they’ve been afforded time to develop.

And Sarah Silverman also addressed cancel culture on a podcast earlier this year after she was fired from a film when a photo of the comedian in blackface surfaced online. Silverman was wearing it as part of an episode of the Sarah Silverman Program focused on race, although she admitted that she had been ignorant about aspects of race politics at the time.

However, she also asserted that cancelling people had become an exercise in self superiority and ended up dubbing it “righteousness porn”.

But Where Did Cancel Culture Even Come From?

Cancelling, used in the ‘cancel culture’ sense and not just, you know, the word ‘cancelling’, has been around since 2015 when it emerged on Black Twitter to expose problematic people.

It’s a form of cultural boycotting that withdraws support for celebrities who are deemed too problematic, and it gained momentum as a common phrase on social media in 2018.

Here’s a brief list of celebrities that have been successfully cancelled since then:

All of these people did things that were deemed unforgivable to general, decent society — but the concern now is that cancel culture invites a mob mentality that can’t be properly monitored and may do more harm than good.

It’s also being noted that it’s probably not a productive way to address lesser social crimes — like when people tried to cancel Taylor Swift over her row with Kim Kardashian-West, which was just a celebrity spat over song lyrics.

Then there’s also the way that the act of cancelling becomes more about the cancellers than the cancellees, because it can be used as a way of making yourself look good online.

UK-based critic and columnist Sarah Ditum wrote in The Guardian that cancellation is just a combination of “piousness plus power” and a way for micro-celebrities on Twitter to raise themselves to prominence on a tide of other people’s anger.

All This Being Said, There Might Be Some Good Reasons To Keep Cancelling In Our Online Vocabulary.

Journalist Ernest Owens wrote in the New York Times that Obama is taking a worn-out stance that dismisses cancelling as just young people being rude, and stamping out civil discourse.

When actually, speaking up about climate change, women’s rights, racial justice, LGBTIQ issues and gun control is a responsibility that’s been left to millennials.

They’re just using what’s in their toolbox to do it.

Owens argues that cancel culture isn’t the bullying, it’s the pushback against the bullies. Owens also states that it’s an effective way for people who are traditionally marginalised and disempowered like black and LGBTIQ communities to find their voice.

Also holding people to account for their shitty behaviour is the biggest driver of social progress.

This is particularly important when you consider that a bunch of the cancelled are people who absolutely would have just been able to walk away unscathed from these controversies in the past. Ignoring the self-satisfaction and the Twitter ego and the problematic ways it stops people from growing and developing, cancel culture is a pretty important tool.

But, at this point, it’s probably impossible for cancelling to excise those demons and become an act of infallible social good.

Ironically, cancelling is basically unable to attain the kind of political purity that it keeps trying to enforce on others.


Elfy Scott is a journalist and host of the Junkee Takeaway. Follow her @elfy_scott on Twitter. 

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