Ernest Owens makes the case for cancel culture
The award-winning Philadelphia journalist has written a book that delves into the concept, and how it can be used as a tool for activism and change.
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Ernest Owens, the CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC, President of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Editor at Large for Philadelphia Magazine, and award-winning journalist, is adding another title to his collection: author.
His first book, entitled “The Case for Cancel Culture: How This Democratic Tool Works to Liberate Us All,” is available now.
Owens is a native of Houston, Texas who came to Philadelphia for college. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor's degree in Communication, before getting a Master’s in Communication Management from the University of Southern California.
He has lived in Philadelphia for a decade and describes himself as a black, queer, millennial.
During a recent interview with AL DÍA, Owens says that he was inspired to write the book after writing an op-ed in 2019 about President Barack Obama’s comments on cancel culture.
“I wrote this op-ed in response to Obama basically criticizing cancel culture by saying it wasn’t activism, wasn’t a lot of things. And it was a very wagging your finger, looking down upon young people moment for him. And I was taken aback because I felt like he didn’t understand what cancel culture really was, or at least how young people like myself view it,” he said.
What is cancel culture?
Owens defines cancel culture as measured, about a cause bigger than the individual (political/social/societal), and not intended to cause harm. By contrast, he defines bullying as sporadic, deliberately malicious, that doesn’t always have a strategy.
“So if you decide that you do not want to go to McDonald’s because you don’t think the food is good, that’s not canceling McDonald’s. That’s a matter of personal preference and taste. But if you say you do not want to go to McDonald’s because you do not believe the company is giving a livable wage, that’s canceling McDonald’s,” he explained.
The term “canceled” comes from a 2014 episode of the reality show Love & Hip Hop. One of the cast members, Cisco Rosado, broke up with his girlfriend by saying that he was canceling the relationship.
“It became viral on Black Twitter because people were like ‘Oh wow, he described a situation like he was canceling a subscription. Like, he described breaking up with his girlfriend as if he was canceling a subscription to like Netflix. So it was very catchy. It was a buzz-worthy term. It was light in gesture. People on Black Twitter and social media began to use the term cancel for anything,” said Owens.
He explained that what started out as a funny, viral moment was soon co-opted by politics.
“It began to be hijacked by political interests that then redefined it as something more serious… People started to describe activists, boycotts, and protests as being people canceling things. And so there was a conflation that happened. And then everything to these people in power,” he added.
In his book, Owens argues that cancel culture is a new name for an old phenomenon; which has also been called political correctness, witch hunts, and McCarthyism.
He also outlines historical events that fit the definition of cancel culture. One such event is the Boston Tea Party, where the act of dumping the tea was a means to speak out against British tyranny and taxation. Another was the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which were to “cancel” segregation on buses in the Jim Crow South.
He also pointed out that events like the January 6th Insurrention count as cancel culture in a negative sense.
Although people trying to “cancel” democracy is a bad form of cancel culture, Owens said, “But nonetheless people were partaking in it because it was bigger than just them being upset. They were rallying, they mobilized, they gathered people to do something terrible.”
When he started to write his book, Owens thought that there was a political slant to cancel culture; that aspects would be more progressive or conservative. After doing several interviews, he came to the realization that canceling is a human trait, with the how and why being shaped by a person’s identity.
Owens argues that the act of canceling is something that people do everyday, whether that be in an external or internal way. His book contrasts others that have been written on the topic by not framing cancel culture as something new and scary.
“It actually explains how we’ve been doing this our entire lives. It gives explanations of why these things are happening, why we’re doing it. And it gives us an understanding of how we should wrestle in a society where cancel culture isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
He added, “As long as there’s inequality in society, as long as people feel like they’re not getting their way, as long as people feel like there’s injustice in some type of way, shape, or form, we’re going to always have cancel culture.”
Reactions to it
Owens found a dislike for cancel culture could be seen across political ideology with one common factor; being in a position of power.
“One of the biggest issues is that powerful people, rich people, influential people, politicians, they purposely like to scapegoat cancel culture as a dog whistle from accountability.”
He used Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle, and Andrew Cuomo, as examples. Each blamed cancel culture for the public’s calls for them to be held responsible for their homophobia, transphobia, and allegations of sexual harassment, respectively.
“So what I have found in my research around this book is that a lot of powerful people are trying to divorce themselves from accountability, and try to blame everything on cancel culture as a way to scare people into [not] holding them accountable and actually questioning their bad behavior,” said Owens.
Both Hart and Cuomo faced consequences for their actions — Hart couldn’t host the Oscars and Cuomo had to resign as governor of New York — but being canceled didn’t completely ruin their lives. Hart has starred in many movies since and Cuomo continues to be politically active on his podcast.
Chapelle recently won a Grammy for the comedy special that got him canceled.
Owens argues that everyday people are not being canceled, they might face consequences for their actions, but they aren’t the subjects of petitions and boycotts.
Run-ins with cancel culture
Owens himself has been subjected to cancel culture from conservatives and white supremacists who are upset by criticism he’s made in his op-eds. They have called for him to be fired from the publications that he worked for, which didn’t happen.
He also faced backlash after he called out Justin Timberlake for cultural appropriation.
In 2017, a complaint from a Mummer named James DePre, led to Owens being questioned by the Philadelphia Police Department’s Dignitary Protection and Counter Terrorism unit.
Owens had written a Facebook comment in response to a post about racism in the Gayborhood saying, “I say that they will be shown better than told. I will leave it at that, a great reckoning is coming.”
Four days later, he got a call from the unit and was interrogated. but ultimately wasn’t charged with anything.
Tom McGrath, the former editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Magazine, called the situation outrageous in a letter to then-Police Commissioner Richard Ross.
How can cancel culture be used as a tool?
Cancel culture can make an impact when used by people who are coming together to make change. In 2016, Black and Brown members of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ community canceled several bars in the Gayborhood due to racism.
“They boycotted those bars in the Gayborhood that they thought were racist. They contacted elected officials. They protested inside of City Hall. They wrote petitions calling for people to resign,” explained Owens.
Racism in the Gayborhood isn’t a new issue. In an article written by Owens at the time, he discussed the first official report of Gayborhood racism, which was published in 1986. The group behind the report, the Coalition on Lesbian-Gay Bar Policies, made recommendations but they were never implemented.
The 2016 cancellection proved to be much more effective.
“There was a policy change that was made by City Council that unanimously passed a bill that would put tougher sanctions on commercial properties that discriminate and violate the fair ordinance practice of the City of Philadelphia,” he said.
“That was a pretty big damn deal. And it was done because of the fact that [the] community got together and called on the cancellation of what they viewed as hate in their neighborhoods. And so we saw a policy change, we saw a structural change, we saw accountability in ways that we haven’t seen before,” he added.
Owens believes that the book will encourage people to own their activism. He explained that he’s noticed that sometimes people don’t want to speak out when they see injustices because they don’t want to cancel someone. He argues that it’s the person’s actions canceling them, not anyone calling them out.