The term ‘Cancel Culture’ has quickly become one of the most discussed trends of the digital age. A rather complicated concept to define precisely, it encompasses all actions that aim to publicly denounce a person who has made comments or acted in a way that is deemed problematic. The idea of ‘Cancel Culture’ — first coined by Black Twitter users, dates back to 2015 and began as a means of calling out friends or acquaintances for microaggressions and other hateful remarks. Since then it has evolved to target the powerful, sometimes with highly effective results. A seemingly novel development, Cancel Culture has been around for quite a long time, albeit practiced under different names. Ostracism, one of the earliest forms of ‘cancelling,’ was first seen in the Greek state of Athens as early as the 5th century whereby people who were considered to be too powerful or dangerous to democracy were exiled for at least ten years. This process of sending such individuals into exile was determined by a popular vote where people exerted their democratic power to ensure that those who threatened the system could be kept in check.
The main argument concerning Cancel Culture centers around whether this mass public criticism facilitates the cause of justice or if it threatens free speech. The debates surrounding cancel culture have led to discussions on whether ‘cancelling’ someone has any long-term implications on the career or reputation of those being cancelled. In a broader sense, Cancel Culture is a form of collective punishment, meted out to public figures and these days, increasingly towards private individuals who have suddenly found themselves in the public gaze due to their offensive or insensitive words and actions.
Illustration of ‘Cancel Culture’ by Yansini Nanchamnong
The Case for Cancel Culture
‘Cancelling’ presents itself as a tool that gives a voice to the voiceless. It is without a doubt that Cancel Culture gives the marginalised an amplified voice and a way to challenge damaging narratives promoted by the status quo. It is not a negative development, but rather an extremely important one. It means racist, sexist and bigoted remarks aren’t as acceptable as they once were. It is clear that the intersection between justice and social media is increasingly convoluted. For the disenfranchised, formal institutional channels of justice are insufficient. “Cancelling” is an alternative that enables masses of marginalised young people to use their voices on the internet to reject the status quo and enact justice, and allows them to seek accountability when the justice system fails to deliver.
Illustration by Lilli Sams
One of the core ethical attractions of Cancel Culture lies in its ability to create consequences and accountability for wrongdoers, especially powerful people and institutions who otherwise seemed untouchable. For a long time, our culture has been lax, not holding people accountable for their abusive or insensitive actions; this is changing with Cancel Culture. People in positions of power had become accustomed to saying things without reprimand, but cancel culture checks this privilege. Many people believe that Cancel Culture is a new and evolving form of democratic discourse where individuals use their right to free speech to inform the masses. These masses then exert pressure on people and institutions to hold them accountable, by challenging the dominant narrative. If not for Cancel Culture, celebrities and powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or R.Kelly would not have been held accountable and convicted for the many sexual offenses committed by them.
The right to free speech doesn’t make people entitled to hate speech. Proponents of cancel culture would agree some types of speech are beyond the pale. Racial slurs and sexist remarks don’t deserve careful listening and consideration. They require “calling out” and social censure. Cancel Culture aims at doing just that. It condemns speech that has the potential to harm.
The Case Against Cancel Culture
Graphic showing Colin Kaepernick, who was cancelled for taking a knee during the national anthem. Illustration by Ed Yevelev
Critics of Cancel Culture remark that it involves shutting down the expression of different perspectives and treating people as disposable. It is not discourse but anti - discourse, a genre of speech intended not to facilitate the exchange of views and ideas but to prevent such an exchange. Today, with ‘cancelling’ almost anything that differs from our view, we may end up cancelling healthy dialogue altogether. This was evident in the case of Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who became the victim of mass public criticism when he chose to kneel instead of standing during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality and racial injustice. He was later ‘cancelled’ by the NFL. We certainly need to have many conversations around a wide range of topics, but instantly reacting by trying to shut people down and shut them up whenever they mildly disagree with a group consensus is a disproportionate reaction.
Moreover, Cancel Culture creates an environment that doesn’t allow people to comfortably express themselves, threatening healthy discourse in a liberal society. As Steven Mintz, Professor Emeritus at California Polytechnic State University, explained: “Some members of the cancelling group join in for fear of being cancelled themselves. People should be able to speak out or remain silent on the issues without fear of retribution.” People are afraid of the repercussions of cancel culture so they choose to not express themselves. This leads to the suppression of beliefs, ideologies and perspectives, truly ‘cancelling’ people’s voices. Open communication is essential for a free society.
One of the major issues with Cancel Culture is how it perpetuates ending a person’s career over a mistake, based on the notion that people cannot change or learn from the past. It gives too much leeway for hatefulness. When you participate in Cancel Culture, you become a part of a mob mentality rather than a social movement. If we exile people who do something wrong, no one is ever going to want to apologise. But if we leave room for human beings to learn and evolve, we could create a space where they could be rehabilitated and become forces for positive change in our society.
Should We Accept Cancel Culture?
Illustration by Macy Elder
Cancel Culture lies in a grey area. Moreover, there is no set moral behind it. How do we decide what is offensive or inoffensive? Cancel Culture doesn’t have any defined boundaries and hence the scope of what ‘could’ get cancelled is skewed.
The debate on whether we should accept or dismiss Cancel Culture has seemed to widen and grow in recent times. This cultural shift has vastly affected the people in our society. Social media has given people a platform to broadcast their every thought along with the ability to immortalise these sentiments. In conjunction with the advent of society’s newfound social awareness, this has led to accountability. While this shift is necessary for the progression of our society, there have been many consequences due to this cultural change.
Although Cancel Culture is getting increasingly polarised, no one can deny that it has brought monumental change in society helping promote equality and social justice whilst eliminating damaging narratives.
DCI’s main goal is to decode encrypted news for an enlightened citizen
Jemima Assunta Fernandes, Journalist at Décryptage Citoyen International
May 11th, 2021
References and further reading:
1. D. Clark, M. (2020) ‘DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture”’, Communication and the Public, 5(3–4), pp. 88–92. Available at: <DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called “cancel culture” - Meredith D. Clark, 2020 (sagepub.com)>
2. Palmer, K.E. (2020) # Kancelkulture: An Analysis of Cancel Culture and Social Media Activism Through the Lens of Minority College Students. Available at: <#Kancelkulture: An Analysis of Cancel Culture and Social Media Activism Through the Lens of Minority College Students (wooster.edu)>
3. D'amour, A., n.d. Cancel Culture: The Good, The Bad, & Its Impact on Social Change. [online] On Our Moon. Available at: <https://onourmoon.com/cancel-culture-the-good-the-bad-its-impact-on-social-change/>
4. Vox. 2021. Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture. [online] Available at: <https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate >
5. Kornhaber, S., 2021. It’s Not Callout Culture. It’s Accountability. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/06/callout-culture-black-lives-matter-adidas-bon-appetit-lea-michele/613054/>
6. Penn Today. 2021. Free speech advocate discusses the growing talk of ‘cancel culture’ | Penn Today. [online] Available at: <https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/free-speech-advocate-discusses-growing-talk-cancel-culture >
7. 2019. Should We Cancel Celebrities for Their Crimes? | Middle Ground. [video] Available at: <https://youtu.be/V5ePvuDm5Is>
8. 2020. The Problem with Cancel Culture | Ayishat Akanbi. [video] Available at: <https://youtu.be/N3ZjTg1OpIE>