December 1, 2023 opinion

Perhaps it is time to cancel ‘cancel culture’

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Megan Lee in London, United Kingdom

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17 year-old Megan Lee on the social justice of “cancelling”

From opinion editors being fired for being too right-wing, to ex-presidents being erased from San Francisco public schools for ‘dishonourable legacies’, recently, we have seen many be ‘cancelled’ one too many times.

In other words, we have often witnessed people banished from having a public platform or career, with their cultural authority revoked.

Even though the words has become a commonality, there is still a lot of discussion over the meaning of ‘cancel culture’.

People have often wondered whether it can be a way to hold people accountable, whether it is a tactic to punish others unjustly, or perhaps it is a mix of both.

It is important to demystify this term to better understand its socio-cultural implications.

What is ‘cancel culture’?

‘Cancel culture’ refers to ‘the popular practice of withdrawing support for public figures and companies’, after they have done or said something that demonstrates insensitivity or ignorance regarding certain issues or minority groups, especially those related to race, gender, sexual orientation, or other sensitive topics.

This can also be driven by political or ideological disagreements, where individuals who express views that are contrary to prevailing social or political norms are condemned for what is perceived as harmful or regressive ideology.

Where did the term originate from?

The phrase ‘cancel culture’ is said to have come from an obscure slang term – ‘cancel’, referring to breaking up with someone – used in a 1980s song. However, after gaining traction on social media in recent years, this term has evolved to mean taking back your personal support of an individual or an organisation .

One of the earliest instances of the term was in 2014, when the official Twitter account of the Comedy Central show ‘The Colbert Report’ posted a joke that could be taken as a denigration of Asians. Activist Suey Park quickly responded with the hashtag #CancelColbert and the use of the term has only proliferated since then.

How did it emerge as a social phenomenon?

The widespread use of social media platforms, such as X (previously Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram, has undoubtedly set the stage for ‘cancel culture’.

The rapid circulation of information and the creation of virtual communities has provided newer and more accessible spaces for individuals to express their opinions.

To many people this process of publicly calling for accountability, “cancelling”, and the act of boycotting a public figure, has become an important tool of social justice; it has become a way of fighting, through collective action, some of the huge power imbalances that exist between public figures with far-reaching platforms, and authority their words and actions may have.

What are the key elements of ‘cancel culture’?

‘Cancel culture’ is closely related to call-out culture, where people publicly ‘call out’ others for behaviour they find objectionable through offensive remarks with the intention to draw attention to the perceived wrongdoing and to force a response from the accused party.

‘Cancel culture’ manifests as a form of online vigilantism, where individuals or groups take it upon themselves to expose and condemn a person for supposed misconduct.

This involves public shaming, where alleged offenders are often subjected to a barrage of negative comments, memes, and even harassment by other social media users. The goal is to publicly humiliate the individual and pressure them into acknowledging and apologising for their actions.

The less extreme modes of ‘cancellation’ involve withdrawing support of certain businesses and public figures. For example, a recent boycott of Wells Fargo occurred when its CEO, Charles Scharf, stated it was a challenge to find diverse employees due to a ‘limited pool of Black talent to recruit from.’ In response, people took to Twitter to slam the reported comments and encourage others to close their accounts with Wells Fargo.

In all cases, there is a common expectation of a public apology from the accused. Ironically, such responses are often scrutinised, and the sincerity of the apology becomes only a further point of contention within the ‘cancel culture’ discourse.

What role does social media play?

The collective nature of social media can contribute to a form of ‘mob mentality’, where a large group of users condemns an individual, thus exerting significant pressure on the target.

The relative anonymity or pseudonymity provided by some social media platforms can embolden individuals to participate in ‘cancel culture’ without fear of direct consequences, contributing to a more hostile online environment.

Though rooted in an intent to pursue social justice, ‘cancel culture’ incidents often become a source of provocation. Thus, many users engage with cancelation discussions for entertainment purposes without a full understanding of the context or consequences, leading to the problem worsening.

The permanence of content on social media means that past statements or actions can resurface, contributing to the ongoing revisal of individuals.

This aspect of social media can make it challenging for individuals to move beyond past controversies. Coupled with social media’s real-time nature creates pressure for individuals to respond immediately to controversies, this can lead to hastily crafted responses that undermine sincere efforts at reconciliation.

What are the impacts of ‘cancel culture’?

‘Cancel culture’ can have significant consequences for a person’s professional life. Public figures may lose endorsements, job opportunities, or even face termination from their current positions due to the backlash generated.

For example, Justine Sacco, a PR executive, was fired back in 2014 after she sent an inappropriate tweet right before boarding a flight to South Africa. Writing at the time, “going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

The post blew up on Twitter while she was in the air, and Sacco quickly became a totem for internet shaming. Aside from being publicly humiliated, she was also fired from her job as a result of her ‘cancelation’.

During that time, she spoke with author Jon Ronson and stated: “To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she told him. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.”

In an excerpt from The New York Times, Sacco continues with a more extensive response: “Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform.” Continuing that “I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”

Though Sacco was undoubtedly deserving of the initial backlash, continuous harassment and bullying was not the solution to the issue.

How are ‘cancel culture’ and constructive criticism different?

The distinction lies in the approach, intent, and consequences. Constructive criticism seeks improvement and understanding, whilst ‘cancel culture’ prioritises public condemnation and punitive measures without fostering constructive dialogue or providing opportunities for redemption.

While taking away one’s social power can be seen as educational, in most cases, ‘cancel culture’ provides a false narrative that justice is served once one takes accountability. In fact, it leads to no substantial action being taken to improve the situation.

The complete erasure of voices and events means we cannot acknowledge the potential for individuals to learn from their mistakes, make amends, and demonstrate growth over time. We need to focus on rehabilitation rather than permanent condemnation.

The role of power on ‘cancel culture’?

Mentioned in this article:

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

‘Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society’

By Harpers Magazine

Not only is ‘cancel culture’ in itself a harmful solution to our pursuit of justice and equality, it is inherently pointless. The more powerful someone is, the less affected they are – even if they have actually done something wrong.

For example, the British writer J.K. Rowling, was included as one of the signatories of the Harper’s letter despite being publicly condemned for her views on gender identity and biological sex, yet people still buy her books; the studio head Harvey Weinstein was (rightly) indicted for sexual assault, but he continues to gain revenue from the millions who voluntarily watch his films.

As much as all of us want to make a difference and push forward progress in the status quo, it is clear ‘cancel culture’ leads only to a lack of actual change.

It removes the element of dialogue and discussion when trying to view issues holistically, leading people online to be trapped in their own echo chambers, removed from the context and impacts of the ‘cancellation’ they are advocating. More importantly, it continually fails to hold the most powerful people perpetuating injustice and inequality accountable.

What we should be focusing on is open dialogue rather than downright condemnation. Platforms such as ‘Braver Angels’ facilitate conversations between individuals with differing political beliefs, arranging workshops for people to engage in constructive conversation to find common ground.

In exploring such restorative justice approaches, where the focus is on repairing harm rather than punitive measures, this means involving mediation and reconciliation processes to address conflicts and promote understanding.

Perhaps it is time to cancel ‘cancel culture’.

Written by:

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Megan Lee

Culture Section Editor

Hong Kong | United Kingdom

Born in 2006, Megan is a student from Hong Kong studying in the UK. She is interested in all aspects of the arts, especially how it can be used as a medium to explore different perspectives.

In her free time, she loves reading and writing. With an avid interest in linguistics, she speaks English and Chinese but is currently learning French, Latin, and Korean.

Megan joined Harbingers’ Magazine as a contributor in 2023. As a self-published journalist, she was quickly promoted to the role of the Culture Section editor. She is also working on creating a Harbingers’ podcast she will host and produce.

Edited by:

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Sofiya Tkachenko

former Editor-in-chief

Kyiv, Ukraine | Vienna, Austria

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