By Julie Reyes
Brandishing keyboards and screenshots, Twitter users have become experts at cancelling public figures. The phrase “cancel culture” is no doubt a familiar one, defined as “a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles.” The concept of boycotting is not new, but the rise of social media has facilitated a marked shift. No longer do protesters need to make a large economic impact to be heard: all that is needed to generate uproar is a few angry people, some screenshot evidence, and a hashtag. The proliferation of cancel culture has sparked a debate on the effectiveness and morality of this phenomenon. Overall, modern day cancel culture gives way to an online environment marred with toxicity and self-righteousness. Though people absolutely need to be held accountable for their actions, cancel culture is not the best way to achieve this.
It is first important to note that there are certain scenarios where cancelling someone is a legitimate course of action. Most celebrities should be given the opportunity to take responsibility and change, but not everyone is deserving of another chance. Sexual abusers, for example, are not just unworthy of their positions of power: they are actively dangerous so long as they have this power. Social media is an efficient way to raise awareness and ensure this person loses the ability to harm more people. In other cases, cancelling is a last resort for a person who shows no remorse. Someone who displayed homophobia five years ago but has since listened to LGBTQ+ voices and changed for the better should be given another opportunity. However, someone who consistently displays homophobia and ignores the LGTBQ+ community’s criticisms should not. Groups affected by such people have a right to boycott them and encourage others to do the same. At its best, cancel culture can ensure that a dangerous or hateful celebrity loses their power to cause more harm.
Usually, however, most people engaging in cancel culture do not differentiate between those who actually deserve to be cancelled and those who should be given another chance. This has led opponents to characterize participants as a relentless mob. While there are antagonists in every group, participants in cancel culture are more likely misguided than cruel. Many people who cancel are personally connected to the situation; seeing a prominent figure they look up to speak ill of a group they are part of can cause immense pain. It is unfair to claim that someone’s pain is unwarranted, especially since a celebrity’s offensive comment is often part of a larger trend of hatred and ignorance towards that minority group. However, pain can easily turn into vengeance, a feeling that has come to define modern day cancel culture.
Another issue afflicting the cancel culture movement is the presence of supposed activists who join the movement as a way to virtue signal. Virtue signaling is defined as “the sharing of one’s point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness.” Privileged activists often engage in empty activism without truly being committed to making a difference. Canceling people is a perfect avenue for them to do so: it requires little effort, can be seen by others on social media, and provides a sense of self-righteousness. Having this type of activist dominate the cancel culture movement poses several issues. First, their sense of moral superiority often leads them to believe they have the authority to speak for minority groups. Just as it is wrong to tell someone they should not be offended, it is inappropriate to tell someone when they should be offended. For example, white activists tried to cancel a Youtuber after old videos of her playing a Latina character with exaggerated stereotypes surfaced. Though many Latino people had stated that they were not offended or accepted her apology, white activists continued to try to deplatform her. In cases like this, it is clear that certain activists care more about cancelling people than they do listening to those affected by who they are trying to cancel.
Additionally, the cancel culture movement is plagued by a sense of hypocrisy. Privileged activists often believe that engaging in cancel culture is their sole duty, while ignoring more substantial forms of activism. They may not understand their own privilege or may even be actively contributing to a bigoted environment. Last year, a privileged activist became the face of the cancel culture movement on Tik Tok, exposing both public figures and ordinary people who used racial slurs. Videos of her saying a racial slur, taken at the time of her fame, surfaced, with many minority groups rightfully feeling backstabbed. People like this are drawn to cancel culture because of the power it gives them; these inauthentic acts of activism contribute towards cancel culture’s failure to make any substantial change.
The act of canceling itself raises some ethical considerations. As aforementioned, there are a few instances when someone actually deserves to be ostracized and face consequences (such as being fired). However, protesters at times go beyond this social ostracization; people who face cancellation often endure a cascade of harassment and even death threats. This is exceptionally problematic when people outside of the public realm, especially children, are targeted. A prominent celebrity recently asked followers to send proof of their peers being bigoted. She then released their information, including name, phone number, and school, to millions of followers; no matter what they have done, no child deserves to receive hate or be put into a dangerous situation. Anger is understandable, but it is never an excuse to put someone in harm’s way.
Cancel culture must undergo a dramatic transformation in order to become effective. The first thing to acknowledge is that heavy punishment is never the best solution. In activist and Professor of Women’s Studies at University of Arizona Loretta J. Ross’ criticism of cancel culture, she introduces the concept of “calling someone in” instead of calling them out. This involves a conversation about why what they said was wrong rather than immediately reacting with anger; calling someone in gives them space to gain a new perspective and take responsibility for their words. On the other hand, taking accountability involves more than a simple apology. The person must be committed to listening to the people they have affected, educating themselves, and using their influence to help minority groups in a substantial way. In order to enact change on a societal level, we must accept those who have changed on an individual level. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of antagonism and polarity that prevents us from uniting in our fight for equality.