Every year, we add a couple new terms to the zeitgeist. In January 2020, we brought both “awesomesauce” and “weak sauce” into the Oxford English Dictionary, which was probably a great sign that the year was going to be swell. But no word has splashed down and stuck around quite like “problematic,” which broke into the mainstream around 2014, lodged itself in the cultural consciousness, and became a word we just use regularly now (sometimes when we mean to use words like “racist” but that feels too mean or something).
One of the things that launched “problematic” into the mainstream was a Tumblr blog, Your Fave is Problematic, that became popular around 2014-15. The blog helped popularize the concept of the “problematic fave,” any given individual’s favorite celebrity with a “problematic” past. The blog went silent in 2016, lasting a little less than two years in total. Those two years were chock full of posts in which any given celebrity could be ruled problematic for a variety of offenses. The offenses were not equal in severity, but they were equal in the final judgement: problematic.
This tended to push readers to one of two polar opposite conclusions. To the first camp, the fact that the blog had no scale and seemingly any minor offense could result in the problematic label minimized the impact of more significant offenses. To the second, each offense was equally awful and had to be judged with the harshness due to the most vile offenders.
“Who was I to lump together known misogynists with people who got tattoos in languages they didn’t speak? I just wanted to see someone face consequences; no one who’d hurt me ever had.”Liat Kaplan
Author, Your Fave is Problematic
Its ruler anonymous and their decisions inscrutable, Your Fave is Problematic helped kickstart a trend on social media that actively sought out reasons why someone was not deserving of praise, often proclaimed to the world by faceless avatars, untraceable to real-life human beings.
This is the true cancel culture. It’s a cultural identity around seeking out information that can determine whether someone is worthy of being considered “good” in a binary world of good and evil – sorry, problematic. Being anything shy of 100% good is problematic and problematic people should be cancelled.
I say that Your Fave is Problematic is the origin of cancel culture only in the sense that it is the funnel through which older ideas became the modern concept we see today. The concept of ‘cancel culture’ dates back to earlier antecedents. Blacklists and boycotts are ‘canceling,’ and they’ve been effective tools for social change as well as a damaging to public discourse, just as canceling today can be good or bad depending on who wields it.
Canceling is so old that it’s in the Bible. That’s what “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” is about; it’s not just that the people in the crowd who want to stone the alleged adulterer are not blameless, but that they want to condemn her while avoiding the consequences of their own actions.
In February 2021, Liat Kaplan came forward as the author of Your Fave is Problematic and echoed this Biblical concept: “For years, I’ve regretted the spotlight I put on other people’s mistakes, as if one day I wouldn’t make plenty of my own.” Kaplan referred to her blog as a catalog “to make a case against the veneration of the rich and famous,” but acknowledged the role it played in spurring on people to proclaim any violation of social mores to be worthy of condemnation.
Cancel culture was in many ways a uniquely left-of-center phenomenon, in part because of the divergent ways liberals and conservatives engaged with popular culture. Conservatives tended, particularly beginning in the Bush administration, to consider media as either liberal or conservative and to assume that anything that wasn’t overtly conservative was in opposition to their beliefs and way of life. Conservatives condemned the [Dixie] Chicks for opposing the War in Iraq and the band was blacklisted by country music outlets for years, for example.
This wasn’t exactly new; cultural conservatives viewed any change in culture and any challenge to their views as a way for insidious forces to dismantle their lives. Sometimes this was “political correctness,” a term conservatives used to try to paint “being respectful towards people” as somehow malevolent. In the 2000s, it was “un-American” to question the Bush administration or the Iraq War, and this accelerated the dichotomy that cuddling with the flag and violating American freedoms was “American” and thinking flag worship is strange and speaking out against injustice was “hating American freedoms.”
Which brings us to the Trump administration, which sought to connect cancel culture and liberalism together as a single behemoth enemy of real American patriots. The left was trying to cancel Goya because its CEO praised Donald Trump, the White House claimed.
At the same time, when Nike hired quarterback Colin Kaepernick for a commercial in 2018, Trump backed a boycott. Wasn’t this the exact same behavior?
Absolutely. But neither of these things are really “cancel culture,” because cancel culture seeks out proof that every individual or organization is bad. That’s the key here. Cancel culture is about impurity, it’s about us-versus-them where everyone must be angelic and, if they fall even a centimeter short, they are denounced.
“Who was I to lump together known misogynists with people who got tattoos in languages they didn’t speak?” Kaplan wrote in her piece for the New York Times. “I just wanted to see someone face consequences; no one who’d hurt me ever had.” It’s an important point. What sparked cancel culture is the feeling that those who do real, serious wrongs are rarely punished or face consequences. In fact, this has become an explanation of how cancel culture isn’t real, because people who are cancelled go on to have jobs and live lives. That’s a misnomer; just because cancel culture is rarely effective doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But it does highlight how rarely people who do serious misdeeds face consequences for them.
Cancel culture is dangerous because it is, at its heart, a mob. But it isn’t a powerful mob. The more powerful force is the one trying to convince you that cancel culture is a threat. The conservatives who warn about the dangers of cancellation do so because we are perilously close to a world where a few more people might discover that being awful could impact their own lives.