Why Are People Getting “Canceled”?

We could always cancel our plans or a magazine subscription, but these days it’s people who are up for cancelation.

The verb cancel dates back to the days of medieval Latin, meaning “to cross out.” It’s only in the past couple of years that it’s been used to declare people null and void.

Everyone from Kanye West to Lena Dunham has now been labelled as “canceled” on the internet in recent months—West for his support of Donald Trump (and general Kanye-ness) and Dunham for allegations of racism and shaming sexual assault victims. Even The New York Times proclaimed “Everyone Is Canceled.” Canceling someone is now easier than canceling your cell phone contract it seems (though admittedly, most things are).  

It’s a bit disconcerting that we’re canceling people because in many ways it’s dehumanizing. It honestly sounds like something out of a freaky sci-fi film.

Won’t report to the mothership as ordered? Zap, you’re cancelled, human. Heck, even the mafia terms for murder, clipwhack, and hit sound more human than to “cancel” someone. So, why are we using it?

What does canceling mean when it’s about a person?

Canceling, today, is used like a massive, informal boycott when someone or something in the public eye offends … or when we’re just over them.

The exact origin of this usage is unknown, but as is similar with most word trends, one clever quip sparks a cascade of copycat usage, and suddenly things we never imagined uttering are part of our vernacular … whether we like it or not. 

Take the conversation around comedian Kevin Hart, for example. He’s been decidedly canceled after coming under fire for his history of homophobic comments and tweets. It’s not just that he canceled his appearance at the 2019 Oscars or that his deal with Nike is in jeopardy of being canceled; it’s that he, himself, has been labelled canceled by people across the internet. In other words, he’s been blacklisted.

Justified or not, canceling someone sounds harsh. Synonyms for cancel are similarly severe: abort, wipe out, squash, trash, and repudiate. So, why do we say it?

Perhaps, it’s because our sensitivities to the hurtfulness of someone’s words is now something we aren’t shying away from so we need something as harsh as canceling someone to convey just how outraged we are. No longer will we stand for racism, sexism, and other transgressions that we know hurt people in the name of a joke. They are dehumanizing actions, so perhaps we needed a dehumanizing word to address these offenders.

What happens when someone gets canceled?

There are varying degrees of cancelation. Sometimes, it’s just a general declaration via the media or by social-media users. In other cases, however, cancelations are accompanied by mass unfollowings on social media, declines in sales and subscriptions, lost contracts, and more. While canceling can also be used with benign or humorous intent, such as with love, in other cases, canceling someone can have a very real impact on their livelihood.

The good news is that people and things can be uncanceled too, otherwise known as making a comeback. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Just ask Martha Stewart.

Like it or not, all this canceling doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Until then, let’s try to at least cancel with caution and not wield our power based on misinformation.

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