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Can you really Cancel Culture?
I am constantly amazed as a parent at how much I learn from my children. In the beginning it is up to us as parents to guide and then instruct but, at some point in their early teen years, the situation changes. As they begin to comprehend the world around them, and begin to ask vital questions about society, politics, religion and history; I find myself learning just as much as I am teaching.
A close friend shared with me a phenomenon that her boys, all in college, were hearing about and actively discussing in college classrooms; the concept of cancel culture. My first thought was “what is this” and “can you actually “cancel” culture?” This is what has inspired my post, well that and the subsequent interviews with both my children about cancel culture. In talking with my friend and hearing my children’s views, I realized it was necessary for them to know what culture was from an archaeological and historical perspective.
Before I tackle what culture is, I think we first need to define “cancel culture.” During the course of my interviews I learned that cancel culture is a modern internet phenomenon/experience where a person or event is removed from influence or fame because of questionable actions. According to my daughter, it started on twitter when someone would tweet about a controversial subject and if disagreed with by the majority…be canceled or worse even banned. Cancel culture started out as a legitimate means to confront people over concerns about hatred and racism, but quickly became something toxic. People were canceling individuals, historical events, and places without understanding the true meaning or just for having harmless opinions. Cancel culture usually targets those individuals with large followings; typically the famous, prominent and popular. This phenomenon can be “created by anyone, for any reason, against any person, place, event or thing,” according to my son. Additionally, it appears cancel culture is often caused by those who are quick to judge and slow to question or analyze events in the correct context. For many of those I interviewed, cancel culture is toxic with unimaginable consequences for its victims. For example it can create an environment of violence as in the case of gun control and gun rights. Say an activist gets banned and “cancelled” for upholding gun rights (actual law written into our constitution). They can be accused of inciting violence, yet become the target of violence themselves through the “canceling” process. Typically cancel culture is initiated by mainstream media outlets and social media platforms. The problem then becomes that communication technology far outpaces the available knowledge about the said person or event being canceled…the result is that ignorance rules the day. Cancel culture is partly behind the movement to sanitize history through the removing of events, people or places that they disagree with. They want to erase, rewrite or create a new narrative…sadly they do so at the cost of learning from history. BUT has a form of cancel culture always existed? To answer that we need to look at archaeological and historical definitions of culture.
So what is culture? Culture in general is defined as the customs, arts, social institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. It is the patterns of learned and shared behavior and beliefs of a particular group. It can be described as the complex whole of collective human beliefs with a civilized construct that can be specific to a nation or time period. Culture is ultimately the beliefs, behaviors, objects and other characteristics shared by groups of people. Culture from an archaeological and historical perspective is much more involved. Known as cultural historical archaeology, this theory emphasizes defining historical societies into distinct ethnic and cultural groupings according to their material culture. This includes recurring assemblages(groupings) of artifacts from a specific time and place that may constitute the material cultural remains of a particular past society. Culture, when examined from a historical perspective, usually involves identifying characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and the arts. The actual word “culture” derives from a French term, which in turn derives from a Latin term “colere” which means to tend the earth and grow, cultivate, and nurture. Archaeology at its heart is the reconstruction of past cultures. In uncovering these cultures, archaeologists aid anthropologists in seeing the consequences of the history of cultures in our modern day.
While some may suggest that cancel culture is toxic and based upon ignorance, misinformation and violence, the reality is that it has always existed in some form or another since ancient times. Although they used terms like expunged to erase unwanted people and events from history, here is the greater lesson to be learned: those people and events have always found a way to survive the sanitization of history. A perfect example is the Pharaoh Akhenaten. He moved the capital of Egypt, changed his name, replaced Egypt’s polytheistic religion with a monotheistic one based upon the Sun God, and he eradicated the priesthood that had been in existence for over 1500 plus year. He angered everyone. Upon his death, Egypt’s new pharaoh and newly restored priesthood decided to engage in their own brand of cancel culture by expunging all supposed evidence of this radical Pharaoh. However they quite simply failed. It is a lesson to be learned by all those engaging in cancel culture today. You may think you are canceling someone, but history will remember.