Cancel culture is an oft-contested tool in online activism, but just how effective is it?
Depending on who you ask, cancel culture is either a necessary form of protest or a poison to society. It either only works for as long as people remember to chastise the wrongdoer, or it ruins lives indefinitely. Cancel culture is either a threat to free speech, or merely an extension of it exercised in order to hold people accountable. But there is one thing that nobody really has an answer to: what does cancelling someone really mean? I mean, you can’t really just ctrl+alt+delete people, and we’ve stopped banishing people since Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to Elba (don’t fact check me on that).
When we really strip it down, what ‘cancelling’ really means is that we, as a collective society, have decided to shame and isolate someone for doing something that is deemed immoral. It’s not always clear whether our real goal is to right a specific wrong or to wreak vengeance as a way of rendering some justice, however imperfect the results may be.
Shaming someone may just work as a tool against denormalising sexual harassment or violence, but it won’t work if you’re attacking someone for making a racist tweet in 2007. Odds are, that person is already so far removed from the headspace they were in at the time, that to them their previous actions may feel just as strange to them as it does to you. I’d venture to say that if any Twitter activist were to have an honest scroll down their profiles years ago, they’d have serious trouble relating to some of the things they posted. It just isn’t who they are anymore, and I’m a firm believer that people do in fact evolve— life just makes sure of that sometimes.
I’m not proposing that we abandon condemnation and holding people accountable altogether. If people don’t fear the consequences of their actions, there’s very little motivation to stop oneself from doing the wrong thing. Well, other than for the sake of your own conscience, of course. But depending solely upon other people’s integrity is probably unwise and may leave us disappointed.
Here’s the thing, though: fearing negative consequences must be accompanied with real awareness. If I only stop myself from misbehaving because I fear backlash, and not because I understand that what I’m doing is harmful, am I truly a good person? Moreover, don’t the ugly emotions that result from being shamed demotivate people from heightening their socio-political awareness? Receiving hate messages, being fired from your job, losing your friends— that probably doesn’t entice anyone to ‘do better’ or ‘be better’.
On a psychological level, this mob mentality could only result in isolating the perpetrator further and making them angry at society, perhaps pushing them even harder towards their ill-received opinions or actions. Especially if there’s an existing group of people that would happen to agree with them, no matter how small that niche is, and welcome them into an echo chamber.
It’s also interesting to look at how the results of ‘cancelling’ differ depending on who is targeted. When we ‘cancel’ the average Joe, they may be fired from their job or lose their community. When we ‘cancel’ a celebrity, and depending on why we cancel them, it doesn’t always work. If someone were to be cancelled for domestic violence for example, like Johnny Depp (whether he is actually guilty or not), that public shaming may result in them losing jobs and money. But in the case of JK Rowling, who was cancelled for making transphobic comments, quite the opposite ended up happening. While the Harry Potter author faced tremendous backlash from her fanbase, sales of her books actually skyrocketed in the UK. So depending on society’s sentiment regarding the subject matter, and our existing view of the perpetrator, the results stemming from our ‘cancelling’ of them differs entirely.
In Rowling’s case, we could cancel her all we want, but the money is still piling into her bank account. If cancelling someone doesn’t always have much measurable effect, does cancel culture even exist? Or does the very idea of being cancelled work to deter potentially bad behaviour?
Another notable thing to dissect is the very origin of the term ‘cancelling’. It actually stems from a misogynistic joke from the 1991 film ‘New Jack City’, where actor Wesley Snipes plays a gangster. In one scene, he dumps his girlfriend by saying, “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one.” Do I really need to point out the irony here?
This brings up a darker point; cancellations come just as easily from bigoted worldviews. Think about it; some of the most brutal forms of punishment throughout time were public displays of humiliation. Dr. Jill McCorkel, a professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University, argues that the roots of cancel culture have been present throughout human history, which is stained with atrocities. Societies have punished people for behaving outside of perceived social norms for centuries, and cancel culture is just the newest variation. Whippings, walks of shame, stoning— these are all rooted in the social sanctioning of someone we wish to punish. Across human history, how many people have been killed or imprisoned because their outlooks didn’t align with the mainstream? But that’s the thing, in order to justify vindictiveness, you can’t see yourself in those you denounce. You must ‘other’ them.
If we’re being completely honest, the speed, sloppiness, and anonymity of social media hasn’t created a radically new strain of cancellation; it just facilitates a modern version of the same public humiliation. It is the resurgence of the ancient human practice of scapegoating and human sacrifice, but remodelled as a safety valve to let out all our pent up rage.
Cancel culture is a pharmakon, which is both itself and its opposite. It is medicine and poison, healer and killer. It forces the guilty into shame, and simultaneously steers them away from betterment. The conversation about cancel culture isn’t just about when and how people should lose their status and their livelihoods. It’s also about establishing new ethical and social norms and figuring out how to collectively respond when those norms are violated. And perhaps more importantly, why even as some may decry cancel culture as a mob running amok, the powers that be remain in place, unchanged.