The word ‘cancel’ evolved over years, going from one context to another, and so it’s hard to pin down exactly when it gained the meaning it has.
That said, several inquiries have traced the word’s current usage to a handful of music tracks coming right from the 80s.
In 1981, for instance, the band Chic released a disco song called ‘Your Love is Cancelled’ — one of the earliest known usages of ‘cancel’ as a way to de-legitimise a person for bad behaviour.
The word, like so many other words in the American English lexicon, has origins in Black culture. Just like woke, or bae or lit, ‘cancel’ was picked up and taken into the mainstream, owing to the American populace’s reliance on and obsession with Black music, attire, and language.
As the word gained popularity in Black, and then mainstream American, conversations, instances of ‘cancelling’ became common. Politicians, celebrities, brands — any entity that dared run counter to the dominant, politically correct narrative was called out, shamed and run over.
This atmosphere was eventually dubbed ‘cancel culture’. Debate’s still on whether it exists, and how harmful it really can be, but the phrase defines our understanding of public political discourse.
On the flip side, the phrase has become a convenient shield for many to escape the heat. With #MeToo becoming a worldwide movement, and issues of racism and police brutality dominating social media, these call-outs were often followed by serious consequences. ‘Cancel culture’ became the go-to defense.
What do we make of this?
This environment of political correctness is definitely undesirable — it stunts conversation and decries nuance. More importantly, it gives an unprecedented amount of power to 280 characters.
The justice system was theorised to allow room for different versions of a story, and to let reason and logic decide the version to be upheld. Social media will never be able to emulate that.