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A step-by-step guide to why people can’t stop arguing about ‘cancel culture’

"Saturday Night Live" announced Sept. 16 that the show will no longer hire Shane Gillis whose past use of racist, homophobic and sexist language sparked outcry. (Video: The Washington Post)

Shane Gillis’s historically brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live” has turned into a referendum on an amorphous idea: cancel culture.

Shortly after Gillis was announced as a new featured player on SNL late last week, clips of the comedian using racist language about Asians on a podcast recorded last year began circulating online — along with calls for him to lose his new job. He tried to explain himself as a performer who “pushes boundaries.” On Monday, SNL decided to part ways with him.

“This is just cancel culture. The guy shouldn’t have been fired,” comedian Jim Jefferies said Monday on David Spade’s talk show. The Federalist, a conservative online publication, praised Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang for “refus[ing] to join cancel culture” when he offered to have a conversation with the comedian.

The concept has been around for a while, but this particular term has stuck in recent months. In a Netflix comedy special released a few weeks ago, Dave Chappelle decried “celebrity hunting season,” prompting a round of content about “cancel culture.” Republican leaders used the phrase while chastising actress Debra Messing for publicly shaming supporters of President Trump.

But what is cancel culture, which is simultaneously decried as everything that’s wrong with humanity (or liberals, or Generation Z) and condemned as a made-up term that helps people escape accountability for past wrongdoing? Is there anything useful we can learn from this mess about the nature of comedy and the Internet?

Let’s find out: Here’s a step-by-step guide to how people end up endlessly arguing about the idea of cancel culture.

Step 1: The context

Canceling someone refers to shaming a public figure for alleged wrongdoing, and advocating for them to lose access to their platform. It is a group effort, and it usually plays out these days on social media — although similar boycott campaigns predate Twitter hashtags.

Cancel culture can refer to wildly different things, depending on whom you ask. Some people denounce it, pointing to instances of mob behavior and online infighting, or to situations where a career is jeopardized because of a bad tweet someone made as a teen.

But it also can be used to describe how traditionally underrepresented and oppressed groups harness the Internet and social media to hold powerful people accountable when institutions won’t. That’s been the case with the #MeToo movement, the wave of many, credible accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful figures in various industries following the New York Times’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein.

Step 2: The news

Gillis, relatively unknown to a national audience, got a huge career break last week when the news of his SNL hire was released. The announcement also included fellow comedians Chloe Fineman and the show’s first East Asian cast member, Bowen Yang, a milestone that was widely celebrated. Then freelance comedy journalist Seth Simons tweeted a 2018 podcast clip of Gillis using racial slurs against Chinese people and making racist references to Chinatown.

Sometimes people who suddenly get a big job or become famous quickly try to get ahead of this public vetting, especially because there are plenty of recent examples of what happens when you don’t purge your archive. Trevor Noah had to answer for his old tweets when he first got the “Daily Show” hosting gig, and Melissa Villaseñor caught similar criticism about tweets posted years before she was hired by SNL in 2016.

Gillis’s comments were from last September. Someone had already deleted past episodes of “Matt and Shane’s Secret Podcast” from its YouTube page, but there was still an active subreddit with a lot of content. Other writers dug around to see if those first clips that went viral were isolated or part of a pattern, and unearthed other racist as well as homophobic and sexist language.

Step 3: The debate

Stand-up comedy, just like other art forms, has traditionally enjoyed an unspoken pact with the audience: Comedians can say pretty much whatever they want, and people in the crowd can feel however they want about the jokes. In live comedy, the power dynamics tend to favor the comedian who has the stage, spotlight and microphone. If a couple of people in the audience are deeply offended, the comic may never know about it.

But the Internet changed this relationship. The audience can do more than heckle a live performance; they can talk back, at length, and get a lot of people to listen.

This shift has prompted a huge debate among comedians and anybody with opinions about comedy. And Gillis’s firing brought back many of those questions:

Where are the lines of decency? Is there room for forgiveness for old, hurtful bits? Gillis didn’t say that stuff in a stand-up set but on a podcast — a more conversational format — so are these expressions of opinion, or jokes? Given the content, does the distinction even matter? Is the comedian’s intention relevant? Should a person who clearly felt it okay to say such things in any context be afforded a massive platform like SNL? Does giving that platform serve as a tacit endorsement of the language or at the very least, that such language isn’t disqualifying? Is “it’s just a joke” an appropriate defense, or a lazy one?

Step 4: The content

This debate soon became fodder for endless stories about the broader cultural wars.

Fueling this commentary bonanza? Among other things: clicks. Stories claiming that “left-wing mobs” are attacking people online have become a mainstay of conservative publications, for instance. And stories about the racist pasts of minor public figures also have an enormous potential audience online.

Gillis initially responded to the increased attention by tweeting: “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss.” He added: “I’m happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually been offended by anything I’ve said. My intention is never to hurt anyone but I am trying to be the best comedian I can be and sometimes that requires risks.”

Step 5: The consequences

The content machines ran at full speed for an entire weekend until SNL producer Lorne Michaels said through a spokesperson on Monday that Gillis was fired.

“We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days,” the statement read. “The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard.”

Gillis released a statement of his own:

Step 6: The second career options

Canceling can cost opportunities; that’s what it’s designed to do. Roseanne Barr lost her show over her racist tweets. Kevin Hart lost his lifelong dream job, hosting the Oscars, over old homophobic tweets (though, financially, he is doing more than fine). Louis C.K. lost his manager and got iced out of Hollywood after he admitted to sexual misconduct. (While he is still touring and performing, it is without the prestige and cultural cachet he once had.)

Invoking cancel culture has been weaponized by its potential targets: Some celebrities, opinion journalists for national outlets and political figures have taken to minimizing it as a way to paint accountability, scrutiny or social justice advocacy as illegitimate outpourings of mob rule.

Being canceled happens when there is a mismatch between the thing someone said or did, and the ethical expectations of their audience. Those who face consequences for their past do have an alternative to silence and repentance: They can cater to the fans waiting to champion the canceled as one of their own.

There is a whole cottage industry devoted to people who are upset by the idea of others being outraged. Content can be marketed to this population, and many mainstream institutions participate. Netflix has a vast category devoted to “politically-incorrect stand-up,” including Chappelle and Ali Wong. The notion of cancel culture itself has become joke fodder in recent specials from Aziz Ansari and Bill Burr.

Now celebrities, cable news commentators and fans are talking about Gillis being a victim of this system. Fans posted that they hoped comedian Joe Rogan would interview Gillis on his wildly popular and divisive podcast. Hours after Gillis lost his SNL gig, prominent comics such as Norm Macdonald publicly reached out to offer support.

Gillis hasn’t indicated what he’s going to do next. But he now suddenly has a name with national recognition, which means he may have a new audience that could be very different from the one he would have reached on SNL. If he wants to pursue it.