Emma Grey Ellis
In November 1990, the Womyn of Antioch, a student group at Antioch College, published a list of demands in the campus newspaper, threatening “radical physical action” if those demands weren’t met the following week. Enraged by women’s stories of on-campus rape, they wanted a wholly new code of sexual conduct, one that required verbal consent at each step of sexual intimacy, regardless of how many times the couple had been intimate. Antioch met the demand, and a sleepy Yellow Springs, Ohio, liberal arts school of 500 students became a national laughingstock. To some, they were overzealous liberals gone ridiculously draconian. To others, like SNL, they were deeply unsexy naifs overconcerned with date rape—fun-killers, basically. To almost everyone, their prim boundary-drawing seemed unnatural and incorrect in a context defined by its spontaneity, emotionality, and complicated relationship with taboo. Kind of like comedy.
The comedian Dave Chappelle is a lifelong resident of Yellow Springs. His father was an Antioch College professor. In 2004, Dave Chappelle released a sketch, “Love Contract,” whose subject was formalized consent policies like Antioch’s. Wearing a red silk robe and holding a clipboard, Chappelle requires his would-be sexual partner, played by a perplexed Rashida Jones, to fill out a lengthy contract governing their encounter, asking her, among other things, to check a box if she “declines anal.” The sketch hums the same tune Chappelle belts out in his new Netflix standup special, Sticks and Stones. He sees “cancel culture”—progressive Americans’ attempts to police culture, to draw lines around what ought to be acceptable in humor and sexuality and online conduct—as ridiculous. A laughingstock. Even morally wrong.
Not so ironically, Chappelle’s criticisms of cancel culture have prompted people to declare him canceled—most notably for the potshots he took at the alleged victims of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, the #MeToo movement, and the LGBTQ community, whom he refers to as “the alphabet people.” His cancelation positions him in an ever-expanding rogue’s gallery of people and things deemed “problematic” in the progressive internet’s court of public opinion.
He joins internet culture criminals as various as Logan Paul (who filmed a dead person in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest and posted it to YouTube), Kanye West (who said, among other things, that slavery is a choice), Gucci (who made several items of clothing deemed racially insensitive), Shania Twain (who said she would have voted for Trump if she weren’t Canadian), and Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan (because star Liu Yifei stated that she supported Hong Kong’s police force rather than its protesters). To Chappelle’s detractors, his cancelation is a clear-cut moral issue like all the others: Chappelle used his platform to punch down, to layer jokes on top of other people’s suffering, and therefore should no longer be given that platform.
Still, many—maybe most—people seem to agree with Chappelle’s ideas about cancel culture, even if they wouldn’t make the same jokes. Canceling “cancel culture” has been a popular meme since “cancel culture” started, which was probably sometime in 2016. By 2017, Pop Sugar was advising its readers that the phrase would soon be irrelevant. A year later, The New York Times condemned the phrase and the culture.
Today, complaining about cancel culture and urging your audience to reject it is practically a standard introduction on YouTube. “If you guys are part of cancel culture and you want to cancel everybody and just cancel me … it’s such a negative thing and it’s not cute. Don’t do it!” says YouTuber Brad Mondo before the one-minute mark of a recent video titled “Reacting to James Charles Bleaching His Hair.” (What content follows this disclaimer? A controversial teenager bleaches his own hair. Mondo, a professional hairdresser, says that it looks sort of bad. That’s it.) Lately, backlash to Chappelle’s standup special has set off a wave of thinkpieces, all meditating on why uncomfortable free expression like Chappelle’s is important, uncancelable. On Sunday, oft-canceled beauty YouTuber Manny MUA made the other common argument: Being cancelled hurts because it’s random and can encourage bullying, and it doesn’t leave room for personal growth.