Lately, there’s been some discussion of something called “cancel culture.” Figures from John Oliver to Tucker Carlson have addressed the topic, with sometimes wildly differing perspectives. Now, I’m diving into the fray.
First off, we should probably establish what exactly cancel culture is. Macmillan Dictionary defines cancel culture as “the practice of no longer supporting people, especially celebrities, or products that are regarded as unacceptable or problematic.” A person or thing that is no longer supported is thus said to be “canceled.” In this respect, cancel culture is nothing new, even if the name is. People have always debated whether they should stop their support of something or someone due to what may have been said or done, but the internet has made this process easier, as people’s past actions and words can be easily found and disseminated across the world. However, some have argued the culture can go too far.
For an example of cancel culture gone wrong, we can look at James Gunn. Gunn is a director who has achieved success and fame from helming Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” series. However, in July, Disney fired Gunn as director of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” over tweets where Gunn joked about molestation and pedophilia. In response to this decision, the cast of “Guardians of the Galaxy” issued a statement supporting Gunn, and a petition on Change.org to reinstate Gunn as the director has accumulated more than 400,000 signatures.
I was also inclined to support James Gunn. While I thought many of Gunn’s tweets were in poor taste at the very least, some of them were nearly a decade old, and more importantly, Gunn acknowledged these old tweets and apologized for him. He explained the tweets don’t reflect who he is now. Eventually, Disney realized they had made a mistake. With popular sentiment seeming to favor Gunn, Disney rehired Gunn and restored him as the director of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” in March.
So, what can we draw from the Gunn example? While offensive comments should not be passively accepted, a person’s subsequent words and actions matter. If someone owns up to their past comments, apologizes, and can show they have changed, that person shouldn’t be “canceled.” Instead, we should save our “canceling” for the truly remorseless, like Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
In March, coincidentally less than a week before Gunn was rehired, the organization Media Matters for America released recordings from interviews between Tampa-based radio host Bubba the Love Sponge and Carlson. In those recordings, Carlson can be heard expressing a series of offensive views and comments. Some highlights include defending a cult leader named Warren Jeffs who facilitated child marriages, describing women in general as “extremely primitive,” questioning whether sex workers can be raped and using a c-word to describe the daughter of Martha Stewart.
So how did Tucker Carlson respond to this? Not well. In his official statement after the recordings surfaced, Carlson said, “Media Matters caught me saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago. Rather than express the usual ritual contrition, how about this: I’m on television every weeknight live for an hour. If you want to know what I think, you can watch.” If someone could tell me in what universe defending a cult leader’s child marriages is considered merely “naughty” rather than absolutely horrific, I’d love to hear it. And in case you couldn’t tell, there was no apology, just an invitation for people to watch Carlson’s show. Carlson has not apologized. He has also parlayed his refusal to apologize to critique people who do apologize, attacking Democratic presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg over past comments they made and then apologized for.
To sum up, is cancel culture always bad? No. There are some cases where people should be called out for their bad actions, and people should boycott them, as well as the ones who support them financially, like advertisers and sponsors. However, I think it’s reasonable to ask that people pull back their outrage if the person in question has apologized and genuinely changed their ways. If we don’t do that, what incentive will people have to apologize and change? And if they don’t apologize, then we’ll be stuck in an endless loop of outrage and “canceling” every celebrity who doesn’t have a squeaky-clean past.
Jason Zappulla is a UF history junior. His column appears on Mondays.