Column: Is ‘canceled’ culture doing more harm than good?
The resurgence of insensitive tweets from influencer Kelvin “Brother Nature” Peña has people unfollowing and moving on to the next. But when it comes to canceling our favorite influencers, should we be more forgiving?
Nov. 01, 2018
The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.
Roshae Hemmings is a first year journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about civil rights for The Maneater.
Last week in “What the hell is happening on the internet?,” Twitter officially “canceled” influencer Kelvin Peña. Peña, better known as Brother Nature, is the internet equivalent to Steve Irwin, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers by uploading videos and photos of him with animals of all varieties. Peña’s rise was fast, having gone viral after a series of Snapchat videos. However, in a swift turn of events the internet has now seemed to reject Peña and his way with wildlife after a series of tweets resurfaced Monday, Oct. 22.
Like many other internet celebrities whose careers have taken a hit in 180 characters or less, Peña’s tweets were of the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic variety. “Wanna hear a joke? Women’s rights,” and “Jay Z look like a monkey,” were some of the more tame tweets of the bunch.
The resurfaced tweets caused various reactions among Twitter users. Some expressed disappointment in the online star, while others claimed that the tweets from 2012 should not be used an indication of who he is now. I can see both sides, but I have to say that as of writing this I’m leaning on the side of the latter.
I can hear the sharpening of pitchforks now, but I think it’s important to examine not only Peña’s situation, but canceled culture as a whole. The idea of canceling people is nothing new: someone does something that is rightfully deemed as unacceptable in today’s current social landscape, and society will cut them down as fast as we built them up.
Am I saying this is an overall bad thing? No, absolutely not. In the case of Roseanne Barr, canceling both her show and her was something I think was necessary. Regardless of the sleeping pills that she wants to blame the whole debacle on, Barr’s tweets made her point of view very clear. At the end of the day she showed who she really is, in the present day, and it is clear that she isn’t changing.
The key to this whole “canceling ” thing is the actions of the present. In his apology, Peña stated that at the time of writing those tweets that “I was 12 years old, I was very impressionable and seeking attention. I am very sorry to all of the people that I offended and let down. I apologize for 12 year old Kelvin and take total responsibility for my words. Everyone changes, everyone learns and everyone makes mistakes.” When looking at this, there are two aspects to take into account, the first being his age.
Peña was 12 years old at the time and I know that it is quite possible that I said some pretty ignorant things when I was that age. Did I believe in what I was saying? Did I intend to be hurtful? No — I was young and said things that I thought would make me sound cool or that I heard other people say. Yes, I understand that intention and perception are two different things. However, to look at the tweets from an impressionable 12-year-old kid and say that’s who he is as a 20-year-old adult seems somewhat unfair.
Secondly, I think looking at the social landscape at the time is important, too. In 2018, there is a hyper awareness of what is and is not okay to say or do and unfortunately this awareness did not exist in 2012. Looking back at aspects of our language and media during that time, there were an abundance of things that were said to be shocking or edgy that would never fly now. Granted what Peña said in any context was not okay, but I think we would be fooling ourselves if we said that the time in which this took place didn’t have an influence on him.
With all of this being said, we can keep looking at the past all we want, but a better indicator of who people are is the present. As far as the public knows, Peña has no recent history of being any of the things that he displayed in those old tweets. Despite this, people are still so quick to cast him away and look for another to take his place. Meanwhile, there are people like beauty influencer Jeffree Star who has not only said racist things in the past but continues to call black women rats and gorillas during present day. Regardless, Star still has a thriving YouTube channel and makeup brand. This to me makes no sense and this is where cancelled culture messes up.
Do I believe that there should be staunch rules as to how to go about “canceling” public figures? No, I think that everything should be taken on a case-by-case basis. The 2018 Missouri Students Association election perfectly demonstrates this. In May of last year, two MSA presidential candidates and one vice-presidential candidate canceled themselves by dropping out of the race after insensitive tweets resurfaced. The tweets ranged from the years 2012 and 2016 and raise the question of how time factors into canceling public figures. Zooming out of the tweets and candidates themselves, however, we see that the context on this campus was instrumental in their cancellation.
MU has a history of racial tension on campus, the most recent example being that in 2015 which saw student activists calling for the resignation of then UM System President Tim Wolfe. To have a potential president who has a documented history of racial insensitivity would not only have been ludicrous to the credibility of MU’s campus, but would have also been desecrating on the work and progress that so many students put forth in making their voices heard.
So no, canceling isn’t a cut and dry process, but the lines are blurred to a certain degree. If we’re going by the Jeffree Star model of how to handle our problematic faves, then Brother Nature should still be allowed to thrive. But if we’re going by the Roseanne Barr model, then Star should have his channel taken down. And if we’re going by the MSA model, Star, Barr and Peña should all be canceled, right? But given that the concept of canceled culture doesn’t have a clear idea of what it wants to be, where should Peña and his career stand?
I’m asking these questions and proposing these scenarios because I genuinely do not know how to go about any of this. I don’t know how many years after said problematic event makes it relevant anymore. I don’t know if people should be canceled forever or for “X” amount of time, and I don’t even know if we, as an internet community, really have the right to be playing judge, jury and executioner.
But I do know this: One of the many things that I love about Generation Z and Millennials is that we are always educating ourselves. We have, to some degree, rejected traditional educational practices and have sought to learn about the world around us through hands on experience and connections formed through the world wide web. We want to teach ourselves, but better yet we want to teach each other.
I get that it’s hard to not totally reject someone when they say stupid, ignorant or uneducated things and I also know that educating ignorance is not an easy task. However, it seems counterproductive to do nothing.
The canceled culture debate is a multifaceted one, with numerous layers and exceptions. Because of this, I have no expectation that it will get solved anytime soon. However, so long as the internet is a thing, the idea of canceling our faves, and giving passes to others, needs to be reexamined.