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According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, which was forced to redefine the word “cancel” because it has a new meaning, cancel culture “has been credited to Black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag” to sever relationships between public figures and their fans.
It’s unfortunate that Merriam-Webster took the initiative to update the definition only to get it wrong. Cancel culture is an extrajudicial punishment for people who misbehave, usually by supporting racist, sexist or LGBTQiA+-phobic ideas in a public way.
Cancel culture’s playbook is simple. 1) Establish rules of what’s acceptable and not acceptable to say and do. 2) Find evidence of misconduct. 3) Activate a mob to suss out where the offender works and lives, and harass him/her. 4) Get offender fired, making it impossible for them to earn money in any possible livelihood. 5) Restrict their influence - both socially and politically - by making them so toxic that they can’t interact with anyone. Purify society by purging them.
Proponents like Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic say it’s a form of accountability. Writer and film critic Alisha Grauso says it’s not cancel culture but “consequence culture.”
Others, like accomplished authors, journalists and thought leaders who signed a public letter in Harper’s Magazine and President Donald Trump - who said through Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany he “stands against … cancel culture, which seeks to erase our history” even though he championed two of the largest cancellation campaigns of the last decade: birtherism and keeping Colin Kapernick unemployed - think it threatens American culture.
The thing about cancel culture is that it is our history. No matter how one beholds this social phenomenon, it’s prudent to remember that it’s a vestige of slavery, or at least the organized efforts to maintain it.
Right after the 13th Amendment was passed and all slaves were decreed free, a series of local and state laws - collectively called Black codes (1865-66) or Jim Crow laws, post-Reconstruction - developed around the country to try to roll back the protections that would have equalized Black and white people - Step 1 of cancel culture.
Black codes sought to control Black people’s labor with requirements like signing one-year employment contracts that would result in their arrest if not satisfied. Any inability to comply with the codes was labeled misconduct - cancel culture Step 2.
Even throughout Reconstruction, the way Black people were treated roughly approximates what cancel culture does today. Pursuant to cancel culture Step 3, a mob joined in - the Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1865 - and performed the 19th-century version of doxxing by burning churches, schools and crosses at Black homes.
Black people couldn’t support themselves because they were forced to work for free in indentured servitude as punishment for their original misconduct. The criminal record that followed them prevented any sustainable income. That’s Step 4.
Then white supremacist lawmakers deadened Black people’s newly established power as free people by taking their voting rights through felony disenfranchisement. They had no influence in politics and stopped mattering to anyone who could help them - cancel culture Step 5. Whites purify society by purging Blacks; an editorial in the Macon, Georgia, Daily Telegraph in the 1860s said as much: “There is such a radical difference in the mental and moral (nature) of the white and Black race, that it would be impossible to secure order in a mixed community by the same (law).”
Today we can’t secure order when racist ranters keep collecting paychecks or maintain Twitter accounts.
Cancel culture isn’t totally illogical. Only when offenders feel the vulnerability that groups who are traditionally discriminated against experience will they understand why what they did or said was wrong. Plus, when people like Michael Lofthouse - the tech CEO who went off on an Asian-American family in a restaurant recently - or Amy Cooper, the woman charged July 6 for filing a false report when she called 9-1-1 on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park - apologize for their candid harangues, we suspect they’re more scared than sincere.
It may appeal to us at times to eliminate the people who piss us off, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the designers of this practice of canceling, those citizens who perfected it, were white supremacists preserving slavery, hoping to re-create it.
Defenders of cancel culture would be wise to learn its roots and not let themselves be defined by their implicit support for racist and negating Black codes and Jim Crow laws. That’s cause to get themselves canceled.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bozelko column: Cancel culture is a relic of slavery
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.