In my opinion, we don't need to cancel cancel culture, but we need to transform it into a more constructive way of dealing with mistakes in our society. And I am specifically referring to the mistakes (not intentional harm caused or crimes committed) of private individuals, not corporations or bigger entities.
Initially gaining traction around 2017, it seems cancel culture has truly established itself in the summer of 2020. During the global pandemic, the bigger part of people's lives moved online, while the Black Lives Matter movement saw many people speak up about social issues, who have stayed quiet until then.
What is cancel culture?
According to Merriam Webster, "To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste."
There are different degrees of actions for which individuals have been canceled, from making a small insensitive or inconsiderate remark to committing crimes such as sexual assault.
"All it takes for someone to be canceled is for someone else to announce, via social media, that they are", says The New York Times writer Jonah Engel Bromwich. However, I would add that it always needs a group of people to support this claim and agree to cancel someone - an individual cannot cancel another just by proclaiming it because the leverage consists of mass attention.
There are different explanations for why cancel culture has grown so much in recent years. "The endless production of scandals without consequences is the main reason behind the recent rise of organized public online shaming", says Geert Lovink, founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures. He is saying that scandals or humiliation of individuals seldom lead to prosecution or a change in legislation, which is why cancel culture attempts to take personal scandals to a new level.
While public shaming has been around for centuries, the term cancel culture surfaced between 2010 and 2017 and its pervasion "has been credited to black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag" (Merriam Webster).
“It’s a very transactional word”, says Jason Richards, the creator of the web series 'Joanne the Scammer'. “It speaks to a lifestyle of commodity, consumerism, and capitalism, of transactions being canceled.”
Cancel culture builds on the establishment of a 'call-out culture', which as the name reveals, describes the calling out of individuals for something they said or did that is considered wrong.
Who can be canceled?
Meredith D. Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia’s department of media studies, "said that only those whose power is, for the most part, predicated on the attention economy are susceptible to cancellation. This means that political figures and business leaders are harder to cancel — even rhetorically — because the threat only goes so far." (Jonah Engel Bromwich).
However, in 2020 we see not only celebrities, public figures, and politicians get canceled, but also private persons, companies, products, and even years (2020 itself) or whole countries. If you need examples, here is a list of people who have been canceled in 2020.
In the remaining part of the article, I'd like to review the benefits and the dangers of cancel culture and make a suggestion for how to transform it.
Is cancel culture good or bad?
Is cancel culture "A way to give agency and voice to underrepresented groups, or a phenomenon that unfairly destroys livelihoods? A representation of free speech or the death of debate?" (Allan Dunlavy from the privacy law firm Schillings)
Obviously, it can be either. Let's look at the reasons why cancel culture has its place in today's society and the dangers that come with it.
What are the benefits of cancel culture?
Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan, said cancellation creates “a culture of accountability which is not centralized and is haphazard but needed to come into being” (Jonah Engel Bromwich).
Cancel culture wants to hold people accountable for their words and actions. It "has empowered people to challenge the status quo and demand accountability from those in positions of power or wealth" (Christopher Brito, CBS News). However, in demanding accountability, it is not clear to me whether the aim is to punish and remove people from mainstream society, or get them to change their views and behaviors.
Ross Douthat from The New York Times argues "The point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority. [...] The goal isn’t to punish everyone [...]; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform."
Social media can put power in the hands of the masses, who might not be able to influence things on a public level otherwise. Especially underrepresented or less privileged groups of society are thereby given a voice, which might not be heard otherwise. "Not all instances of cancel culture are good, but the practice itself is sometimes the only way marginalized folk can ensure their voice won't get lost in a system that was designed to silence." (Nicole Cardoza)
"[A] climate of cancellation can succeed in changing the way people talk and argue and behave even if it doesn’t succeed in destroying the careers of some of the famous people that it targets" (Ross Douthat).
What are the dangers of cancel culture?
"The main argument against cancel culture is that it doesn't enable people who have wronged society the opportunity to apologize and learn from their mistakes" (Cambridge Dictionary). Former US President Barack Obama spoke out about call-out culture saying "That's not activism. That's not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far."
Canceling also frequently does not delete the subject from the public landscape, but merely brands them with a certain image. And lastly, it holds the risk of individuals being falsely accused (if the statement or action has not been digitally recorded) and forever condemned.
It's true that rather than open a space for discussion and debate, cancel culture seems to attempt to punish or silence the other side. Nevertheless, as Ross Douthat argues, the practice could have a lasting impact on the behaviors of mainstream society.
My opinion is that cancel culture has good intentions (namely, to correct behavior that is deemed wrong), and can lead to change, but we should review the context and situation in which it is being pursued. For instance, if an influential or powerful person is canceled for inflicting harm, this has a very different effect than if a private individual is canceled for a situation that is seen as misbehavior. Like Nicole Cardoza writes, "cancel culture becomes harmful when it's applied in horizontal power structures".
How can we transform cancel culture to be more constructive?
We are human. We make mistakes. And we should be allowed to.
We should also hold people accountable for their words and actions. But it's all about the way in which we do so.
Boycotting or canceling companies can actually be a tool to get those companies to make a change in the interest of the boycotters. However, when cancel culture is targeting private individuals who aren't famous, it can have consequences for that person, which are disproportionate and hard to reverse (like getting them fired and minimizing their chances of being employed again).
Canceling someone does not solve the underlying issue. I believe we need to approach this topic from both sides:
When we see others making mistakes: We should strive to educate the members of our society and give them an opportunity to grow and change. I understand we don't all have the mental or emotional capacity to educate others, but if you do, then do it, if you don't, then let someone else do it. People deserve a chance to explain themselves, review their behavior, and make a change. At least in cases where the subject of the cancellation has not committed a crime or done serious harm.
When we are the ones making the mistake: Each and every one of us should learn to listen, to admit when they did something wrong, and to apologize. If it is not part of our culture yet, we need to integrate this behavior. Nicole Cardoza from the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter put together a guide for how to apologize and further resources to help us get started.
I believe the intention behind the action also plays a role. For instance if someone meant well, but unconsciously said something hurtful out of their own ignorance, they deserve to be educated, and to get a chance to apologize and learn. If someone deliberately did something hurtful, I think it's a different story and would call for a different treatment. In any case, I think everyone deserves a chance to make amends and genuinely change for the better.
In the long run, I think our society needs to cultivate among its members a certain level of sensitivity and humility, teaching all of us that it's okay to admit when we did something wrong and to apologize.
How do you see cancel culture? Do you think it is beneficial? Let us know in the comments!
I am not an expert, I just researched this topic from a place of personal interest. If I used incorrect terminology or expressed something incorrectly, please feel free to let me know.
Podcast The Daily (The New York Times): https://open.spotify.com/episode/7z34A5HEDrrtmNrq76HZ2d?si=74saC7IyQbOVM_Yq9og03g
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