There is nothing worse than being called out for being ignorant. But who’s decided this? There seems to exist a lurking rule book around the corner in most conversations , being intermittently weaponized, on what to say and how to behave in 2021. Moreover, with the rise of Cancel Culture in recent years, the mob mentality is often fueled by politically progressive social media issues, arguably professing a long-overdue way of speaking truth to power. Within the tempestuous past few years, the rise of “cancelling someone”, the idea of being culturally blocked from having a distinguished public platform or career, has coincided with a familiar pattern: when a person says something offensive.
Past generations have always criticized the generations that come after for having a different outlook on life or holding an opposing belief system. As society changes, the people within it adapt. We now get taught about the mistakes and successes of the previous generations in order to create change that improves the world. In reaction to this, however, the current generation is commonly called out for being “too sensitive”. Are millennials being shaped to deal with the rest of the world, or is it that the world is not yet ready for the change that millennials are bringing upon? What distinguishes our generation in particular, is the ability to have open discourse about the issues that matter, provided that we are aware and apprehensive and the building block to these new found voices is undeniably social media. Through these channels, new recognition has been granted in regards to the environment, racial and gender inequalities as well as the acceptance of all backgrounds and beliefs. While the world is arguably becoming increasingly politically polarized, the youth has banded together to spark change.
If this generation is a giant mound of snowflakes, then the internet is a snow machine. In the Internet age, people are no longer forced to confront each other face to face, but instead can throw harmful things back and forth with a tap of a finger. This causes people to become unable to have diplomatic discourse when opinions aren’t being met, and so the internet becomes a virtual vehicle in which you fail to develop a true ability to cope with the world in person.
The question is, does calling people out on social media represent accountability or unjust punishment? When it comes to “Cancel Culture”, certain news outlets or even public officials are so quick to call upon free speech infringements, that the issue tackled at the core gets lost in the process. To many people, this process of publicly calling for accountability, and boycotting if nothing else seems to work, has become an important tool of social justice- a way of tackling, through collective action, some of the power struggles and imbalances that often exist between public figures with far-reaching platforms, and those people and communities who their works and actions may harm. Given how often it’s been used to disavow misogyny, it’s funny that the concept of “canceling” takes its DNA from a misogynistic joke. One of the first ever references to cancelling someone comes in the 1991 film New Jack City, in which Wesley Snipes plays a gangster. After his girlfriend breaks down because of all the violence he’s causing, he breaks up with her by saying, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.”
On the other hand, the sensitivity issue stems from the domino effect that is seen online. Overall, it’s usually conservative politicians who have increasingly embraced the argument that cancel culture has endured out of control and become a form of mob rule. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, for example, speakers including President Donald Trump, addressed cancel culture directly, delegating that the phenomenon has grown into an “erasing of history”, encouraging lawlessness, and the violation of free exchange of ideas and speech.
Legitimately, cancelling someone’s career through the power of public backlash is hard. Few public figures have been publicly cancelled, and what is meant by that is that they faced ample criticism for their statements and actions, very few of them have truly experienced career-ending consequences. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has faced severe criticism since she began to voice transphobic beliefs, making her one of the most publically “cancelled” individuals at the center of the cancel culture debate. But following Rowling’s publication of a transphobic manifesto, sales of the author’s books actually increased staggeringly, especially in the UK. This continued support for those who evidently face cancellation demonstrates that rather than destroying someone’s career, becoming a target of backlash can instead encourage public sympathy.
It’s true that some celebrities have actually been cancelled, in the sense that their actions have resulted in major consequences, including job losses and reputational deteriorations. Names such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacey come to mind, who faced allegations of rape and sexual assault and were charged with crimes for their offenses. They have all effectively been “cancelled”, Weinstein and Cosby who are now convicted criminals, and Spacey because while all charges against him have been discarded, he’s now too corrupted to hire.
So what is it? Is “Cancel Culture” an important tool of social justice or a new form of barbarous intimidation? If cancelling someone usually doesn’t have much effect, does cancel culture even exist? Or does the sheer idea of being cancelled potentially deter ignorant behaviour?
These questions are receiving more and more traction, as the idea of cancel culture itself derives from its origins into a broader conversation about how to hold public figures, as well as those around us accountable for profanity. This conversation isn’t just about how we should disarm public figures from making insensitive comments but also about establishing new ethical and social norms and consider how to jointly respond when those norms are breached.
Nonetheless, that divide seems to be growing more visible to the naked eye. It isn’t purely a divide between ideologies, but also between tactical approaches in navigating ideological differences and handling misbehaviour. Approaching these situations from a traditional standpoint of apology, atonement, and forgiveness is no longer enough. However, for those who think of “Cancel Culture” as an expansion of civil rights activists’ drive for change, it’s an important tool.