People always disagree with each other, put forward different points of view, and express mutual dissatisfaction. But only in times of widespread Internet use did this generally habitual behavior take on a different shade and lead to entirely different consequences.
The number of people who can publicly criticize others for their opinions and actions is enormous. It grows exponentially when the dissatisfied category encourages other users to join in. This is how “cancel culture” arose. But is it a good or a bad thing?
What Is a Cancel Culture?
Cancel culture, or simply ‘canceling,’ is the condemnation by a society of a person or group of people for insulting or outrageous words or actions against others.
The main way in which canceling occurs is via the boycott of those accused of offensive behavior or statements and, as it were, the erasure and cancellation of their former merits. Most often, people who broadcast racist, sexist, transphobic opinions or commit harassment or violence are “canceled.”
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Canceling is a kind of online “witch hunt”—often conducted by strangers and based on rumors, speculations, and malicious intentions—that can lead to unprecedented levels of humiliation and reputation damage. Cancellation culture is a modern form of ostracism (exile) in which a person is publicly condemned and literally “boycotted.”
For example, if a famous person speaks offensively at someone’s expense or misbehaves, they will lose support, and their career may be severely impacted. In such cases, actors are no longer invited to shoot, and recording studios break contracts with musicians.
The Origins of Cancel Culture
The culture of “cancellation” has a long history, and many of its precursors developed in antiquity. Cases of ostracism were known in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In ancient Athens, policies of exile extended to all citizens without exception.
The Egyptian tradition of erasing the memory of the objectionable consisted of destroying monuments and images. For example, the statues of Akhenaten, who enacted religious reforms which were later rolled back, were destroyed.
In ancient Rome, there was a rite called the “curse of memory,” according to which, by decision of the Senate, any images of a politician were destroyed—sometimes even the emperor himself; this happened to Nero, Caracalla, Domitian, and Commodus.
This tradition received a new impetus during the reign of Stalin, when “enemies of the people” disappeared from photographs, textbooks, and books. The scale of these erasures amazed contemporaries and, later, researchers. In 1997, British historian David King published The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, which tells about this unprecedented phenomenon.
In the first half of 2022, 50 years after the death of Pablo Picasso, articles appeared about the “cancellation” of the artist in connection with the harassment of women. Since 1973, the year of Picasso’s death, testimonies of family members and friends have been published, who spoke about the objectionable attitude of the genius toward the female sex.
5 Key Features of Cancel Culture
In the very process of cancellation, one way or another, two parties are involved: the one who cancels and the one who is canceled. The first side can be represented by a group of people, and the one being canceled can also be one person or, for example, a company or brand.
Cancellation culture seeks to make the person being canceled aware of their wrongdoings and transgressions and publicly repent. In this quest, the “cancelers” can sometimes go too far and cause obvious harm to the other side, often as a result of dissatisfaction with the public repentance of the other side.
Here are five of the most common features of cancel culture:
1. “Cancellation” Has No Statute of Limitations
Yes, the Internet never forgets. And so when someone slips up and says or does something unacceptable—even if it’s harmless—they risk being canceled instantly in today’s hypersensitive world.
The more famous the person who committed the offense is, the longer they will be remembered. In this case, a possible course of action is to completely leave all the “spotlight” and sit out for some time in an information vacuum.
However, it is not guaranteed that after returning from “silence mode,” users will not remember the person’s past sins.
2. The Punishment Is Often Not Commensurate to the “Crime”
In canceling, there is very little control over how severely a person is punished in relation to the severity of their offense. The imbalance between a person’s infringement and the punishment can be seen in the case of JK Rowling, a renowned writer who has vocalized her admiration for people with non-conforming orientations. However, she recently shared her outlook on gender and sex, and this has led many to label her as a transphobe.
In her statement, Rowling spoke on her own behalf and, relying on her experience, gave arguments for her position. This relatively benign approach did not save Rowling from public harassment not unlike that received by violent criminals, sex offenders, and others who are clearly much more reprehensible.
3. Cancel Culture Works Selectively
While one has to acknowledge the potential of utilizing a cancellation tool to bring attention to critical social issues, this method has continually revealed its ineffectiveness in practice.
Shockingly, some individuals could go unpunished for egregious infractions despite public outcry, while those who demonstrated remorse still experienced outsized consequences.
For example, in 2019, the director Roman Polanski won an Oscar for best director. Polanski was charged with rape and sexual harassment of a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and has clearly not been “canceled” in any meaningful way.
4. “Cancelling” a Person Does Not Undo the Harm Done to Them
People who spew offensive and debasing remarks in public are often subjected to criticism for their words.
But the harm done to others by such words and actions cannot be compensated by the culture of cancellation. That is, the actions of this phenomenon are directed at the “culprit” but almost ignore the victim themself and the trauma they received.
5. The Crowd Can Be Wrong
It’s important to remember that cancel culture is wielded by the masses. Due to the collective nature of canceling, the crowd can often lack a critical eye and fail to understand what is really happening in certain situations.
Unlike in a court of law, there are no rules as to how information about the case at hand should be presented, about the right to defend oneself, or about what the appropriate punishment should be. This makes it all the more likely for mistakes in judgment to happen.
5 Pros of Cancel Culture
Cancel culture has been hailed as a way to hold individuals and businesses responsible for their misdeeds. When the justice system fails us, this phenomenon can be an effective tool to make up for its shortcomings.
Here are five advantages of canceling culture:
1. It Gives the Public Access to Justice
Cancel culture undoubtedly helps those who have been wronged when the justice system fails them. It provides a platform where people can make their grievances known and get some form of justice, even if only symbolically.
Even if the offender doesn’t experience any real consequences in terms of legal action, they will be remembered for their wrongdoings and potentially change their behavior to avoid such a situation in the future.
2. It Can Be Used to Bring Attention to Critical Social Issues
Cancel culture is a powerful tool for bringing attention to social issues. By calling out an individual or business, the public can bring collective awareness to certain issues and create a platform for dialogue.
For instance, when the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke in 2017, this situation sparked a nationwide conversation about sexual harassment and assault. This all resulted in the spontaneous formation of the Me Too movement, which continues to be a powerful force for change in today’s society.
3. It Serves as a Deterrent
Cancel culture is an effective way to discourage people from committing offenses that could potentially get them canceled. In addition, it serves as a reminder that our words and actions have consequences and that we must always be mindful of how our behavior can impact others.
4. It Fosters Accountability
Cancel culture allows individuals and businesses to be held accountable for their actions. By having a public platform, offenders are unable to escape their misdeeds. They must face the consequences of their words and actions.
For instance, when the CEO of United Airlines was caught on video berating a customer, he was heavily criticized and eventually resigned from his position. This case showed that no one, not even a corporate executive, is exempt from accountability.
5. It Gives a Voice to the Voiceless
Cancel culture can be an empowering tool for those who have been wronged and rarely receive justice. It creates a platform to make their grievances known and express how they were wronged, and it can bring voices that are usually silenced to the foreground of discourse.
For instance, the cancel culture movement has been largely responsible for bringing attention to injustices committed against LGBTQ+ individuals. It has allowed those who have experienced discrimination and prejudice to speak out about their experiences and make their voices heard.
Overall, cancel culture has emerged as a powerful tool to encourage accountability and bring attention to critical social issues.
6 Cons of Cancel Culture
While cancel culture has its advantages, it also presents certain drawbacks. Here are six cons of this phenomenon:
1. It Can Be Used Maliciously
Unfortunately, cancel culture can be used maliciously to target individuals who do not deserve it. It has become a way for people to harass and intimidate their enemies or those who disagree with them.
In this way, cancel culture can quickly become a form of cyberbullying that can be used against vulnerable individuals.
2. It Can Lack Nuance and Context
Cancel culture does not always consider the nuances of a situation or context. For instance, people may be unfairly judged and targeted due to a lack of information about the whole story. This lack of understanding can lead to unfair criticism or punishment.
For example, we could imagine that the case of the United Airlines CEO mentioned earlier may not have been as clear-cut as it appeared. He might have had a good reason for reprimanding the customer. It is difficult to make a fair judgment without knowing the full context.
3. It Can Be Used to Promote Hypocrisy
Cancel culture can be used as a front for hypocrisy. For example, people may express outrage over certain issues but not follow through with their convictions when they are personally implicated.
This double standard can be damaging to the cause that they support and undermines the credibility of their beliefs.
4. It Can Be Used to Avoid Taking Responsibility
Cancel culture is often used as a way for people to deflect criticism and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Instead of engaging in a meaningful conversation about how to address a problem, people may use cancel culture as an escape route.
As a result, it can prevent progress and the development of meaningful solutions.
5. It Does Not Guarantee Social Change
While cancel culture can bring attention to important issues, it does not necessarily bring about social change. It is easy for people to express outrage over a situation and then move on without taking any action.
Unless people take tangible steps to address the problem, cancel culture will not lead to meaningful change.
6. It Can Damage Reputations
Cancel culture can damage a person’s reputation, even if they are innocent. As a result, people may be unfairly judged and criticized without the full facts being known. Sometimes, it can have serious consequences that follow a person, even if the accused apologizes and retracts their statements.
So, Is Cancel Culture Toxic?
Over the past few years, cancel culture has peaked. Actors, directors, musicians, influencers, and even comedians, who seemed to be allowed to joke about everything, have been “canceled.”
During this period, cancel culture has partly shifted from being a tool for making celebrities accountable for their actions to an easy way to initiate witch hunts. Its opponents criticize cancellation for encouraging an atmosphere of toxicity.
On one hand, thanks to “cancelations,” it became possible to speak openly about unacceptable behavior, thereby establishing new unspoken rules. So, people began to openly talk about the problems of racism, sexism, misogyny, and other everyday topics that were previously hushed up, avoided, or even considered the norm.
Social networks also allowed users to speak out against powerful people and did not allow high-profile scandals to be hushed up, as they used to be in the past.
Still, there are also a lot of drawbacks to cancel culture. For example, it can be used as an excuse for cyberbullying, it can lack nuance and context, promote hypocrisy, and can be used to avoid taking responsibility.
So, cancel culture should be seen as a double-edged sword. While it can promote real change and make individuals accountable, it can also do more harm than good if used irresponsibly.
Therefore, it is important to consider the implications of cancel culture before participating in it.