The real problem with cancel culture: The online trend that might be causing more problems than ending them
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In this day and age, it’s hard to not know what being cancelled means. According to Vox, it is “a trend of communal calls to boycott a celebrity whose offensive behaviour is perceived as going too far.” And boy, do we get a lot of that every day. It seems that every time we log onto our social media, new hashtags of #WhatsTheirFaceisOverParty is trending worldwide (uh oh, what did they say or do this time?).
Since its rise to prominence in 2019, it’s arguable that there is no other phrase that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of our current social digital reality than cancel culture. Just do a quick Google search of the term and you’ll find a plethora of theses, op-eds and even psychological analysis studying the phenomenon as a way to understand our current society. It’s a clearly contested concept, and one that’s met with tons of finger-pointing, pontification and call-outs on either side of the spectrum. Basically, it’s a headache of an issue that’s gotten so out of hand that even former US President Barack Obama weighed in on the matter (more on that later).
But is cancel culture something we should encourage or is the current digital climate we are in symptoms of a larger problem to come? Ahead, we dive into the world of cancel culture—buckle your seat belts—and its potentially worrying ramifications.
How “cancelling” got its big boost on social media
It might interest you to know that while “cancelling” has often been used to call out sexism and patriarchy, its origin has an ironically less-than-stellar (ahem, misogynic) past. Possibly the first reference of cancelling someone came from 1991’s New Jack City where gangster Nino Brown, states mercilessly to his ex-girlfriend “Cancel that B****. I’ll buy another one.” The more you know…
But the phrase really took off in one episode of VH1’s reality program Love and Hip-Hop: New York in 2014 when Rapper Cisco Rosado took inspiration from New Jack City and simply told his girlfriend, Diamond, “You’re cancelled.” It’s a hilarious moment in reality TV history:
From there, the phrase quickly caught onto social media and Twitter users were adopting the phrase to call out everything from trivial preferences to questionable celebrity actions. Even then, one could already see the seeds of cancel culture being planted in the form of boycotting and public shaming:
Cancel culture helps and empowers minority communities to speak out
Cancel culture has another name that’s often attached to it: call-out culture. While the media likes to use them interchangeably, we would like to think that they are close siblings instead. After all, if you’re going to cancel someone for their actions, calling them out for it is the next natural step in the process.
With the rise of social media where everything is documented and scrutinised, acts of racism, colourism, sexism and the like just won’t fly like they used to. Too often, marginalised communities suffered in silence with their oppression. But platforms such as Twitter have allowed for a more democratised space in which POCs could now freely express their views (with more impact) without waiting for their privileged counterparts to catch wind. Now, POCs can let "Twitter do their thing" and the Karens will be effectively brought down (the woman above got fired from her job and had her dog taken away from her). Don't forget the number of celebrities and being cancelled for their racist acts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon’s blackface, JK Rowling’s anti-trans tweets and more.
But does cancelling actually work?
It’s easy to tweet that someone is cancelled—but are they really? The number of celebrities that have been deemed “cancelled” by the public? Too many to count. How many celebrities have actually suffered from said cancellations? A small handful.
Public figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and R.Kelly are some of the ones who have been effectively cancelled. In fact, they're more than cancelled; they’ve been arrested and criminalised. But could you lend these consequences down to cancel culture or just a natural progression of the criminal justice system punishing them for their heinous acts?
You won’t have to look far to find other stars who got out of the “cancelled” debacle pretty quickly. Take Kevin Hart for instance. When the comedian was cancelled over past homophobic tweets that led to his withdrawal as the host for the Oscars in 2018, his movies and stand-up shows were still huge successes. Taylor Swift was cancelled over the Kim-K and Kanye spew back in 2016 but the woman is thriving and flourishing. For an example closer to home, Samantha Katie James, whose sentiments on the Black Lives Matter movement oozed big yikes energy, eventually came back to social media—with more followers than ever. Eek.
And therein lies the issue with cancel culture: if it doesn’t work, does it even exist? Is there really a point to “bringing down” these über rich celebrities and public figures if a few months of public shaming is nothing but a slap on the wrist to them? The reality is that a lot of them will still remain untouchable to cancel culture. Instead, there must be a better way to carry out societal change.
The main problem with cancel culture is the notion of cancelling itself
Yeah, we’re going to get a little deep here. As much as cancel culture is all about reform and calling out others to be better human beings, the reality is that it is a breeding ground for intolerability, mistrust and virtue signalling.
In an essay by The Tablet, cancel culture is an “institutionalisation of mistrust happening in real-time”. As a society, this culture encourages people to grow more suspicious of one another, to rat each other out at the next chance for quick “woke” brownie points online. It’s an unsettling thought that anyone could suddenly be cancelled one day over a post they made a decade ago.
Often enough, those old tweets will be weaponised against the individual as proof of their problematic nature, even if they have matured and no longer stand by those values. Kevin Hart who we previously mentioned, has profusely apologised for the homophobic tweets he made (ten years ago!) but has recently stated that he was done apologising when netizens could not let it go. To the “woke mob”, a written or verbal apology is not merely enough—cancel culture demands a full de-platforming of the individual.
A purveyor of cancel culture will say they are doing it for the greater good of society. But the danger in that is they become the self-appointed gatekeepers of social and moral purity. They decide what is offensive and what's not, speaking on behalf of the community that is affected—even if said community doesn't have a problem with it. Case in point, the whole controversy with Karlie Kloss sporting a Kimono for a photoshoot in 2017. Japanese people were fine with it, by the way, but she was cancelled and had to apologise.
We can be honest with ourselves and admit that we’ve all said or done things in the past that would now be deemed problematic, but we have (fortunately) realised and changed for the better. The same grace should be extended to those on their way to becoming cancelled casualties.
As ex-President of the United States Barack Obama explains, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly...People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
And let’s not forget how reactionary and volatile cancel culture actually is—its entire movement relies on mob mentality. Johnny Depp is the latest example and unfortunate victim of this. When allegations first came out about his supposed abuse towards then-wife Amber Heard, cancel vultures ascended and trended #JohnnyDeppIsOver all over social media. He was fired from his role as Jack Sparrow and there were actual calls to boycott Fantastic Beasts 2: Crimes of Grindelwald...before trials even began.
When damning evidence came out that suggested Heard was the abuser instead, the narrative switched and #JusticeforJohnny trended. But years of being called a “wife beater” and “woman abuser” by the media and netizens have caused irrevocable damage. For a movement all about accountability, cancel culture does not practise what it preaches.
Should we cancel cancel culture?
Call-outs are certainly justified and acceptable for those who deliberately hurt and discriminate against others. It is an effective way to claim some sort of social justice, especially for those who feel helpless against a higher system.
But the public shaming and toxic witch hunts that have developed over recent years have gone horizontal and in most cases, unproductive. If anything, it cultivates a climate of fear and policing which closes off any room for real transformative change. “People avoid meaningful conversations when hypervigilant perfectionists point out apparent mistakes,” explains Loretta Ross in The New York Times.
This is why over 150 critics, public figures and historians including JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood, have come together in an open letter by Harper’s Magazine in July to sign their solidarity against the increasing censoriousness brought on by cancel culture. To them, there is a widespread of “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
Cancel culture goes beyond finger-pointing: it's about how we choose to handle differing opinions, standing up to mob mentality and the (unfair) standards we hold others up to. We need to normalise having different views and being able to talk about them in rational productive ways. People should feel like they can make mistakes without potentially losing their friends, jobs and entire livelihood. As a society, we need to practise self-examination, which is something the act of calling-out lacks.
Humans are complex creatures who are constantly evolving—you're probably not the same person you were a year or even a month ago. Even if cancel culture is not going anywhere anytime soon, the mentality of good VS evil slash right and wrong is not sustainable. Racial, political and social divides still stand in our way and the gap only seems to grow wider by the day. What we choose to retain as a society remains the most important matter. We must have trust in each other again, and believe that those being "cancelled" still have the capacity to be compassionate human beings. Because if we don't believe in each other, then who will?