The independent news organization of Duke University

What Kanye West’s social media meltdown says about power, cancel culture and accountability

staff notes

Kanye West is beefing with Peppa Pig. And Obama. And the cast of SNL. And Black History Month.

His beef list, reposted on his Instagram account Feb. 19, is a long one. And for the past few weeks, it has only gotten longer. In one now-deleted post, he lashes out at his daughter North for creating a TikTok account “AGAINST MY WILL”, and in another, he begs Kim to “PLEASE BRING OUR FAMILY BACK TOGETHER.” He has even created a nickname for his newest enemy, Kim Kardashian’s boyfriend Pete Davidson: “Skete.” Not to mention “garbage,” “dickhead” and “trash.” 

But this is nothing new – we are all familiar with the spectacle that is Kanye West. His antics are quite predictable: 1.) West generates some sort of controversy, by saying or doing something that sounds like it was taken out of a QAnon thread; 2.) people talk, make memes, write articles about it; 3.) West — in true Ye fashion — half-heartedly apologizes without actually apologizing, and along the way, he might drop a new song; 4.) Eventually, people forget about it because they’re too busy enjoying his music; 5.) And in a couple of weeks, a new controversy unfolds and the cycle repeats itself.

Case in point: that time he interrupted Taylor’s 2009 VMAs Speech. Or that time he tweeted, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!” Or when he said slavery was “a choice.” There isn’t a moment when West hasn’t said or done anything offensive — and yet, we still stream his songs. But at what point does this cycle end? In the age of cancel culture, how many more minority groups must West offend for us to stop worshiping his every move? And what does his invincibility — or, rather, our refusal to hold him accountable — say about us?

The thing is, Kanye is not the only “uncancellable” celebrity. Elon Musk, for one, also has an extensive list of crappy things he has done: he has spread COVID-19 misinformation, shared a meme likening Trudeau to Hitler and called a man a “pedo guy” for criticizing him. His punishment? Being named TIME’s 2021 Person of the Year. JK Rowling, for that matter, also seems to be uncancellable, having published several books even after promoting dangerously transphobic ideas. In that sense, there’s a pattern in terms of who we decide to grant leniency to in the broader scheme of cancel culture: those who hold power, whether it be through book sales or net worth or proximity to white masculinity. 

Therein lies the great irony of cancel culture — that rather than challenging and dismantling bigotry, cancel culture has kept our systems of power intact. If you think about who has actually been canceled, it’s never actually famous people. Instead, it’s the communications director who, in 2013, was fired after tweeting a racist joke; or the Scottish author who was fired for tweeting in support of J.K. Rowling. That stands in stark contrast to the ongoing success of J.K. Rowling and the slew of disgraced comedians that have forged a career out of problematic humor. Whereas those with great power are given rainbow stars of invincibility, less powerful people have borne the burden of performative accountability. 

In the same way that our legal institutions have failed to hold the rich and powerful accountable, the selective nature of cancel culture has asymmetrically reshaped our public perception of what behavior is socially and digitally acceptable. The most vulnerable victims of cancel culture are those that hold less power; and power, as we’ve come to know it, is synonymous with whiteness, masculinity and wealth. So accountability activism has only doubled down on the societal ills that it seeks to dismantle. 

What that means is that we need to rethink our systems of accountability: who we hold accountable, how we hold them accountable and why. Professor Loretta J. Ross at Smith College asserts that calling-in, rather than canceling, is the solution: “It’s a call out done with love,” she says. It “means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.” The practice of calling-in attempts to rectify the problems of cancel culture: when petty jokes spiral into irreversible punishments, or when tweets are taken out of context. 

If we switch out the toxic social environment caused by cancel culture with words of healing and restoration, we can grant leniency to everyone — not just those with immense power. Here’s to hoping Kanye doesn’t add me to his beef list for writing this article. —Derek Deng, managing editor

Discussion

Share and discuss “What Kanye West’s social media meltdown says about power, cancel culture and accountability” on social media.