What it really means to be ‘canceled’ in 2020

After a weekend flareup between Barstool Sports and Jemele Hill of ‘The Atlantic,’ not to mention a flurry of so-called “Karens,” it’s time to get on the same page about canceling.

What it really means to be ‘canceled’ in 2020
[Photo: iStock]

Canceling: It’s not just for plans and subscriptions anymore.


Depending on who you ask, it’s either the absolute worst fate that could befall a person or an easily avoidable unforced error. And although the term implies an absence, canceling has been front and center in the national conversation for years.

Just recently, YouTubers Jenna Marbles and Shane Dawson were canceled, reality show stars Stassi Schroeder and Kristen Doute were canceled, Justin Bieber and Lana Del Rey were canceled, a surly trio of Karens was canceled, and at this very moment, media personalities Dave Portnoy and Jemele Hill are being canceled. Or as The New York Times succinctly put it in a 2018 headline, everyone is canceled.

Since each of those people mentioned above is going through something entirely different, though, it’s ridiculous to suggest they are all experiencing the same phenomenon. The idea of canceling someone has become so thoroughly diluted, conflated, villainized, and weaponized that nobody seems to know quite what it means anymore—and what it doesn’t mean.

A working definition of ‘canceled’

Although I do not claim to be the end-all be-all authority on being canceled, as someone whose job involves spending all day on Twitter—the Coliseum of Cancelation—I might have a better idea of what it means than some.

Being canceled is what happens when a well-liked public figure is revealed to have acted unconscionably enough to create a breach of trust and a sense of betrayal. Fans fade away, enemies are emboldened, corporate partnerships dissolve.

The damage, however, is restricted to reputation and financial opportunity, rather than legal consequences.


When alleged crimes have been committed, even before charges are filed, it becomes another matter entirely. Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby weren’t canceled, for instance; they were convicted of being sex criminals.

Sometimes, canceling is very much literal, as was the case with Roseanne Barr. Although she was already an unstable QAnon believer, she still enjoyed the status of a refurbished sitcom star in 2018, before a beyond-the-pale racist tweet got her show scuttled from ABC’s schedule.

When someone is canceled, though, they don’t lose their right to work ever again. The field is just narrowed for an indeterminate period of time. Mel Gibson was nominated for an Oscar a decade after he got canceled. Louis CK still tours and releases standup specials after he lost a movie, several TV deals, and his welcome in many comedy clubs once his sexual misconduct accusers went public in 2017. He simply no longer enjoys the benefits of an unsullied reputation.

Much of the time, though, what people consider ‘getting canceled’ actually just amounts to a brief stint in the penalty box.

Sorting through the overuse of “___ is canceled”

Beloved food writer and chef Alison Roman created controversy last month by talking out of turn about two women of color, Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. She wasn’t canceled for it, though, holding onto her job after a brief suspension, and working toward reputation repair through apologies and outreach. Ultimately, she just endured an extended dragging.

But those who face more than harsh criticism for their offenses aren’t necessarily canceled either.


Now-former Bon Appetit editor in chief Adam Rapoport wasn’t canceled because an old photo of him in brownface surfaced; he was forced to resign once past and present staff revealed he had created a toxic work environment.

Shane Gillis wasn’t canceled when Saturday Night Live rescinded an offer for him to join its cast last fall. The show either inadequately vetted him, or underestimated how many comedy fans would be upset by the trail of racist jokes he’d told on a series of recent podcasts. Either way, Gillis merely lost a high-value job offer during a probationary period when more information about the applicant came to light.

Similarly, Amy Cooper and all the viral Karens of late haven’t been canceled—because they never had a perch of national renown to lose. These people made the journey from unknown to social pariah for behaving poorly in full view of the public.

And I can’t believe this needs to be written, but Confederate generals aren’t being canceled when protesters tear down their statues. Those generals canceled themselves when they went to war against America to preserve slavery, and lost. The protesters are just correcting a historical imbalance, and unburdening any Black people who have to live near a monument to a war criminal who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved.

Cancel culture is not mob rule

A great example of the confusion around cancellation, though, is what happened over the weekend with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. The confrontational, proudly problematic jabberjaw took some blowback when The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill retweeted a video of Portnoy making some arguably racist comments. (He compares Colin Kaepernick to Osama bin Laden and uses the n-word while singing along to a Ja Rule song.) Portnoy, who is no stranger to controversy, tweeted in response, “Memo to the cancel cops. I knew this was coming before you did. And I’m ready. You don’t cancel me. I cancel you.”

He’s semi-right on both counts.


Since Portnoy is a Trumpian figure who thrives on adversarial situations and crossing boundaries of taste, he can’t lose the reputation he already has. To be canceled is to be found out; to go from neutral or positive associations to negative ones. Portnoy could conceivably say something so beyond the pale that advertisers desert Barstool Sports completely, but it would take more than what is in the video, even if what is in the video might seriously taint someone else’s career.

As for the second part of Portnoy’s claim, “I cancel you,” the publisher’s Twitter minions are at the time of this writing engaged in an effort to damage Jemele Hill’s career. They are touting a tweet from 2009, in which she used a derogatory term for trans people, as proof of her intolerance and inherent cancel-worthiness.

They will not be successful.

What the Barstool squad is doing is a bad-faith effort at giving a supposed Social Justice Warrior a taste of her own medicine—not because they are offended by her old tweet, which Hill has contextualized and apologized for, but  just to get her in trouble. It’s exactly what far-right activist Mike Cernovich temporarily did to both James Gunn and Sam Seder in recent years. Rather than a legitimate reaction to a perceived slight, the Barstool crowd is harnessing the mechanism of cancelation to smite an enemy.

Ironically, the people who seem most aggrieved about so-called cancel culture tend to be the ones most likely to damage reputations and bottom lines just to settle scores, rather than to stand on principles.

The words “cancel culture” are typically used to describe a climate of hypersensitivity where everyone is scared to say anything, lest the steely, ever-shifting gaze of the mob arbitrarily point their way. But that is a mischaracterization. What people call “cancel culture” is only the possibility of consequences where none used to exist. The chance of becoming a pariah was always part of the social contract. It just used to be harder to enforce.


It used to be that publicists could squash even the most damaging rumors. It used to be that social media didn’t exist to help amplify the powerless and prove the popularity of an opinion. It used to be that women were less likely to be believed. It used to be that casual racism was far more acceptable.

All of these changes have happened fairly recently, or are still in the process of happening. Almost as though humanity exists in a constant state of evolution. If some of us experience whiplash because of how abruptly things change sometimes, well, that’s just what progress feels like.