‘Cancel Culture’ – Controversial or Commendable?

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To see a worldwide-trending hashtag on Twitter with a name followed by the phrase “Is-Over-Party” is almost a daily phenomenon in this day and age. ‘Cancel’ culture is not a novel spectacle anymore, especially in 2020. We, as frequent users of social media, have seen people from all walks of life get ‘cancelled’, from established celebrities like Harvey Weinstein and Michael Jackson to teenage influencers like Logan Paul and James Charles. This form of extreme outrage is a tactic of public humiliation and denunciation that aims to hold people accountable for their socially and/or morally unacceptable behaviour and/or actions that are plainly perceived to be offensive.

Despite its proliferation and impact, ‘cancel’ culture has been at the centre of online controversy ever since day one. Social activists argue that it is necessary and crucial to hold people in power accountable for their actions, especially in contemporary political climate and with a flawed justice system where influential figures could get away with despicable behaviour, and that call-out culture serves as a deterrent to discrimination, hate crimes, assault, etc. as problematic people who have been ‘cancelled’ could be seen as cautionary tales. Critics rebut by pointing out that making mistakes is inevitable for everyone, that this outrage culture could be weaponised and abused, that it dehumanises and reduces individuals into single evil entities and that it destroys instead of educates. So, is ‘cancel’ culture something vital or destructive to our society?

My take is that just like any social movement that holds good intentions and objectives, ‘cancel’ culture has gone too far. 

As humans, we consist of a series of impulses. Bad actions do not necessarily equate to being a bad person. Take any Youtube personality as an example. James Charles was initially ‘cancelled’ for making racially insensitive jokes on Twitter about Ebola, and Felix Kjellberg, more widely known as Pewdiepie, received the same treatment for saying the N-word on a gaming live stream. They apologized after these incidents and never made the same mistake ever since. Did they do something wrong? Yes. Should they be held accountable for their mistakes? Yes. Does this mean that they are inherently racist and bigoted, hence they should be publicly denounced as villains for the rest of their lives? Absolutely not. Both have explained the reasons behind their actions, none of which were intending to be offensive or racist and both have sincerely apologised. We all say things we do not mean at the heat of the moment. Some of us may have even made worse mistakes by perpetrating against minorities and marginalised groups due to actual ignorance and bigotry. But learning from our mistakes, growing and improving to be better people is the point of life, isn’t it? Like Barack Obama said, “[Call-out culture is] not activism. That does not bring about change.” What people should be encouraged to do is to hold others accountable for pointing out and criticising their wrongdoings and educating them to be better, instead of trying to publicly shame them for an impulsive or mindless act for the rest of their lives. What’s even better is to keep ourselves in check and scrutinise any hypocrisy or potential mistakes that we may have made in the past. It is easier to judge others than to judge ourselves. My point is that the lack of forgiveness in the ‘cancelling’ crowd brings more harm than good to our society. When people sincerely apologise for their actions, let’s move on instead of pillorying them until their lives are destroyed.

Other features of ‘cancel’ culture that I do not agree with are the transitive properties and reductionism of guilt. To be 100% politically correct or ‘woke’ on social media these days is virtually impossible. When you follow someone ‘problematic’, like or retweet their posts or post anything that is remotely affiliated with that person, you are perceived to be part of the problem. These actions could also be seen as public endorsements of their ‘problematic’ behaviour. When you think about it, it is impossible to know everything about your friends or acquaintances in real life, let alone a prominent online figure or celebrity. Therefore, if someone you ‘endorse’ or are associated with have a problematic past or have done something deemed offensive or unacceptable by others, you are guilty by association and complicit in their crimes. And that just seems ridiculous to me. Plus, people on the Internet tend to reduce actions into defining characteristics and use umbrella terms and accusations (i.e. racist, transphobic, sexist, etc.) to describe ambiguous behaviour. Accidentally saying a racial slur could be described as white supremacy. Wording a sentence improperly while talking about sexual preferences could be perceived as transphobic. While these actions are justifiably wrong and offensive, the people who commit them might not be inherently racist or discriminatory towards any marginalised group. I am not here to justify anyone’s actions, but it is crucial to not simplify an entire story into a misleading sentence of accusation and reduce someone making an ignorant slip or an honest blunder into a horrible person that perpetuate dangerous, abominable ideologies. Remember, context matters and people make mistakes.

So, is ‘cancel’ culture 100% bad? Not necessarily. I can definitely understand where its supporters are coming from when I look at serious cases of power abuse like Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly. There are prominent, significant figures in industries and corporations who abuse their power and status by committing unspeakable acts and violating vulnerable people. This is where ‘cancel’ culture could and should play its part. More often than not, public outrage and cultural boycott are the only ways to deprive these despicable people of their livelihood when our justice system fails. It also sends out a message of deterrence to the world regarding any similar misconduct. But we also have to drop our mob mentality and impulses when accusations are made. Any social movement with goodwill could be weaponised and exploited by anyone, especially people that fit the cliche of a ‘victim’. Jussie Smollett and Amber Heard are the prime examples of the danger ‘cancel’ culture could pose against real victims. Smollett’s accusations of being attacked as a gay, black person and Heard’s claims of being abused by her ex-husband Johnny Depp were immediately believed by the public, and the wrath of ‘cancel’ culture, unfortunately, fell on their victims as facts later revealed their allegations to be false.

‘Cancel’ is a powerful word and definitely holds a very different meaning than it did a decade ago. While the advocates of ‘cancel’ culture are well-intentioned and well within their personal rights to boycott anyone they do not want to support, we all have the responsibility, as part of the mass nation of the Internet that beholds great power, to think before we act and to keep a check on our humanity before publicly vilifying someone.

Clarissa Leung

Image credit: Digiday