Cancel Culture: Mob Rule In Disguise?

It seems to be a good general guideline that everyone has at some point said or done something that they really shouldn’t have. But, like everything, there are different degrees of unacceptable. In the last decade, with the rise of social media and the internet, there have been a great many cases of a celebrity being “cancelled”.  Most of the time, it is painfully obvious that the backlash of “cancel culture” has been justifiably aimed at an individual, be it in response to the anti-Semitic rants from Mel Gibson; (now ex) international rugby star Israel Folau’s recent homophobia, or R. Kelly and his lengthy list of alleged illegal abusive actions, not to mention the things that have already been proven.

But in fact, the case of R. Kelly might serve as a warning of shortcomings of so-called “cancel culture”, just as much as showing positive impact it can have. For years it has been publicly known that R. Kelly married singer Aaliyah when she was fifteen years old after he had been the lead writer and producer on her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number (if that’s not a red flag, then what is?). In 2004, charges for possession of child pornography, including alleged images of R. Kelly and an underage girl together, were dropped, even though the pictures where found in his house, due to the lack of probable cause for the search. The alleged sex cult that he controls, as reported by Buzzfeed in mid-2017 and including testimony from past victims and from the families of current members, is just one more disgusting piece of the R. Kelly puzzle.

All through this, R. Kelly was allowed to continue largely unchecked and without consequence. Only as recently as 2018 has there been a noticeable movement to “cancel” the singer and bring him to justice, culminating in his arrest and his being charged for ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in March on this year, covering alleged offences from 1998 to 2010.

It can be argued that this is a triumph for “cancel culture”, that the concerted effort of the online community brought R. Kelly’s actions into the public eye and created the movement that led to his arrest. 

Yet, asserting that “cancel culture” is anything more than mob rule that brings attention to particular issues seems to be overstating the point. In the case of R. Kelly, that attention has begun the process of justice against him, and will hopefully result in apt punishment. Too often, though, the attention is used as a currency, rather than as something to be concerned about.

Take Logan Paul, for example. The YouTube star, with an audience of children, faced calls to be “cancelled” after he posted a video featuring the body of a man who had committed suicide by hanging, and making jokes about it. This footage wasn’t unsurfaced or searched for; he posted it on his channel, as regular content intended for his audience of preteens. Rightly, the video was removed, and advertisers were pulled from his channel. 

For a short time, anyway. Logan is still on YouTube and still making millions from his channel of nearly nineteen million subscribers. All that has tangibly changed is that he is regarded as a figure of infamy, which in many ways played into his hands as a self-styled “Maverick”. It can be claimed that all the attention has benefitted him, in the long run. Everyone that called him out have moved on to the next scandal to spread over social media, allowing Logan Paul to merrily carry on after weathering the short storm of being supposedly “cancelled”. What did it actually achieve, what impact did it truly have on him in the long run? Very, very little, by the looks of it. 

“Cancel culture” does have its place. It allows the masses to call out public figures on problematic statements and actions, and the discussion that this facilitates is perhaps the best way to understand the general opinion of fans, and about what is deemed acceptable or too far in contemporary culture. “Cancel culture” definitely has its uses as a way for people to assert their value judgements in a rapidly evolving cultural landscape, but with being “cancelled” almost becoming an expected rite of passage that can nearly always be counted on to blow over in a relatively short amount of time, it seems to diminish the credibility and effectiveness of a celebrity being deservedly “cancelled”, nearly to the point of uselessness. 

People, famous or otherwise, should be held accountable for their actions and speech, but bowing the wishes of the angry Twitter-mob and “cancelling” an individual, seemingly sometimes as a passing fashion with no lasting consequences, is not something to be encouraged as a good measure of public expression or of justice.

Michael Keating