There is something about how we consume pop culture that is different from past eras. Before the era of having more media at your fingertips than was available in all of the media catalogues in the world simultaneously, things evolved. Shows like The Office and Friends faded from existence, to be replaced by things that reflected the sensibilities of the current era. In the 80s, people didn’t have ready access to media from the 70s, and people growing up in the 90s didn’t watch things from the 80s, particularly if they were children and were consuming them devoid of context. But now that we can access media from all eras at our whim, everything is now. All of it is ever-present in our life.
This is particularly an issue when it comes to consuming older media out of the context of when it first was released. Friends often uses Monica’s past fatness as a punchline, and Seinfeld has that episode with the Native American cigar statue. You wouldn’t see things like that today in modern media — and nobody is really calling for a world where the 90s should still be happening (except, of course, for Tim Allen). What people are arguing about when they argue over ‘cancel culture’ is sanctioning past media for what we now realize are mistakes or blind spots in our society.
In the past, we didn’t actually have to reconcile with the past because we moved on from it. Our media and language evolved to reflect the sensibilities of the times. The word ‘oriental‘ was not ‘cancelled’ — it became increasingly outdated throughout the 60s and early 70s and became associated with Vietnam war protests. As such, the term was excised from our national vocabulary, and you don’t really see it much anymore except to describe rugs (and the Oriental Trading Company — you can thank Warren Buffet for that one!).
This was often to our detriment, as is evidenced in the way we defend or call for the ‘cancellation’ of media without a debate over whether these are truly the values we want to present to the world today. I think nobody would agree that the following image is 100% appropriate for today’s audience:
Still, people defend it with a Herculean vigor not seen in other political arenas. Because everything is now, it all by necessity becomes judged by the standards of now. In a past era, there would be no reason to stop the publication of any of Dr. Seuss’s b-sides. But that’s because nobody would be reading them anymore.
‘Cancel culture’ as it were, is really just capitalism. Public opinion has always driven consumer behavior. Nobody wants to consume media that makes them have to reconcile with the past in a critical way. That is why nostalgia exists. That is why people gravitate toward symbols like the Confederate flag.
Because everything is now, pop culture no longer keeps pace with changing societal values. We debate the merits of whether someone who hasn’t been relevant for a decade should be ‘cancelled,’ when in truth society has already moved on from him. We can’t reconcile the values of the past to our current values. And we can’t really change the media from the past to reflect our current values.
So what can we do? As long as there is room to monetize the culture of the past, it will never disappear. The market for it is too powerful. Because everything is accessible, we start to interact with our cultural past differently.
All we can do is recognize why the outrage cycle is happening. Twitter ‘cancels’ Trump, and Dr. Seuss Inc. decides whether they want to publish his b-sides or not. People do not decide this. This is not democracy. We may or may not want to accept things, but only corporate entities decide whether they are good or bad for business.
Yet we keep blaming each other while being chained to the power of the past. The Confederate Flag serves no one, but as a symbol it has a real meaning to people. To take away that meaning is to take away a very real identity. Even if that identity is rooted in uncomfortable truths (such as not reconciling the issues that brought about the Civil War in the first place), it’s not one that suddenly will not exist if you take away the Confederate Flag.
Everything is now. But nothing is forever. We can still consume the media of the past. But we don’t need to be constrained by it. The only thing that people can choose, collectively speaking, is what type of media they want to consume.
You can’t really vote with your wallet, but you can vote with your values. The corporate hijacking of movements like Black Lives Matter does not serve the people who are affected. It only serves corporations, who want to appear on the ‘right’ side of history (right being their interpretation of who their future consumers will be).
The debate around ‘cancel culture’ is fundamentally unsolvable. We all live in different realities and consume different media. There is no consensus for what is true, so it is impossible to agree on a shared set of values. But what corporations have decided is that broadcasting the media of the past, devoid of context, is what matters to their bottom lines.
If that doesn’t serve society, then all the better. They’ll just consume, outrage, and repeat. Everything is now. But new culture exists. And whether we need to make space for it, or whether it can exist among the vast sea of the past, remains to be seen.