Ernest Owens on His New Book, The Case for Cancel Culture

We talked to Philly Mag’s editor at large about what cancel culture is and is not.

ernest owens case for cancel culture

Philly Mag editor at large Ernest Owens releases his book, The Case for Cancel Culture, on February 21st. / Book jacket art courtesy of St. Martin’s Press; Photograph of Ernest Owens by Hannah Yoon

Philly Mag editor at large Ernest Owens has been busy. In between recording his podcast and his duties here, he’s also launching his first book. (He will be doing a book-signing event at Penn Bookstore on Thursday, February 23rd, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.)

The Case for Cancel Culture has already been getting buzz — it was recently excerpted on Rolling Stone’s site, and BookTok’s interest is piqued. In his book, Owens positions cancel culture as a tool everyday people have at their disposal to engage in activism and change. Drawing a through line from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement all the way to our 21st-century notion of “cancel culture,” Owens argues they are of the same spirit — one that is essential to our democracy.

We talked about his book — and cancel culture in general — ahead of its debut. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start broadly: What inspired you to write this book?

For so many years, I’ve observed a social hijacking of the term “cancel culture,” and that pissed me off. Powerful leaders from both the left and the right, alongside celebrities and influencers, turned cancel culture into a dog whistle in order to gaslight those holding them accountable. In my book, I discuss my 2019 op-ed in the New York Times calling out Obama’s very boomer view of cancel culture and how powerful people like him often seem more upset by the act of canceling rather than what is actually being canceled. Moments like this propelled me to write beyond the op-ed and delve deeper.

Critics of cancel culture often conflate canceling with bullying. How do you distinguish the two?

Cancel culture is calling for action with a purpose; bullying is simply attacking without meaningful purpose, rhyme or reason. For example, just harassing people you find problematic isn’t rooted in any civil, mature, and/or mobilized effort to bring about change. Coordinating petition signatures, boycotts, divestments, and/or calls for resignations or abolishments — that’s cancel culture. Calling for a person to resign and calling someone stupid are two different things.

Since, as you posit, it operates as a tool for accountability and activism, canceling is, by its nature, a political tool. But one section of your book that I found particularly interesting dissects the ways it’s been politicized — by which I mean, how liberals and conservatives seem to employ cancellation differently. Can you talk a little more about that?

Cancel culture is essentially the ability to make decisions. By nature, we all cancel — and for various reasons. Muslims cancel eating pork, because it goes against their morality. I personally cancel Chick-Fil-A because it goes against my livelihood as a married Black queer man. These acts can easily be seen as political, but it’s much larger than politics alone. What politicians get wrong is that they try to reduce these decisions to partisan politics; it becomes politicized when you try to act as though these decisions are progressive or conservative — when they are just personal choices. For example, there are Muslims — both conservative and progressive — who don’t eat pork. Just as there are conservatives and progressives who are for marriage equality. These matters become politicized when those in power try to put a false narrative out there that only one side of the aisle is trying to cancel. (Newsflash: Both progressives and conservatives cancel.)

Walk me through the connections that you draw from the Boston Tea Party to civil rights protests to canceling a celebrity on Twitter.

In my book, I define cancel culture as when a person decides to cancel a person, place or thing that they view as detrimental to their way of life. Cancel culture is not when people cancel something based on a matter of taste. For example, if you don’t like a particular cheesesteak shop because you think their cheesesteaks didn’t taste good — that’s not cancel culture. Film, food, and music critics aren’t canceling things they personally dislike — cancel culture calls for something much deeper. But if you didn’t like that shop because they weren’t giving their staff a living wage, they engaged in union-busting, and/or had a Confederate flag hanging on their storefront window — that’s cancel culture. When colonists decided to dump British tea into the Boston Harbor, they didn’t do that because the tea tasted awful — they were taking a stand against tyranny via being taxed without representation. When people are currently canceling Kanye West on Twitter, it’s not because they didn’t like his new album — but because he’s been publicly pushing anti-Semitism, anti-Black bigotry and misogyny. That’s how I connect the dots in my book between the past, the present, and the future of cancel culture in society.

What really clicked for me in your book is the role of power. Echoing Foucault’s discourse, to truly understand the utility and process of canceling, you have to view it through the lens of the power dynamics — and imbalances — at play. Do you think that canceling helps to disrupt our power structure, or will it always be a tool for the relatively powerless?

I think cancel culture strives to do both — it’s disrupting power structures and being a useful tool for the relatively powerless. In some cases, both are happening simultaneously. In my book, I discuss the impact of #MeToo and #MuteRKelly. Both of these examples of cancel culture allowed women to speak truth to power and take down powerful men who abused them. As a result, Hollywood and the entertainment industry haven’t been the same since. More policies around sexual harassment have been put in place. There’s an increased effort to protect whistleblowers and others who are seeking to speak out. The days of Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly are gone, and so is the type of silence that often enabled men like them to inflict harm at that magnitude. Black women, who were the most powerless in both of these movements, led these causes and enacted sustainable change. #MeToo wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of Tarana Burke. #MuteRKelly wouldn’t have been the case without Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye. So I think we’re seeing both aspects of your question happening in real time.

Building off that, when you look at something like Louis C.K. selling out Madison Square Garden last month, is cancel culture’s power overstated?

Nope. Louis C.K. is a rich white straight man who still has immense privilege in spite of cancel culture — it’s much harder to cancel individuals like them. In my book, I have a chapter called “Not All Cancellations Are the Same.” Just like Congress, the Supreme Court, and our criminal justice system, cancel culture is imperfect. It impacts differently based on identity. Whereas Mel Gibson has had racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist outbursts, he can still get nominated and attend the Academy Awards without the same backlash and cancellation Will Smith experienced for slapping Chris Rock. I dive into other double standards and inconsistencies in my book, but I would reiterate that cancel culture is a tool that’s in the hands of imperfect people. It’s not the act of canceling that’s the problem, but the people doing it. Sometimes cancel culture can be weaponized in ways that’s unfair or biased. Other times, it can be utilized for good. Essentially, that’s how democracy works. One shouldn’t cancel the First Amendment just because some use it in ways we dislike.

Writing about an ongoing phenomenon is challenging because you eventually just have to wrap it up and publish it. Since you’ve written the book, there have been some very high-profile cancellations — Kanye immediately comes to mind. What would you have included in the book if you had written it later? Is a sequel warranted?

I definitely would have expounded more on the interesting turn of events surrounding Kanye West. In my book, I refer to how he was able to be a huge Trumper without the same backlash that R&B artist Chrisette Michele had when she performed at Trump’s 2017 presidential inauguration. For a while, I wondered what would finally be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t his election denial, slavery denial, anti-Black bigotry, sexism, harassment of ex-wife Kim Kardashian, and cyberbullying of ex-friends. It wouldn’t be until he made anti-Semitic rants online that serious cancellation from the likes of Adidas and others took off that we would see his billionaire status drop, along with his reputation. I definitely would have explored how someone as powerful and iconic as Kanye was afforded more opportunities to get his act right than others. I also would have written in-depth about Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his cancellation of just about anything — from saying gay to A.P. courses on African American studies. Again, cancel culture isn’t perfect or justice — but it’s a necessary tool.