Jan 21, 2022
Everything You Need to Know About Cancel Culture

Photo by Zhu Liang on Unsplash 

Over the past few years, we have seen many celebrities face public backlash because of their racist comments, failure to recognize their white privilege, or sexual assault allegations. For those involved in those scandals, the punishment was arguably quite severe — they were canceled. 

While some cancelations were well-deserved and long overdue, others were more ambiguous. Cancel culture has its passionate supporters and avid opponents, but many people are still not sure what to make of it. If you are one of them, keep reading to get a clear understanding of all the cancel culture pros and cons — from the restriction of free speech to the role of cancellation in today's friendship culture.  

So, What Is Cancel Culture?

Almost every day we hear about someone getting canceled for one reason or another. A company makes a controversial decision that may negatively impact a certain group of people, a celebrity makes a gesture that is deemed inappropriate, or someone unearths a tweet written years ago by a public figure  — and boom, the whole world wide web finds out about it in a matter of hours.

Still, very few people have a proper understanding of cancel culture. How did it start?  Does it fulfill its intended purpose? How is it connected to the topics such as political correctness, free speech, and social justice? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves before we decide whether to support cancel culture or not. 

Definition of Cancel Culture 

According to Merriam-Webster, cancel culture is "the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure". As for canceling someone, it is explained as "to stop supporting them or their work".

Clearly, cancellation involves withdrawing support for a public figure, but how far can it go? What are the limits of cancellation, if any? In his piece for The New York Times, Ross Douthat claims that nowadays, cancellation takes away more than just public approval. He defines it as "an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying". 

Douthat suggests that "reputation" and "employment" are key components of cancellation. The so-called cancellers don't stop at insults or sharp comments. They want the person to pay for their words or actions and lose any power they may have held. Of course, if the offense in question is a tweet or an unsuccessful joke, it becomes an issue of free speech, and there's no law that would force them out of their job. So the public takes the matter into their own hands and puts the individual or organization under so much pressure that they have no other choice than to withdraw from the public eye.

Cancel Culture Vs Call-out Culture 

Before cancel culture became a widespread phenomenon, there was another practice that aimed to hold people in power accountable — call-out culture. Some still use those terms interchangeably, but there is a key difference between them. 

The goal of call-out culture was to point out potentially harmful or inappropriate behavior of celebrities and public figures in order to give the public a more accurate idea of what those people are like. The concept of call-out culture is older than cancel culture, so it makes sense that cancel culture would take the criticism and calling people out one step further by demanding more tangible consequences for the "perpetrators". 

Cancel Culture In Ancient Greece

While the term "cancel culture" is relatively new, the act of cancellation is not new at all. The ways we cancel and the things we cancel for keep changing, but societies have always had a way to exclude unwanted individuals.

Even Ancient Greeks had a practice very similar to cancellation, which is referred to as ostracism. Every year, Athenian citizens could choose to have an ostracism ceremony where they would vote for people they wanted to see expelled from Athens for 10 years. 

In a span of 71 years, only 13 men were ostracised from the city-state of Athens, showing that Athenians didn't take the decision lightly. The individuals who were ostracised were either unpopular or overly powerful citizens who could potentially harm the democratic society they lived in. There were cases when ostracism was also used as a political tool to get rid of opponents.

Interestingly, the ostracised individuals did not lose their property or even social status, and some of them were pardoned before their sentences were over. 

Cancel Culture as We Know It Now

In an article for Vox, Aja Romano suggests that modern cancel culture has more in common with Black empowerment movements and civil rights boycott than the call-out culture of the 2010s. 

Similar to boycotting in the 1950s and 1960s, cancel culture became a tool that allowed marginalized groups, Black people in particular, to stand up to disrespectful actions and words. When one has no power over what others create or say, the best thing you can do is to choose to not participate. If it is in conflict with your fundamental beliefs, you can take it one step further — announce your cancellation publicly and invite people in your social circle to join you.

The emergence of social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix led to the democratization of content creation and the entertainment industry, allowing marginalized communities to have a say in what kind of content is created and considered acceptable or popular. There are hardly many filmmakers, musicians, or influencers who are truly irreplaceable now, so if the public collectively decides to ignore one of them and the demand for their work drops, they will be replaced by someone else very soon.

The Beginnings of Cancelling

Not only has Black culture practiced a form of cancel culture for a long time, Black creators are also responsible for coining the term as we know it now. In Mario van Peeble's movie "New Jack City", when a character called Nino Brown is fighting with his girlfriend, he says "Cancel that bitch. I'll buy another one". The movie came out in 1991 and marked the first time when the verb "canceled" was used while referring to a person rather than an inanimate object. 

Fourteen years later, 50 Cent referred to the legendary line in "Hustler's Ambition", and so did Lil Wayne in "I'm Single". In 2014, a contestant of a VH1 reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York told his love interest "You're canceled", and the catchphrase quickly became popular among Twitter users, especially on Black Twitter. Some used it while talking about a celebrity, others jokingly canceled their friends, and the phrase caught on. 

#CancelColbert a.k.a. the First Big Cancellation Scandal 

The first case of big celebrity cancellation took place in 2014 when the official Twitter account of the "Colbert Report" hosted by Stephen Colbert posted a joke that could be taken as discriminatory towards Asians. "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever", it said.

Online activist Suey Park, a then 23-year-old Asian American woman, posted the following response: "#CancelColbert because white liberals are just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines and we aren't amused". Later on, the "Colbert Report" tweeted that the show's profile is not managed by Colbert himself, therefore he has nothing to do with that tweet. 

The offensive joke stroke a chord and many Twitter users supported Park by using the #CancelColbert hashtag. However, even more people decided to take the side of the show's controversial host. The activist was bullied and received multiple rape and death threats, which led to her moving away and hiding her identity for months. 

The Pitfalls of Cancel Culture 

Although it was Suey who wanted to get Colbert canceled, she became the true victim of that cancellation scandal. Regardless of her good intentions, she was the one who became a target of cyberbullying and mob mentality, so the incident had a much bigger impact on her life than on Colbert's. 

Cancel culture leaves no space for "grey area" — there are the good ones and the evil ones, right opinions and wrong opinions, winners and losers. In an open letter for Harper’s magazine, dozens of journalists and academics warn against cancellations, implying that it doesn’t belong in a liberal society:

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

Gen Z Cancel Culture

For the younger generations, cancel culture often goes beyond shaming celebrities. It's not uncommon for teenagers now to "cancel" their peers too. Some do it jokingly, but for others, cancellation is a form of bullying. Students often get canceled by their friends and classmates for their opposing views, social media posts, or seemingly inconsiderate actions. 

Of course, fitting in and being accepted by other people is a much bigger deal for teenage girls and boys than it is for A-list celebrities. And cancellation is the ultimate form of rejection — it is overt, unanimous, and irrevocable. It is particularly painful when you have to face the people who cancelled you in school every day. 

Cancellation is also about shame. The canceled people get shamed for their words and actions and as a form of punishment, get kicked out of the group they previously belonged in. Now, it's neither uncommon nor unreasonable to punish the group members for breaking the rules and norms of the group. However, it is important to consider whether such an extreme punishment as cancellation is truly appropriate. If a 14-year old makes one ambiguous — or even straight-up insensitive —joke, is it necessary to completely cut them out? 

The Impact of Cancel Culture On Mental Health 

Cancel culture leads to extreme isolation and loneliness for the canceled people, but it takes a toll on everyone's mental health. You can be a decent, well-meaning person for most of your life, and have a couple of careless social media posts destroy your reputation. That idea has become ingrained in our minds, so we're becoming more afraid of making mistakes and expressing ourselves overall. 

While discrimination and prejudice should not be tolerated or excused as "free speech", one incident can be an unintentional misstep that's not representative of the person's worldview at all. In such cases, one mistake can become a chance to educate yourself and be more careful next time. 

Of course, if there's a history of offensive comments and actions, people should be held accountable. But even then, the question is — do we want to expel those people from society or give them a chance to change?

The Benefits of Cancel Culture 

Undoubtedly, cancel culture has its benefits. It shows that even the most powerful and admired people aren't untouchable. They have to be mindful of how they act and what they say because there's always someone who will see it, hear it, and make sure they will be held accountable.

Why We Can — and Should — Cancel Public Figures 

In real life, most of us don't have any power over celebrities, politicians, or big corporations. But on social media platforms, we can come together in a matter of hours and make sure our rage is visible. One hashtag can lead to a whole new movement that will demand the person to face the consequences of their actions. 

Whether those are elected officials, trusted entrepreneurs, or celebrities whose livelihoods depend on how much attention we pay to them, those people rely on how the public feels about them, and they know it. When we refuse to support a certain politician, consume a certain brand, or listen to a certain's artist music, we take away the power we ourselves have given them. In that sense, cancellation is completely natural and logical. 

Cancel Culture and Social Justice

Cancel culture is often analyzed from the perspective of the canceled ones. Did they deserve such punishment? What effect did it have on them? How did they deal with it? While those are important questions, we should also consider the side of the people who choose to cancel.

For people who have always been left out of the conversation in the past, such as women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ folks, online cancellation remains one of the few ways they can make themselves heard. On social media, for the first time ever, the most privileged and the most underprivileged members of society get to express themselves in the same space. The minorities don't hold back, and rightfully so — they can finally unite their voices and show their rage towards people who disrespect them. 

Some argue that's the reason why some oppose to cancel culture — public figures aren't used to being in the same (albeit virtual) space with disenfranchised people, who in turn are tired of being mocked by someone who has no idea what their lives are like. When someone gets canceled, they might feel stressed and anxious for a little while, but the people who canceled them live their whole lives in stress and fear, and they don't have enough social, financial, or political power to change it. 

Is Cancel Culture Even Effective?

Nowadays, the goal of most "cancellers" is more than just to get the offenders to repent and apologize. They see public shaming as a social justice tool and want to see those people lose their careers and celebrity status. In some cases, that's exactly what happens. People like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey got canceled completely, even though the latter was found not guilty after all. 

As for the people whose cancellable actions were not criminal offenses, the cancellations were not that effective. Sure, they went through some public shaming and lost some of their following, but that's about it. 

For example, Ellen Degeneres, who was accused of creating toxic workplace culture, has already got a new show lined up, and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, known for her numerous transphobic remarks, is selling her books faster than ever before. Louis C.K. is still doing stand-up comedy — and is still selling out his shows. 

There is some debate on whether cancel culture fulfills its purpose or just allows us to release some pent-up anger. Even if it was effective at holding people accountable, that still doesn't mean that any major change will take place. There are people behind closed doors who profit from discrimination and inequality, but cancel culture hasn't affected them at all simply because they stay away from the public eye. 

How to fight back against cancel culture and mob mentality?

  • Acknowledge why cancel culture is toxic (at least in some cases), and discuss it with people around you. Willingly or not, we all participate in cancel culture, so learning what effect it has on people can help us be more mindful of our words and actions. Sure, free speech is important, but so is respect and empathy. 

  • Cultivate empathy and curiosity. You don't have to be an expert in complex policy issues – you just need to keep an open mind and listen to people whose lives are actually affected by those issues. For example, white men can't really know what it is like to be an African American man, and they shouldn't act like they do — it's simply impossible. In other words, if it doesn't concern us, it is not up to us to decide whether something is offensive or not. We shouldn't invalidate each other's feelings and decide for someone else whether they were right to cancel someone or not. 

  • When a friendship ends because of ideological differences, it actually ends because of the inability to have healthy discussions and arguments. Create a comfortable environment for uncomfortable conversations, explain your opinion in a calm manner, and try to find some middle ground. Public opinion is formed by thousands of private conversations, so we can all have an effect on it. 
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