“I Believe I Can Fly” is a really good song. The lyrics may be a bit shallow, but their aspirational vagueness lets listeners take the general idea to heart in whatever way they need to. It’s also a singer’s song, and the singer who wrote it delivered it well, taking listeners on a ride in a soaring, gospel-tinged chorus.
It was also a hugely successful song, both critically and commercially, becoming a No. 1 hit in eight countries, earning five Grammy nominations, and selling more than 3 million copies worldwide. It seemed like a song that was destined to live forever, becoming a staple of school choirs and assemblies and graduations.
But then it didn’t, because the artist who wrote and recorded that song, R. Kelly, is now “canceled.”
Kelly has become a prime example of what The Powers That Be have now christened “cancel culture” and they are deeply saddened and concerned about this supposedly new phenomenon. This term — “cancel culture” — has become the latest mandatory hot topic for the pundit class and they want you to know that it’s the latest New Thing about which they are worried and concerned with a full-blown case of the vapors.
The fact that there is not actually any such thing as “cancel culture” hasn’t lessened pundits’ enthusiasm for penning endless iterations of their nearly identical condemnations of it. Nor has the unanimity of these condemnations stopped such pundits from pretending that what they’re really concerned about is protecting “dissent.” And the ease with which these pundits are able to publish their views on multiple, lucrative, prestigious platforms also hasn’t stopped them from posturing as somehow being threatened and sidelined and oppressed by this nefarious, but imaginary, thing called “cancel culture.”
So let’s be clear. R. Kelly is not a victim of cancel culture. R. Kelly disgraced himself. He brought disgrace upon himself and upon his music by engaging in harmful, predatory sexual behavior toward children. As a consequence of his own actions, he is now “canceled.”
This is what “canceled” means. It means “disgraced.” Nothing more, nothing less. And disgrace is not a New Thing. It is as old as Cain. It is not a trend, or a hot topic requiring trendy hot takes. It is no more or less a matter of concern or worry or consternation than it has ever been.
R. Kelly, by his own choices and actions, brought disgrace upon himself. This was not something that was done to him, but something he did, thereby transforming himself from Pop Superstar R. Kelly into Disgraced Former Pop Superstar R. Kelly.
Or, as the kids today put it with their slang and their hep talk and their computers with color monitors, he got himself canceled.
It’s not hard to figure out where this new slang term for disgrace comes from. It arose on social media, where every post involves clicking one button next to another button reading “cancel.”
It’s a playful bit of word-play, one that perhaps seeks to downplay the moralizing or sermonizing that a term like “disgrace” seems to carry with it. I consider that a positive development. “Harvey Weinstein is canceled” manages to say much the same thing as “Mr. Weinstein’s disgraceful behavior proves he is no gentleman and that he is unfit for polite society!” without requiring the speaker to puff themselves up as the sanctimonious arbiter of community standards.
It doesn’t matter what terminology we use for disgrace, the consequences remain the same: disgrace. To be canceled is to be in disgrace, which is to say to have set oneself in opposition to and apart from others by behaving so indecently that your continued presence would seem to make them complicit in your indecency. Disgrace is a kind of social exile.
And, again, that exile is not imposed by some external force — not by kings or popes or “Twitter mobs” or edicts from the self-appointed pundit class. Those authorities may condemn and excommunicate whoever they like — they have the power to do so. But they cannot impose disgrace unless the target of their condemnation has already done so to themselves by behaving disgracefully. Disgrace — being “canceled” — is something one can only bring upon oneself. (Hence the theological connotations of “grace” here.)
What does being disgraced and/or being “canceled” look like? It doesn’t involve either formal edicts or an angry mob with torches and pitchforks outside of R. Kelly’s house. It just means that all those school choirs and graduation singers and radio DJs who might otherwise have gone with “I Believe I Can Fly” will decide to go with some other song because it’s impossible to play or perform that one now without feeling kind of icky and being reminded of the horrible things the guy who wrote it has done to many innocent people. It means we start to avoid his music because we’re now hearing it differently — in the context of his disgrace — and are unable now to hear it without wondering how his actions shaped that song, or the appeal of that song, which is a disturbing and unsettling line of thought.
Just as the consequences of “cancellation” are exactly the same as the consequences of disgrace, so too the path back from being canceled is exactly the same as the path back from disgrace. Nothing about that has changed with the change in terminology. It’s still just exactly as hard and as simple as it ever was for anyone who has brought disgrace upon themselves.
I think there are a couple of other reasons that “canceled” arose — and needed to arise — as a synonym for “disgraced.” One is the weaponized shamelessness of disgraceful people who refuse to accept any consequences for their disgracefulness. The other is because — post-“Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” — the way we understand decency and disgrace has shifted such that it is now perceived as a threat to the circumspectly polite oppressors who have always tried to wield it as a weapon in defense of injustice. TPTB are squirming both because shaming Hester Prynne no longer works for them like it used to, and because they just saw somebody on Facebook saying that the Rev. Dimmesdale “is canceled” and they fear they’ll be next. (The reference here to an 1850 novel again illustrates that we’re not dealing with a New Thing, just a new context.) We’ll get back to those points in a bit.