Cultured Cancelling, or Cancelling Culture?
As the first generation to have accessed the internet since early childhood, today’s youth have become adapted to the nakedness that comes with living online. Twitter means handing your thoughts over to the public domain, Instagram means putting your self-esteem in the hands of strangers, and YouTube means feeling like a passenger in someone else’s life. In our era, privacy is a luxury only afforded by those with expensive VPNs, but passing judgement on others is something of a right now. This odd, mismatched expression of solidarity and individualism has birthed an interesting new phenomenon: “cancel culture.”
Enormous public backlash against a prominent figure that calls to “cancel” them, meaning to end their career through boycotts or public shaming or revoke their cultural stature. It is often fuelled and motivated by politically progressive social media and takes place via the internet.
Examples of “cancelled” celebrities: R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, JK Rowling
“Cancel culture” has set the backdrop for cultural wars and debates surrounding how society should move forward in supporting minority voices and creating a world that is intolerant to discrimination and injustice. Many believe that “cancelling” is a method of retribution and reparation—to settle the score for minority groups who have faced egregious injustices that get swept under the rug so to not dull the shine of celebrities and pop culture. Contrarily, some say that it is unforgiving and cruel in a way that halts social progress, as “cancelling” an individual does very little in the grand scheme of systemic inequality and only serves to make people feel better about themselves by shaming others.
Inspire Teen Reads has asked three of our members a series of questions to learn about their experiences with “cancel culture” and how they perceive this, for better or for worse, powerful social tool.
Can you introduce yourself briefly and explain what role the internet plays in your life? How do you interact with the internet on a day-to-day basis?
X: I'm a student in suburban Canada. My politics swing left, but my family is relatively conservative. Like many of those my age, I am deeply involved with social media, and follow news about celebrities who are popular in my circles. I use social media as an outlet to express my opinions, and appreciate that it has given marginalized individuals a platform when they otherwise would not have one in day to day life.
Y: I’m a medical student in Ontario, Canada. I use the internet to stay connected with friends, catch up on the news, but also to seek perspectives on current events. Twitter, in particular, the med twitter community, allows me to connect with other trainees and physicians and learn about the ways social issues intersect with medicine.
Z: I’m a music student in New Brunswick, Canada. I mostly use the internet to learn and to be entertained, especially to find new music and techniques. I also use the internet to connect with friends through social media, whether it be friends I’ve met in real life or new friends I’ve met through the internet who have similar interests.
What does accountability mean to you? Are there limitations or exceptions? (For example, is someone accountable for an action done when they were really young or a long time ago? Are people who don’t have access to a good education less guilty?)
X: People shouldn’t have their careers ruined for what they did when they were very young, and didn’t know better. But, to not address it at all, or to defend that action, or to insist they are the victim in this situation, is also incredibly insensitive and ignorant to do. People should apologize if they have hurt a community -- they don’t get to decide whether or not the hurt took place. But generally, after this happens, we should give them the space to learn and grow from their mistakes, and embrace them once they demonstrate with their actions that they’ve changed. A rigid black-and-white view on morality is unconstructive.
Y: I think the first priority, when thinking about accountability, is to turn our attention to the person or community that was harmed, and give them the tools to heal. I’ve always resonated with the concept of restorative justice, which places the needs of the person who was harmed at the heart of discussion. The process spawns important questions like: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Who has a stake in this situation? What processes should we use to involve stakeholders to address the harm caused? Here, offenders are also given the opportunity to make amends for the harm they’ve caused. In this process, communities can work together to collectively heal. So, in my opinion, accountability is centered around those who were harmed. Listening to them and allowing them to dictate the terms of reparations, while giving perpetrators the opportunity for growth and to make amends creates stronger communities.
Z: I believe that accountability should always take place. I don’t think there are any exceptions, but I do believe that accountability shouldn’t mean being attacked. Accountability is simply learning and understanding and apologizing for one’s actions, even if they were uninformed. With accountability, I think it is important to take the attention off of the person who has done the wrongdoing. Allow them to take accountability for their actions, learn why it was wrong, and change. Instead, the focus should be on those who were hurt by these actions, and how we can all learn and support these groups of people instead.
Do you have any previous encounters or experiences of “cancel culture”? Can you describe the situation and what it felt like to take part or watch?
X: I think the term ‘cancel culture’ gets thrown around a lot by male cishet white comedians/entertainers who are disgruntled by ‘PC culture’, and can’t seem to fathom why offensive jokes hurt people. I definitely don’t subscribe to this rhetoric that Liberal Snowflakes Are Destroying The World, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that people who have said off-color things, or people who have been #MeToo’d, use ‘cancel culture’ as a crutch argument for why they don’t want to critically examine their actions. However, I also think that especially with the proliferation of social media, people who aren’t necessarily in the public eye (and who, I argue, probably shouldn’t be held to the same standard as high-profile millionaires), get the brunt of the damage. As much as I think powerful people should be held accountable for hurting others, I also think that out-of-context tweet compilations shouldn’t define someone’s career.
Y: Social media has the ability to give a voice to people who may have not been listened to before. It has been the catalyst for global movements, allowing people to rally against those who have wielded their power in harmful ways. Take the Arab Spring for instance, where social media was crucial to organizing and disseminating information. I think there are instances of “cancel culture,” that actually resulted in a lot of positive change. It was the collective stories of women, piled on top of one another, until the stack became so tall that the world could not ignore it, that resulted in Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. At the same time without careful attention to nuance and thought, individuals can be tried almost instantaneously, their verdict delivered before their story is even heard. The Atlantic published a really interesting article about the ways in which capitalism drives cancel-culture, that I thought it made some very important points. Specifically, the ways in which corporations have co-opted cancel culture to maintain an image, often firing employees for actions they have repented or haven’t truly committed in the first place. Immediately firing employees after a viral video, excuses corporations from putting the meaningful work to actually dismantle oppressive power structures. I think it’s important to be critical of the ways in which corporations co-opt the cancel culture movement to their own benefit and image.
Z: I don’t think that the first intentions of cancel culture were comparable to what it has become. When talking about problematic artists, there has often been the discussion of whether or not art should be separated from the artist. Furthermore, with the #metoo movement, the attempt was to take power away from people who were sexual abusers who had misused their power. However, I think that recently the term and goals of cancel culture have shifted to be too common, and almost at a meme status. It’s become a joke, that any little thing you do or have ever done has the power to “cancel” you, if you choose to come into the public eye. Additionally, while the abusers who were the original targets should absolutely not be forgiven, the current idea of cancel culture does not allow anyone the ability to learn from their mistakes, simply fueling more rage and hate at the so called “liberal snowflakes” who seem to take too much offence to everything.
Do you think cancel culture was inevitable? Can you imagine an alternate world without it?
X: Cancel culture, in the way it is today, was inevitable when social media came along. The inherent connectedness and ease of communication makes it easy for people to dogpile, and for pasts to be dug up. Conversely still, I think it’s very important to inform people when they’ve done things wrong, and people should actively learn from that & not take it personally. An alternate world without cancel culture is a world disconnected from social media, and I’m not even sure if that would be better or worse.
Y: With the increasing connectedness and conversation occurring on social media, cancel culture was inevitable. Trial by the masses is much easier when there are millions of people connecting on social media daily. I don’t think this is a positive or negative development, but rather an evolution of our times. As with anything, it can be extremely beneficial but can also cause harm when wielded incorrectly.
Z: Any piece of media attempts to hook in an audience, and social media drama is no different. The in-fighting, the cancelling, the “receipts”—proof of a reason to be cancelled, plays out no different than tabloids and reality television. It hooks in more viewers, it gets more attention, but with a slightly different lens. Many social media influencers seem more human to the audience than typical celebrities, and with an increasingly digital world, having all of the drama instantly at your fingertips just adds to the trash fire of internet drama. Following along with the drama, taking sides...it’s addictive and easy to take too seriously, and does seem like it was inevitable.
What is your opinion on cancel culture? Include thoughts on effectiveness, morality, etc.
X: I think the biggest downfall of cancel culture is that no one gets what they want in the end. For high-profile people who developed a fanbase through a somewhat intimate medium (like YouTube), the knee-jerk reaction is for them to do damage control instead of stepping back and considering why their actions were hurtful. For celebrities who already have an established fanbase outside of social media (& who have an older, out-of-touch audience), they fall back on condemning and characterizing Gen Z and millennials for being angry mobs. Ultimately, they all survive the fallout from their cancellation, and continue to rake in millions of dollars. Social media is sadly inconsequential to people who already have status, no matter how despicable they are. For those who participate in internet cancelling, I’m also afraid that cancellation on social media has become some form of performative activism, where people feel that angrily tweeting at someone negates their obligation to sign petitions, donate, or engage in activism in their own community. Moreover, to reiterate, I think the people who get hurt the most from cancel culture are the people who belong to marginalized communities -- the people whose actions are scrutinized because they’re on a pedestal of moral purity from a small but fiercely loyal fan base. They can be cancelled by loosely associating with a problematic person, out of context. Obviously, there are edge cases, but I think it’s unfair to always characterize ignorance as equally condemnable as deliberate abuse or discrimination.
Y: I think the speed of social media is a double-edge sword, it can create an immediate public response which can be powerful in creating change, but can sometimes lose the details which are important in painting a full picture. Earlier, I mentioned how powerful restorative justice can be, I still stand by it as an effective solution in dealing with harm. When someone causes harm, the recipient of that harm is given the agency to dictate the terms of reparation, and there is a community conversation about how to make amends. I think this is difficult on social media, because things are often faceless, and the conversations can sometimes be focused less on community healing and rather condemnation. When people, rather than their ideas, are cancelled then we create an environment of collective destruction rather than collective change. I can hear Rushdie in my head chastising me for suggesting ideas should be cancelled at all, but I think there’s a difference between ideas that are related to intellectual inquiry and those that are meant to invalidate and harm. And so I think we need to be more critical when we see a twitter campaign denouncing someone is “over,” but rather do the work to create communities where harm is reduced and those who are harmed are listened to.
Z: Cancel culture is quite reactionary from both sides. While I do not think that people who have caused harm should be given a platform, I think it’s important to see why the public reacts so strongly to the behaviour. In our social media generation, people form a seemingly closer relationship with influencers. In opposition to celebrities, although we do not know the influencers any better, because of the way social media provides direct connection, audiences think that influencers are as close as friends. Due to this, when an influencer does something problematic, the audience takes more personal hurt to heart, and it becomes something bigger than it should be on either side. It becomes so emotional and performative and emotion-heavy that the original intent is lost. I think that original intent has some worth to it. We should de-platform people who have proven time and time again that they will continue to hurt people and not learn from their mistakes. We should listen to those communities that have been hurt to make ourselves better allies and learn and give them platforms instead. However, labelling a person as either “unproblematic” or “cancelled” will only serve to hurt both sides in the end.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
X: We need to, as a society, reckon with our impulse to take the moral high ground. Recognize that people are human, and they’re not faultless. I won’t pretend it’s not fun when celebrities have scandals, but internet pile-ons are ultimately not constructive for anyone involved. I’ve been careful to not mention names so far, but I will add this: although not “cancelled” in the internet sense, Monica Lewinsky was publicly shamed in a sex scandal with then-president Bill Clinton. She was the butt of so many jokes with comedians then, jokes that would never, ever fly if they were delivered live today. It is incredibly evident how much damage this sudden vitriol, death threats, doxxing -- has done to her name and her family. It is difficult to imagine how much worse that would have been if the internet were around. When given the anonymity of the internet, we have an incredible power. Privileged people who have committed heinous crimes by the account of silenced voices deserve to be taken down, as do people in the public eye who abuse others (John Lasseter. Matt Lauer. JK Rowling-- many others who need to get what’s coming to them!). However, there are many instances where people’s stories were taken out of their hands, and twisted in so many unpredictable & uncontrollable ways. Listen, and recognize that what you hear first, or loudest, may not always be the truth.
Y: A couple of weeks ago, there was an article published in Harper’s from a lot of prominent authors and academics. The article focused on today’s illiberalism and the erasure of free speech.
I thought what was ironic was that most of the signatories had a great deal of social and cultural capital. Their “cancellation,” would still leave them as millionaires. They are still given a platform for their views and the capital to express them. Public outrage is far different than the actual erasure of speech, which is a reality faced by many today living under authoritarian governments who control the press. It’s easy for those in power to scapegoat cancel-culture, rather than constructively examine the reasons why their opinions cause public outrage. Freedom of speech and freedom from criticism are two separate things, and while I am a staunch believer in the former, I do not care for the latter. Criticism has always been important, and the only difference between now and the past is that it has been democratized.
The real victims of cancel-culture lack social and economic capital. I think about the recent article published in The Atlantic, about the ways in which those who are most harmed by cancel-culture were unable to defend their wrongful termination and were victims of corporations trying to gain public favour. In response to Harper’s article, many journalists of colour argued that ironically, the same very magazine that published an article about freedom of speech and liberalism was anti-union and fired editors over editorial disagreements with the publisher. It’s so important to ensure that responses are not knee-jerk and performative, but are rather thoughtful and meaningful.