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Before the Board of Regents voted to censure one of their own, Ron Weiser (R), for statements he made referring to presumably Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel as “witches” and contemplating the assassination of Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, he offered a statement in defense of his words.
“I take full responsibility for what I said,” Weiser said at the April 2 meeting. “I agree with part of this resolution, but I will not resign… I will not be canceled.”
The majority of the Board of Regents went on to vote in favor of his censure — with Katherine White (D) absent from the meeting and Weiser and Sarah Hubbard (R) both abstaining — and called on him to resign. Weiser seems to have left the Zoom call shortly after the resolution passed, and he did not respond to The Michigan Daily’s request to comment.
Weiser said he would not be “canceled,” which is a phrase that has been used online since at least 2013 but began to take on new political meanings with Trump’s election, academics say. It started as slang among Black Twitter users, and since has become a nebulous term that refers to calling out people for words or actions deemed harmful, racist or inappropriate.
The term “canceled” has developed different uses across political and social spaces, typically meaning people should remove support for high-profile figures due to their behavior. Celebrities have been “canceled” for racist, sexist and illegal actions — and they have lost sponsorships and platform monetization as a result. For politicians, the impacts of “cancelation” typically end with online shaming, since it becomes difficult for those doing the “canceling” to translate internet buzz to real-world change in the form of recalls or resignations.
Born on Black Twitter, “canceled” takes on different meanings
Though Weiser used the word canceled to liken his situation to ongoing conversations around free speech and accountability, canceling began with a far different meaning — it was slang specific to Black spaces on Twitter.
Phrases like “dragging” someone or something or “reading” them, which both refer to a type of sharp rebuke, have similar origins to “canceling.” These phrases began to pick up traction in majority Black online spaces for being catchy, according to Lydia Kelow-Bennett, an associate professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.
As these phrases started getting used more and more on social media, they eventually got picked up by mainstream culture, though the meaning of the term shifted slightly.
Early on, “canceled” was used simply as a term to refer to celebrities like cook-turned-TV star Paula Dean, who was called out for racist behavior and lost her Food Network contract. The phrase then went on to become a “culture” as early as 2013. When the term transformed into a more mainstream culture, this inspired “moral panic” within predominantly white spaces, Kelow-Bennett said.
“It’s just the word that we use to say, ‘I don’t want to pay attention to you anymore,’” Kelow-Bennett said. “To call it a ‘culture’ is to suggest that it has more firm meaning and more practice behind it than it actually does. By calling something a culture, you consolidate it in a way that makes it easier to have a panic about.”
When performed collectively, “cancel culture” is a form of online boycotting, says Montana Miller, an associate professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University.
This form of protest provides people — those who, unlike Weiser, do not hold elected seats or their own businesses — with an avenue for publically voicing their qualms, Miller said. Though the term can be meant frivolously when used to call out celebrities, she said the cancellation of businesses or public officials is often the product of meaningful online grassroots organizing.
“The whole purpose of cancel culture is that a wide swath of real people who do not sit in seats of power can voice their displeasure with powerful people who do horrible things,” Miller said.
The politics behind cancel culture
In recent years, politicians, usually those right of center, began using the phrase to decry what they see as an attack on their right to free speech or unnecessary concern with their lack of political correctness.
Michael Traugott, research professor at the Center for Political Studies who has taught in both the Communication and Media and Political Science departments, said Weiser and other conservatives will apologize for what they were “canceled” for saying but will maintain that they had a right to say it. These politicians will also attempt to frame the cancellation as a challenge to their freedom of speech. The argument that cancellation is a political weapon used by liberals is exacerbated by the nation’s hyper-polarization, Traugott said.
“This is a kind of a dog whistle use of language that’s reminding, in this case, Republicans about why they don’t like Democrats,” Traugott said.
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene R-Ga., was “attacked” by cancel culture when she was stripped of her House committee assignments after she publicly supported QAnon and other debunked conspiracy theories. Greene wore a mask with the words “FREE SPEECH” on it to the February vote, echoing the argument from conservatives that cancel culture undermines their First Amendment rights.
Use of this new, more politically charged meaning increased as Trump ascended into national politics, building on earlier political arguments that Democrats pose a threat to free speech. Republican personality Milo Yiannopoulos’ “Free Speech Week,” which was called off before it could come to fruition on the University of California, Berkeley campus in 2017, is one example of how terms like “free speech” and “First Amendment freedoms” have become calling cards to energize conservative bases.
But the political undertone can also be a distraction from actual action, says Rackham student Chris Campbell, whose dissertation focuses on political rhetoric. The use of the term can pull focus from an individual’s wrongdoing to this “culture” that is considered by the right to be chilling free speech, Campbell said.
He said politicians use the phrase to make a situation sound threatening without making the threat clear. Campbell said this touches on a longstanding political argument centered around the politics of grievance, which allows politicians to portray themselves or their base as under attack even if they are not.
“The point of cancel culture is that it is vague and nonspecific,” Campbell said. “It’s meant to cover anything where you can portray unnamed and allegedly powerful people as punishing you for something that you said or did.”
What can Weiser lose?
Weiser’s remarks are the latest gaffe in his complicated relationship with many different groups on campus, Campbell said. Weiser has been in hot water since failing to specifically denounce President Donald Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, leading to numerous calls for resignation from students and faculty. He’s faced additional controversy over emails sent to fellow Regents calling graduate students on strike “hired union hacks” and comparing other Regents’ silence on prior calls for his resignation to “Germany in the 1930s.”
Though Weiser may not have realized his latest and most controversial comments to the North Oakland Republican Club reflect his role as a University leader, his apology and responses going forward will likely be tempered by his need to make his party look good, Traugott said.
To be truly “canceled,” there is typically a material loss, according to John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture and Digital Studies.
David Dobrik, an influencer who came under fire last month for his role as a bystander in an alleged sexual assault, lost many of his partnerships with companies and had his three YouTube channels demonetized. Lea Michele, the singer-actress known for her work on Broadway and the TV show “Glee,” lost her brand deal with the meal delivery service Hello Fresh after an allegation of mistreatment toward a cast member surfaced last summer.
Similarly, Simon & Schuester ended their book contract with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Miss., after he faced backlash for questioning the results of the 2020 presidential election which possibly incited the Jan. 6 insurrection. In response, Hawley promised to “fight cancel culture with everything I have.”
Weiser, however, still has his business, the local real estate company McKinley, and his title as a regent. He has been stripped of his committee assignments, which is one form of accountability, but that is far from the resignation campus groups, some public officials and his fellow board members have asked for.
And it is hard to actually cancel him, Cheney-Lippold said, when he already holds power in these roles that can’t be taken away by internet activism alone. It does not appear likely that Weiser will lose his business, board seat or GOP role, meaning he may become another example of the politicians whose supposed cancellations don’t translate into tangible change.
“It’s very obvious that he doesn’t have a material cost,” Cheney-Lippold said. “Maybe he’s not going to be able to be let into certain restaurants with everybody smiling at him anymore, but overall, he’s still a multimillionaire.”
Daily Staff Reporter Alex Harring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.