“Cancel culture” is a term that emerged around 2015 among the Black community on Twitter as a form of social, political and cultural modern-day execution. Its most ubiquitous use is on the Internet, when one does or says something deemed unacceptable by people. It is then condemned by a flurry of social media posts, and an overwhelming amount of hate surrounds the person and those around him. Once this has happened, the person’s voice is at least theoretically silenced.
Cancel culture has the ability to make the average person behind a screen feel like they’re part of an almost revolutionary activist movement. It levels the playing field and so, with a click of a button, disempowered communities can, to an extent, affect social change. The rewards are immediate and the future repercussions are just far too vague and abstract for people to really register that they could be next.
In some ways, this kind of influence can be powerful. The case of R&B singer R. Kelly comes to mind; he faced multiple sexual assault and abuse charges, which had led to his shows being cancelled, his songs removed from Spotify and him being culturally executed, so to speak. American actress Roseanne Barr’s TV show was cancelled after a racist Twitter outburst. Comedian Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct allegations led to HBO and Netflix, along with other major industry agencies, cutting ties with him. Rape allegations against Bill Cosby could be thought to have been taken more seriously after he tweeted about still being “America’s dad”. This reignited scrutiny, and more women came forward with their story, which eventually led to his conviction and prison sentence. Stories like these make you appreciate how important social media and cancel culture can be as a means of social justice.
While several still question the validity of cancelling a person, New York Times Journalist Ernest Owens wrote that dismissing cancelling as just young people being judgmental is a worn-out stance. In actuality, he argues that speaking about climate change, women’s rights and racial injustice are millennial responsibilities, and social media, along with cancel culture, is simply today’s platform. He says that cancel culture isn’t bullying, but that it’s the pushback against the bullies, holding people accountable for their behavior.
On the other hand, when cancel culture is used on lesser social evils, such as when used among Youtube vloggers for trivial or invented accusations, or the feud between Kanye West and Taylor Swift over provocative song lyrics, it might not always be as operative. UK-based critic and columnist Sarah Ditum wrote in The Guardian that cancellation is a combination of “piousness plus power” and a way for micro-celebrities on Twitter to raise themselves to prominence on a tide of other people’s anger. This means that it can be less about why the offender did what they did, what actually happened and whether they are capable of growth, and more about a vindictive revenge.
“Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Cause man, you see how woke I was? I called you out,” former President of the US Barack Obama said at the third annual Obama Foundation Summit in October 2019, expressing his disdain for cancel culture. This can be attributed to the fact that cancel culture can be very clear-cut in deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. It eliminates the gray area. Evan Gerstmann, a writer for Forbes Magazine, said that the Obama zeroed in on the problem with cancel culture: the simplistic view that a person is no better than their worst choice.
The conversation of cancel culture has been brewing for the past couple of years, and people have been divided on whether its usage is justified and necessary, or whether it’s simply being used to delete anyone that’s made a mistake. But perhaps, the reason for this divide is due to the vaguely defined terms of what is and what can be ‘cancelled’. For example, the sexual assault charges of R. Kelly and the feud between Kanye West and Taylor Swift are certainly not on the same level and cannot be compared; while R. Kelly has been almost entirely wiped out, both Kanye and Taylor are thriving in the industry.
Then comes the question of whether cancelling actually works. Often, what happens on an online platform stays there without translating onto reality. “Cancelling doesn’t always necessarily undo what’s been done or stop history from repeating itself,” Jenna Wortham, a writer for the New York Times, said as she cited the example of Chris Brown, who assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, a supposedly cancelled artist who, despite continued allegations of assault and rape to this day, still continues to see success. Kanye West and his very public support of President Donald Trump at a time where people of colour are being persecuted due to the President’s comments, along with the fact that he suggested slavery was a choice, might make you think twice about jamming out to one of his songs. However, he has hardly been cancelled, and he, too, is achieving success.
Ultimately, the act of cancelling someone is an attack on the symptom and not the disease. And because of the ease and frequency of implementation, the effects can be argued as weakened over time, especially if your opponent is large enough and if there’s simply too much being cancelled to keep track of. Cancelling a person, however, is still relevant and will likely remain so in today’s world, but it must warrant clearer boundaries as to what it constitutes and how far it can go.