A friend is about to give a guest lecture. She is paralyzingly nervous: “I don’t want to get canceled.” A colleague who is about to have an editorial published asks me to make sure there is nothing cancelable in it. When their work occurs without incident, I return to the terror that preceded their success. “You see, you weren’t canceled!” “Thank god,” they both reply, an oddly unifying utterance for two professed nontheists. The stakes of canceling are such that disbelievers reach for higher powers when spared.
I begin to ask everyone I meet what they think of when they think of cancel culture. A student tells me her grandparents complain, “It’s Salem all over again.” A friend tells me of a colleague who got fired for something they said on Slack. “Can you believe it?” she snaps. “Cancel culture ruins lives.”
I gather these instances and wonder whether cancel culture is an encroaching menace against which everyone must defend or a moral panic that inflates the problem. In a 2023 paper published in Political Studies, Pippa Norris poses the question this way: “Do claims about a growing ‘cancel culture’ curtailing free speech on college campuses reflect a pervasive myth, fueled by angry partisan rhetoric, or do these arguments reflect social reality?”1 Norris finds that contemporary academics may be less willing to speak up due to a fear of cancel culture. Cancel culture is not a myth, Norris decides, because, in silencing people, it does something real.
There is no question that cancel culture is real. It is also a myth.
Taking myths as real requires resistance to conventional usage. Seven myths about COVID-19 vaccines, yells one headline. Ten mega myths about sex, beckons another. Myth used this way refers to an idea people believe that is not true. This is a relatively recent connotation of myth. In the history of religion, myths are stories people tell about forces more powerful than them described as superhuman. A superhuman force could be a god; it could be meteorology; it could be a corporation or a foreign state. Myths occur when human beings want to explain how mysterious things come to pass. Their explanation is: “Something more powerful than us did something to make this happen.”
Cancel culture produces a collection of myths within a particular tradition or a mythology. Depending on your political inclinations, the cast of gods and heroes alters considerably. The question is what mystery cancel culture’s mythology explains. Thinking about this requires thinking a little about religion, and a lot about what hurts people most.
Why does cancel culture feel so weighty when its material impacts are so comparatively slight?
The history of religions is a history of organizing power relations. If this premise isn’t especially sexy to you, I commend the many Netflix films about religion where you can watch charismatic figures lull followers with promises of new dawns and off-the-grid togetherness. A lot of people who Netflix and chill do not identify religiously, but everybody knows a heartbreak authored by a devastating player. “Something in the way you move / Makes me feel like I can’t live without you,” sings Rihanna in “Stay,” her 2012 blockbuster duet with Mikky Ekko. This is just one of hundreds of lovelorn tracks from the Top 40 that would serve well as a soundtrack for religion’s depiction in Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (2022), Unorthodox (2020), and Wild Wild Country (2018).
Religion has a fair number of sexual mountebanks, but for a new religious movement to become an established religion, it needs to evolve from one-hit wonder to Beyoncé. New religious movements, sometimes derogatively called cults, offer ritual resolve for persons seeking solutions to their most profound questions and pain. Religions evolve from small cultic movements when, after the initial romance fades, individuals keep repeating things that other individuals repeat, and those communal repetitions come to constitute a form of belonging. If I say the Lord’s Prayer, the Jewish blessing over bread, or the Muslim salat, I am speaking individually, but I am speaking in a way many other people speak, and when we hear each other speak it, we know who we are. The person who shows up at a Beyoncé concert and does not know a single lyric seems, to the Beyhive, like an outsider.
In her work on cancel culture, Pippa Norris does what many people do who imagine themselves outside myth’s power, namely take a myth as opposed to reality. But when you define a myth as a falsehood, you are not working to hear the myth’s believers on their terms. You are trying to correct them. You are trying to divest their false belief of its power. Religionists have a word for that, too: secularization.
The historic use of secularize was to convert from religious to secular possession or use, as when someone says, “the convent, secularized in 1973, is now a conference center.” Secularizing a building can happen with a single ritual. But calling someone else’s belief a lie—saying that there was no virgin birth, for example—doesn’t work so easily. Your cousin who won’t get vaccinated, the co-worker who repeats old lines about Pizzagate. No amount of fact-checking their utterances alters their view, because their view is not about the vaccine’s reality. It’s about how they feel when higher powers like The Government and Big Pharma required it. The more you deny what the believer believes, the bigger, not smaller, their belief becomes. Your debunking energizes their storifying. Have you ever tried to convince a Beyoncé fan that her voice isn’t that great, or that Rihanna is the better live performer? For sure you lost that one.
the mystery that I want to solve is why the idea of cancel culture is so powerful. In a 2020 essay addressing cancel culture, Ligaya Mishan writes, “It’s instructive that, for all the fear that cancel culture elicits, it hasn’t succeeded in toppling any major figures—high-level politicians, corporate titans—let alone institutions.”2 This lack of large-scale monetary or institutional consequence has not dimmed the anxious hold that cancel culture has on the political conversation. Why does cancel culture feel so weighty when its material impacts are so comparatively slight?
Alan Dershowitz’s Cancel Culture: The Latest Attack on Free Speech and Due Process (2020) identifies cancel culture as the “illegitimate descendent” of both McCarthyism and Stalinism and blames it for stifling political free speech and artistic creativity as well as derailing the careers of prominent politicians, business executives, and academics.3 For Dershowitz, the weight of cancel culture is how it silences debate and destroys individual careers. And yet this is wrong: never in human history have human beings been less silent or debated basic ideas of interrelation and power more.
The friend and colleague who worried to me about their possible cancelations fretted because they thought they could lose job opportunities if they became stars of a story where they are called out for using their power at the lectern or on the page toward negative effects. There are prominent instances in the cancel culture mythology of this occurring. Amy Cooper, a white woman who threatened a Black male birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, lost her job after the video of their Central Park encounter went viral. For Dershowitz and others who weaponize cancel culture, Amy Cooper’s firing is a prime exhibit that cancel culture has real effects.
There is no disputing that the behavior that led to Cooper’s firing occurred. The tape exists. She flipped out, and when she did, she pulled on racist language to do so. This is neither the first nor the last time someone was fired for behaving badly. Is using a wrong word in a lecture or a sentence in an editorial akin to behaving badly? No. Is it grounds for criticism? Yes. A part of the sign that cancel culture controls the mythological portion of the contemporary shared social imagination is that it has convinced many people that criticism is itself a condemning act. To watch the video of Amy Cooper is to watch a person who could not take criticism in the moment of her meltdown. She doubled down in her ardency that she was in danger despite the reassurances that she was not. After she was fired, she did not author a public apology; she sued her employer for wrongful termination. She lost. Dershowitz would wager the woke mob had taken over her company’s Board of Trustees. A scholar of religion might observe she did not engage well the superhuman powers her virality offered her.
Language is the gladius in the battle royale cancel culture stages. Kevin Donnelly, editor of Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March (2021), describes the endangering effect of cancel culture as a “radical reshaping” of “language.” He complains that “under the heading of ‘equality, diversity, and inclusion’ academics and students are told they cannot use pronouns like he or she.” He continues: “Other examples of cancel culture radically reshaping language to enforce its neo-Marxist inspired ideology include replacing breastfeeding with chest feeding so as not to offend trans–people” and deciding words like elderly and pensioners are “ageist.” He concludes: “While the above examples might appear of little consequence, the reality is the way language is being manipulated is cause for concern.”4
Celebrities know that to sustain their power they must cede some of what people say they are, including what people accuse them of being, even if mistaken.
Donnelly’s argument involves questionable assertions. Academics and students are not instructed in one hegemonic or unifying way; nobody is told what pronouns to use for themselves. But he is correct that a phobia that you will get the words wrong is one of the most basic terrors a person can have. Conservative critics have had such fearmongering traction with cancel culture because it taps into the primal embarrassment about saying the wrong thing. Cancel culture is therefore unsurprisingly marked as connected to contemporary campus life and, specifically, the humanities, where the fluency and acuity with language are curricular foci.
Critics on both sides of the political aisle wail about the heartlessness of cancel culture’s quick-condemning appraisals. A conservative Republican male-identified person replying to a recent Pew survey about the relationship between political vantage point and perception of cancel culture’s threat defines cancel culture as “destroying a person’s career or reputation based on past events in which that person participated, or past statements that person has made, even if their beliefs or opinions have changed.” A Democratic male-identified person defines it as “a synonym for ‘political correctness,’ where words and phrases are taken out of context to bury the careers of people. A mob mentality.” This Republican and this Democrat agree that cancel culture gives no leeway for learning (“even if their beliefs or opinions have changed,” says the Republican) and no understanding of the specific situation (“taken out of context,” says the Democrat).5 People are angry about cancel culture because it imprisons with no time off for good behavior. But discomfort around cancel culture may have less to do with absent compassion and more to do with who is now doing the talking and the canceling. As Danielle Butler wrote for The Root in 2018: “What people do when they invoke dog whistles like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘culture wars’ is illustrate their discomfort with the kinds of people who now have a voice and their audacity to direct it towards figures with more visibility and power.”6 As it happens, the Pew survey respondents are not racially identified. Butler invites us to wonder whether they were white people uncomfortable with being subject to nonwhite critique.
We might be able to frame cancel culture, then, in a different way: as a kind of fan rebuttal to the running story. The scholar Eve Ng writes, “Fandoms have a long history of organizing mass efforts around media texts, especially television shows, whose narratives and other elements of production might be influenced by viewer preferences.”7 The viewer—of a TV show or a viral clip, say—directs what happens next through their reaction. Ng points out that cancel culture reflects larger patterns of social hierarchy, including gender, class, race, nation, and other axes of inequality. She suggests that fans in contemporary mediatized environments fight to articulate and undermine those hierarchies through their acts of intervention and protest.
In this sense, cancel culture also becomes a critical practice of what scholars like Jonathan Gray, Melissa Click, and others have described as anti-fandom.8 Anti-fandom helps reshape received stories and actively responds to the narratives it witnesses. It is how fans express what they think they should no longer have to watch. Anti-fandom led readers to write to Dickens griping about what he did to Little Dorrit or viewers to write to the makers of Dallas for that one infamous cliffhanging whodunit. It includes readers tweeting about transphobic comments in the paper of record. The point isn’t to end the criticized piece of culture. It is to reclaim what the fan wants most from it. “J. K. Rowling gave us Harry Potter; she gave us this world,” said a young adult author who volunteers for the fan site MuggleNet. “But we created the fandom, and we created the magic and community in that fandom. That is ours to keep.”9 Harry Potter fans seize back from the stories what they want; they don’t need a celebrated charismatic figure to do so. Myths survive longest when their authors become invisible, with the story becoming every speaker’s first-person speech.
The celebrities who survive the rites of criticism that comprise the common understanding of cancelation are those who make it their brand (see, for example, Jeffree Star or Kanye West) or those who accept that celebrity is always a delicate interrelation between fan and star, whom the fan figures as superhuman. Myth doesn’t sustain its storifying power if people stop believing that its powers have serious sway. Celebrities know that to sustain their power they must cede some of what people say they are, including what people accuse them of being, even if mistaken. Accept the terms of your deification. If you can’t stand the heat, you have no right to the power.
Trying to shift the words we use and the resultant stories a society tells will never be nonviolent. Canceling can sometimes reflect the ritual of sacrifice described by René Girard in Violence and the Sacred (1977).10 A sacrifice is the act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to a superhuman power. According to Girard, the sacrificed thing—the person, animal, or inanimate possession—is a surrogate victim. The point of the sacrificial killing is to organize a wee bit of violence in a highly localized way to avoid a grander violence. The surrogate victim, the sacrificed thing, becomes known as a scapegoat, a reference to the goat sent into the wilderness in Leviticus after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it. Enlightenment philosophers hoped some of this violence could be ended through the formation of a social contract, but Girard believed the problem of violence, which is the primary problem that cancel culture seeks to redress, could only be solved with a lesser dose of violence. We might say that sacrifice becomes a requisite procedure for societies transitioning from one level of inclusion to another.
They are not pushing back because they hate the power that person has but because they are angry about how that teacher, that New Yorker, that famous comedian used their power.
In Girard’s scheme, comedian Dave Chappelle, “canceled” over transphobic comments in his stand-up (and, again, for the way he responded to his cancelation), is the surrogate victim; transphobia is the sacrificial victim, the latent object of sacrifice. This is the double substitution which Girard wrote about: a singular person is sacrificed on behalf of a larger subject that the society seeks to cancel to slow its furtherance. Dave Chappelle gets yelled at because his mistakes represent a bigger social problem that the community wants to contain, so that the problem does not get bigger.
I observe how intensely intimate this is. The people who sacrifice Chappelle are not newcomers to him—they are people who knew him, even believed in him and liked his edgy voice. He had to be sacrificed, but that was upsetting, disappointing, disheartening.
Canceling isn’t a situation where a random person, animal, or possession is brought into a community and sacrificed. It only carries meaning if it is something held close, something you nicknamed and loved and wanted never not to be there.
so, what is the measure of what we’re describing? Myths make many things happen that money does not measure. The colleague worrying about their editorial; the online commentator pounding out a defense of free speech; the right-wing radio host furious about critical race theory, and the Bernie-bro podcast host smarting about college feminists: none of them are feeling great. What is the measure of this lousy feeling?
Stress, I want to say, the stress it causes. On a beach walk I seek to compel an older colleague to retire after years of critical student feedback about his chauvinist speech and several failed efforts to reeducate the educator. Pressing, I ask: “Wouldn’t it just be more peaceful if you didn’t have to face those criticisms one semester more?” His wife, walking with us, interrupts: Yes, this is going to kill him. He’s going to die from a heart attack.
I am thinking about heart pain when I first read about the history of canceling as a locution in English. It was Black digital practices, specifically the operation of Black Twitter, that converted “cancel you” into a social intervention.11 Journalist Clyde McGrady traced the origins of cancel used in this way back to Black singer-songwriter Nile Rodgers, who co-wrote the 1981 song “Your Love Is Cancelled” for his funk and disco band Chic.12 In the song, a guy speaks to his ex-girl. “Just look at what you’ve done,” the speaker sings. “Got me on the run / Took me for a ride, really hurt my pride.” The singer is wounded by how vulnerable they were, angry that their once-upon beloved seduced them, then dropped them.
I am listening to this Chic song and thinking about heart pain not because I am stressed about cancel culture but because I am in a period of heartache. I am in love and in pain about love. Listening to a lot of soul music, crying late at night on the phone, seeing in every astrological report more reasons to weep. The whole history of R&B is a howl from the gurney about the pain of stressed hearts. About the pain of mistake, of wishing you could take it back, of wishing you were otherwise. Someone makes you a star of their life, then they don’t want you to be their fan, or they to be yours, anymore.
Chic’s “Your Love is Cancelled” preceded a scene in the 1991 film New Jack City in which the girlfriend of a gangster confronts him about his violence. “You’re a murderer, Nino,” she screams. Wesley Snipes, who plays Nino, shoves her onto a desk, douses her with champagne, and snaps to his associate, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.” Hip-hop appropriation of that line—like when Lil Wayne rapped, “had to cancel that bitch like Nino,” in “I’m Single” (2010)—solidified the phrase’s public circulation.13 The perspective reflected in the song and the film is that of a person who is hurt and trying to triumph fiercely over that hurt. The speaker seeks to topple the figure that subjugates them. In both instances, men speak about canceling women who are voiceless. Their act of cancelation is at best unhealthy, a momentary derangement, violent speech meant to hurt by reasserting their power. I loved you, I trusted you, and you betrayed me. Let me slam back in lyric and gesture that I will be just fine. I will be just fine. I will be just fine, without you.
There is a lot to say about what cancel culture is, what unites fans against a comedy set or a novel about a migrant’s experience or a teacher’s in-class utterance. To understand those most upset about cancel culture I must come to understand why people affirm some idea of their freedom over someone else’s idea of safety; why people call out sensitivity in one group while demonstrating through their reaction paper-thin emotional walls. You’re canceled is said between two parties, one of whom says it because they claim devastation at how poorly they’ve been cared for by the other. The other can’t believe it, unable to understand how their lover can speak this way. And suddenly I realize one way to describe cancel culture is as a violent reaction to heartbreak.
When worshipful attentions are withdrawn, the lacerating reverberation of myth’s interruption cannot be underestimated.
The students who cancel the teacher for their anti-Black remark; the New Yorkers who cancel Amy Cooper for soiling their public park; the fans who cancel Chappelle for transphobic remarks: they are not pushing back because they hate the power that person has but because they are angry about how that teacher, that New Yorker, that famous comedian used their power. The people calling for cancelation connect specific word choices to larger systems in which bigotry leads to massive social disparities. Mythologies explain that gods use power clumsily, and religions offer ways to survive while you grapple with the results of their fumble. Worship knits people back into community after drama and dereliction. Cancel culture is another mythic frame for a perennial ritual procedure by which people sift the good and the bad. It is painful because the world in which ritual exists is filled with preventable pain.
The marital liturgy in the 1522 Book of Common Worship includes a phrase, with my body I thee worship. What gets you to the altar where you might say these words? A lot of feeling, a lot of storifying. “Tell me about the day you met,” you might ask at a party. “Tell me how you knew you were in love.” Myths pour out in reply, stories of human action and cosmic fate that account for the mystery of love’s realization. The Book of Common Worship does not make myth visible. It records rituals that a particular religious tradition recommends for people to practice love, not storify it. To worship your body with mine. To attend to each other with care. To see each other as we are and to believe that person is someone worth seeing and seeing and seeing, again.
Myths are real. The anguish at canceling, the worry over being canceled, the sense that cancelation is what kids these days do—none of it makes sense outside the reality of the stories we tell to string ourselves to other people. When worshipful attentions are withdrawn, the lacerating reverberation of myth’s interruption cannot be underestimated. It’s an eruption, a tear at the fabric of what we hold dearest. So, to those who are worried about the stress of cancelation’s effects, I say what my friends say to me on the phone late at night, what they say over and over with the assuredness we have when heartbreak is heard. Try to learn from this. Know you will survive. And believe against all protesting pain, all teeth gnashing, notes left on windshields and marks left on your body, that you will be better for the lesson higher powers decided you needed to receive.
1. Pippa Norris, “Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?” Political Studies 71, no. 1 (2023): 145–74.
7. Eve Ng, Cancel Culture: A Critical Analysis (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), 3.
8. Melissa A. Click, ed., Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age (New York: New York University Press, 2019); Jonathan Gray, Dislike-Minded: Media, Audiences, and the Dynamics of Taste (New York: New York University Press, 2021).
10. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, translated by Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
11. On the origin of “cancel” in the Black vernacular tradition, see Meredith D. Clark, “DRAG THEM: A Brief Etymology of So-called ‘Cancel Culture,’” Communication and the Public 5, no. 3–4 (2020): 88–92.
12. Clyde McGrady, “The Strange Journey of ‘Cancel’ from a Black-Culture Punchline to a White-Grievance Watchword,” Washington Post, 2 April 2021.