Opinion | Civil Rights

The only way to fight back against 'cancel culture' is to define it — here's an attempt

The only way to fight back against 'cancel culture' is to define it — here's an attempt

As part of his latest attempt to quash the calls for his resignation over both a nursing home scandal and, more recently, a growing sexual harassment and misconduct scandal, Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoNew York City moving thousands of people from hotels back to shelters Bank of America: All vaccinated workers to return to office after Labor Day US Open allowing 100 percent spectator capacity at matches MORE (D-N.Y.) invoked cancel culture last week. “People know the difference between playing politics, bowing to cancel culture and the truth,” he said.

Now, whether you’re a supporter of Gov. Cuomo or not, I think we can all agree that what’s happening to him has absolutely nothing to do with “cancel culture.” But it raises an interesting point — about a larger issue: What exactly is cancel culture? There are so many stories that involve the umbrella term “cancel culture” these days that it’s important to at least attempt to define it, so we can all be on the same page, adjudicate these items — and, hopefully, move beyond cancel culture.

In trying to define it, I’ve come up with “the three C’s” of cancel culture that will help shape each scenario. The goal of this is to take each incident through the three “C’s” to determine whether one, two or three can be applied. If fewer than two can be checked off, then we’re entering the territory of “cancel culture.”

  1. Chronology

Chronology, or timeline, involves several components. The first is whether the incident in question happened recently or a long time ago. If the offending incident took place long before societal norms shifted to where they are today, that occurrence can be viewed more favorably than if it happened yesterday.

Let’s use the example of the Alexi McCammond tweets that recently got her in trouble with her future employer, Teen Vogue. McCammond sent several offensive tweets about Asian people some 10 years ago, when she was in college. The chronology aspect of this offending incident would seem to be one reason why she should potentially not be punished further — because the incident occurred a decade ago, and also when she was in college, before she became a journalist. (Nevertheless, and even though she apologized publicly, she announced on Twitter on Thursday that she and Conde Nast, Teen Vogue’s publisher, were parting company.)

That contrasts, for example, with Chris Harrison and his recent comments urging “grace and compassion” about a “Bachelor” contestant’s actions in attending an “Antebellum South”-themed frat party in college. That incident obviously happened just last month, so the chronology of the offending incident would be a strike against Harrison here.


Another example is that of New York Times science/public health reporter Donald McNeil, who made his offending comment – using the n-word in relaying what another person had said – in 2019, putting it in somewhat recent territory and landing us in a bit of a gray area. (As for McNeil, he resigned from the Times, insisting he is not a racist.)

So, let’s move to the second “C.”

  1. Contrition

The next “C” is contrition — whether a person is sorry, once an offending incident is brought to light. This one is not fully objective, unlike chronology; there’s some subjectivity here. 

In McCammond’s case, she apologized two years ago, and seemed authentically contrite. That would contrast with, say, McNeil, who, while he was forced to apologize, we know through his massive Medium post that he doesn’t really feel an apology was warranted. (Now, I’m not making a judgment over whether what McNeil said is right or wrong, or what the cultural punishment should be, if anything at all. I’m simply trying to establish guardrails around what cancel culture is and what it is not.)


If a person has an offending incident, which took place at a certain time (“chronology”), does that person have authentic contrition? If they do, then that should not be a strike against them. And if they do, punishing them further would be, potentially, a sign of cancel culture.

  1. Context

The third and most important “C” is context. 

Context, unlike what McNeil’s bosses said back when he originally was forced to resign in statement number two of four or five, was that “intent” didn’t matter — which we all know is an absurd thing to say. Intent, and context, are both extremely important. 

McCammond’s comments were meant to be offensive. But contrast that with McNeil: He clearly did not use the n-word in a derogatory way. And in Harrison’s case, if you watch the offending comments, it’s clear he was not meaning to offend anyone, and was simply trying to have a conversation about “grace” and what’s acceptable. 

Context is important, but it can’t be everything. It’s just one of the three elements. If the context of the offending comment would lead to justifiable social banishment or punishment, chronology and contrition could counteract that. Two out of the three being at play means the punishment may still indicate the exercise of cancel culture. 


In McCammond’s case, context was a strike against her, but chronology and contrition meant that an attempt to get her fired would reflect cancel culture. In the case of McNeil, context would be in a category for him, while the chronology would be a strike against him — which brings us to contrition, and whether he was genuinely sorry that some people were offended. McNeil may have lost his job unfairly, but this one wouldn’t count as cancel culture at work. With Harrison, the context is clearly in a category for him, while chronology is a strike against him, but he appeared to have actual contrition, which would put it as cancel culture.

We can extrapolate this out for incidents which, most importantly, are not related to prominent figures in the media. One of the most high-profile recent examples is the case of Mimi Groves, whose saga was chronicled in the New York Times in December. She said the n-word after celebrating getting her driver’s permit in a Snapchat message, which was saved by a rival student in high school, who used it against her after she got a college scholarship in order to get her kicked out of the school. In that case, we have context, which is in a category for her, contrition and chronology, which were in her column, too. What happened to her would absolutely count as cancel culture.

These three elements are so crucial to our culture today. 

Chronology gets at the way our culture has evolved, and it’s unfair to punish acts in the distant past by judging them by today’s standards. Taking George Washington statues down, taking Abraham Lincoln’s name off schools — these are increasingly outlandish elements of cancel culture. 

Then there’s contrition — having grace, having compassion and allowing people to acknowledge when they mess up, then offering forgiveness. We need to eliminate the eggshells on which so many people feel they’re walking today, where one wrong word will mean they are banished from society. Contrition allows for mistakes to be corrected. 


And, finally, there’s context. While I understand that some people get more offended these days than other people do, we have to be able to separate what offends someone with what is directed to offend. We need to have the ability to parse this fact, and context is the only way to achieve it. It doesn’t mean that context “saves” you — because contrition is still important. Even if you didn’t mean to hurt someone through your context, contrition may still be necessary. But we need to be able to recognize a path out.

I’m not sure this is the solution, but I am sure that we need a solution. Because the arbitrariness of cancel culture will only perpetuate more cancel culture — and that is something which will hurt all of us, in the end. 

Steve Krakauer is the founder and editor of Fourth Watch, a media watchdog newsletter.