In this article:
- Cancel culture has its roots in the #metoo movement that took down high profile abusers like Harvey Weinstein and brought attention to systemic abuses and discrimination.
- Since then, it’s been used to police any kind of offense from serious cases of sexual assault to minor public outbursts.
- While celebrities and wealthy people can usually bounce back or even escape serious consequences, ordinary people can have their lives ruined permanently.
- Education, rather than ostracization, would be a more effective way to drive long-term social change.
To declare a public figure is “over” on social media has become known as cancel culture. This online form of activism has become so convenient and pervasive that Merriam-Webster updated its definition of the word cancel to include:
“To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.”
It doesn’t matter how long ago the target of a cancelation committed the offensive act. So long as there are receipts, you can trust an online mob to find and exhibit them.
Before we dive deeper into why cancel culture itself needs to be canceled, let’s take a look at its evolution.
The Origins of Cancel Culture as a Force for Good
The internet may have adapted the term in the last decade but canceling people and groups is a historical practice. The Ancient Greeks turned to ostracism to keep politicians in check, while public shaming was the Middle Ages’ version of punishing unacceptable acts.
With the amplification provided by social media, a cancelation today feels like being condemned by much more than a town’s worth of people. Perhaps that was the goal all along given that cancel culture grew alongside the #MeToo movement.
People needed a way to hold public figures accountable for their offenses and abuses against a still growing number of victims. Name dropping and online public shaming were obvious places to start. It gave rise to a mass cancelation of more than two hundred influential people, mostly men, including Harvey Weinstein, Mario Batali, and Louis C.K.
The culture has since expanded in scope. Sexual misconduct is no longer the only reason one can get canceled. Among the famous people that faced backlash since the trend began are Adele for cultural appropriation, Kevin Hart for racist tweets from 2010, and Harry Styles for not wearing a mask. The list goes on.
Companies, too, are not immune to public callouts. Twitter declared Wendy’s was over after finding out that James Bodenstedt, the CEO of Muy Cos., which operates many of the fast food chain’s branches, donated to the Trump reelection campaign.
People called for a boycott of Jo Malone after the perfume brand removed John Boyega from an ad that aired in China. To avoid facing a similar fate, Aunt Jemima changed its racist branding to Pearl Milling Company.
One could say that the fear of getting canceled and the risks that come with it are effective deterrents for unacceptable views and behavior. More than that, cancel culture demands justice for past and present wrongdoings.
While there’s no reversing the harm that people like Harvey Weinstein have caused, there’s some level of comfort in knowing they’ll be facing the consequences of their actions for many years to come.
Why Canceling People Is Not Always Productive
Canceling an individual or a brand for flawed beliefs and behavior looks good in theory. Cancel culture wants, more than anything, to hold us accountable for how we think, speak, and act. This is especially true for public figures who have a certain level of influence on others — an influence that can be used for harm rather than good.
However, cancel culture can also be an unforgiving, toxic environment that deserves its own cancelation. Anyone with social media access can campaign to cancel anyone else, be it a celebrity who made sexist remarks or a server in a restaurant who got their order wrong. For these two victims, the fallout isn’t the same.
In 2020, there was a viral incident of a man’s public freakout at a Costco. His employer was immediately notified of his behavior after the internet discovered his identity, which led to him being fired.
Another man who participated in a protest against Chick-fil-A because of the CEO’s homophobia found himself jobless and on food stamps. Admittedly, the protest involved hassling the chain’s employees.
Meanwhile, JK Rowling, who continues to face backlash for her transphobic views, is still growing her Harry Potter empire. Sales of the young adult book series remained strong during the pandemic and a possible HBO Max TV show is in the works. And yes, the author continues to profit from these.
Many influential public figures also bounce back as if unscathed from their brush with cancel culture. For instance, Louis C.K. is using his cancelation as leverage for a comeback tour. These second or third chances are not always available for ordinary people, though.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, more of these viral instances that led to irreversible repercussions in an individual’s life. They have lost their jobs, friends, and even family for what could be explained as a momentary lapse of judgment — one that was unfortunately documented and exposed on social media.
Too often, the fallout is disproportionate to their indiscretion, especially if they don’t have the means to dig themselves out of a hole.
Furthermore, being the subject of cancel culture can be psychologically traumatizing. It feels very close to bullying, with influencers receiving hateful comments and even death threats after being canceled. Having your followers withdraw their support from you or getting fired from a job is one thing, but having your life threatened can fuel anxiety and depression.
As people pile on the hate-filled train, people become ostracized from their peers or community for a mistake (or a series of mistakes) that they’ve made.
While the mistakes might warrant criticism, cancel culture leaves no room for learning and growth. Once you cross a line, you’re done. Without that allowance to make mistakes, it can feel like you’re being deprived of your humanity.
Education Culture, Not Cancel Culture Might Be More Effective
Cancel culture might make sense for extreme behavior (like sexual assault or hate crimes) that everybody knows is wrong. But for insensitive comments, rude behavior, and other comparatively minor offenses, people deserve a chance to learn and do better.
Instead of censoring or causing irreparable damages to the lives of people who cross a line, we should try to help them understand a different perspective. Exacting social justice with cancel culture is well-intentioned, but ultimately unproductive if nothing changes.
If we resort to intimidation, both social and psychological, instead of education, how will anybody learn enough to become better? Scaring people straight might stop them from behaving a certain way in public, but they’ll likely still think and believe in the prejudices or assumptions that drove that behavior. They’ll also likely still behave that way in private where an online mob can’t find them.
The next time a person or a group commits any wrongdoing, stop for a moment and think about what you’re going to say (or tweet) next. If a celebrity posts a discriminatory joke online, reply with why you think it’s offensive and harmful rather than just slamming the door shut.
Give people the space to grow from their mistakes. Education culture is a far better social tool than ringing the town bell and calling for someone’s head.