If you feel like literally everything is canceled in 2020, including the year 2020 itself, perhaps that’s a product of the very word “cancel” being used so frequently in reference to the rise of cancel culture. But, cancel culture examples now include other words to explain nuanced reactions to a racist, sexist, anti-Semetic, or otherwise offensive or damaging action or choice by a person, group, or company. Those other words and phrases include calling in, calling out, and boycotting—and while they share certain similar goals in spirit, they function quite differently in practice.
Canceling, calling out, calling in, and boycotting are all distinct actions, but they do share a commonality. Their overarching goal is to reduce perceived harm to an individual or demographic, thereby creating social change. In other words, all four distinct terms draw attention to actions or opinions that may be hurting people in order to ultimately phase those behaviors or opinions out of the culture.
All four distinct terms draw attention to actions or opinions that may be hurting people in order to ultimately phase those behaviors or opinions out of the culture.
To achieve this sweeping objective, each method tries a different tact. And while understanding the nuance between each is key, it can feel murky upon first pass—especially as the discourse around each continues to evolve. So, keep reading for a better—if not necessarily absolute—understanding of how they differ, including IRL cancel culture examples to explain each.
Definition: Speaking to an individual privately about their perceived harmful or problematic actions or opinions. Calling out is seen by some activists as an effective way to create change and reduce harm while allowing an offending individual to learn, grow, and change.
IRL example: Recently, a Black friend of mine was upset by white women participating in the meme-ing of Breonna Taylor. Because my friend knew that the women sharing these memes were well-intentioned—they wanted to draw attention to the fact that Breonna Taylor has not yet had justice—she spoke to them privately via DM rather than criticizing them publicly. All were horrified they’d misstepped, and this was the end of them sharing such memes. Several also told her they’d be more thoughtful before sharing Black Lives Matter-related content in the future, which is also a win.
Definition: Criticizing an individual or organization publicly, usually on social media. Calling out can be a useful tactic when calling in fails, or when the problematic individual or company is too powerful or removed from you (e.g., a celebrity or, say, Netflix) to be called in.
IRL example: In 2017, Pepsi released a commercial featuring model Kendall Jenner breezily bridging the gap between protestors and police by offering up a soda. It was criticized and meme-ed all over social media for trivializing BLM demonstrations. As a result, the ad was pulled, and an apology was made.
Definition: Withholding financial support from a company in order to force change within that company’s policies or practices. Once demands have been met, support is resumed.
IRL example: In the later 1970s and early 1980s, activists called for a boycott of Nestle products until the company stopped aggressively marketing its baby formula to women in developing countries. As a result of this financial pressure, the company did stop such marketing (for a time) and so the boycott ended (for a time).
Definition: A collective attempt at ruining the reputation and livelihood of an individual or organization in response to a problematic or harmful action or opinion.
IRL example: Identifying those who are canceled can get confusing, because canceling people or organizations with power rarely works. In other words, people/organizations that are canceled are rarely actually, well, canceled.
Let’s look at three examples. Technically, comedian Louis CK was canceled when allegations of sexual misconduct came to light. As a result, he lost TV and film work and was unable to tour for a time; however, he retains wealth, influence, and a fan base. Similarly, the fast food chain Chick-fil-A was canceled by LGBTQ+ activists due to the company’s support of anti-LGBTQ+ causes, but it continues to be patronized widely.
On the flip side, civilian Amy Cooper was canceled for her anti-Black treatment of bird watcher Christian Cooper, and as a result, she lost her job, her dog, and her reputation. Due to her relative lack of power, in comparison to those in the first two cancel culture examples, she may be considered more effectively canceled (though this is arguable given any ongoing privilege she holds).
Ultimately, when attempting to identify cancelation, it may be more helpful to look at the goal rather than the result. If the intent is to “ruin” (de-platform, bankrupt, etc.) a person or company without an easy path for redemption (if a path at all), then that person or individual is being canceled.