Even a longtime number lover like myself cringes at the memory of grade-school arithmetic—mostly boring exercises of memorization and seemingly arbitrary rules that led to often obvious answers. These number numbing years effectively murdered math for most people, who would forevermore associate the subject with answers and sums rather than questions and ideas.

The exception, for me at least, was canceling—an oddly satisfying way to slim down numbers by slicing up factors and using just what you needed. To add fractions, for example, you’d first find a common denominator to make sure you weren’t adding apples and oranges (or 6ths and 3rds). To add 1/6 and 1/3, just multiply 6 and 3 to get 18—turning the fractions into easily addable 3/18 + 6/18. Presto: 9/18!

This cumbersome answer was easy to streamline by using not just any old common denominator, but the smallest one, in this case 6. Cutting out the fat gives you 2/6 + 1/6 = 3/6 or 1/2. (Yes, it’s obvious that 9/18 is already 1/2, but that’s getting ahead of the lesson plan—a no-no if you want stay on the good side of the teacher.)

Crossing out those too-big numbers with my stubby #2 pencil appealed, I think, because it offered such a simple shortcut through complexity. The more you could cancel, the simpler and clearer things got. (That part of math just kept getting cooler.)

That thrill of x-ing out, no doubt, also plays a part in the popularity of so-called cancel culture—a default way of dealing, it seems, across the political and social spectrum. There’s none of the surgical precision of arithmetic. It’s broader and more brutal—less like math and more like the Queen of Hearts in *Alice*: Off with their heads!

True, “cancel” means very different things to different people in different contexts (as does “culture”). But then, in the infamous words of Humpty Dumpty, a word “means just what I choose it to mean.” Whether that’s OK isn’t the question. “The question is,” Humpty told Alice, “which is to be master—that’s all.” He added: “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra!”

That seems only fair.

It’s hard to see how math or science could add (even fractionally) to this already fractious conversation; the range and scale of “cancel” is just too great. The canceled even in my small purview include books (sometimes on the basis of titles), athletes, politicians, TV shows, words, police, women’s rights, women, voting rights, fictional characters, entire ethnic groups, fields of study, people who make mistakes, yoga, vaccines, masks, nuclear energy, genetically modified foods, singing, kneeling, red wine, body odor, Afghanistan.

I should probably add seniors to this list, generally rendered invisible, or so I’m told, a different way of getting canceled. As such, we’re constantly encouraged to cancel or at least camouflage the obvious signs: gray hair (for women anyhow), wrinkles, sags, spots, splotches, spider veins, arms, necks, and oh so much more.

Still, it’s tempting to borrow a bit from arithmetic. Numbers are fun to play with, and often do add insight, so why not? (As a senior, I’ll take comfort in the fact that nobody will pay attention anyway.)