The emergence of cancel culture came about as a form of social vigilance. The extrication of audiences to gain a platform and “call out” those in the spotlight once served as a social remedy to hold many in power accountable for their mistreatment and exploitation of those without that same authority.
It is a form of ostracization and social exile–already a problematic way to achieve justice.
However, over the years, cancel culture has become individually subjective and has become a breeding ground for intolerance.
Its success in bringing down many known celebrities has become its Achilles’ Heel, and a frequent vehicle to undermine almost any success story for reasons that simply don’t have the same weight as their predecessors.
With the trajectory that cancel culture has taken, can we honestly say that we’ve created an atmosphere of accountability? Is canceling actually effective in making the world more just, or has it become a vehicle for aggression and intolerance?
When we operate from the individual stance that we are always righteous, we blind ourselves to our own bullying and intolerance. When we attack issues on the offense with limited understand that lacks any consistent code or spectrum, by mobbing and disqualifying figures without room to collectively reason, rehabilitate and understand, we unnecessarily target and demean figures one the basis of standards that are impossible.
Human beings are continually growing, changing, and understanding. We are in a constant state of evolution. Celebrities and prominent figures aren’t anymore guilty than their cancelers are…they simply stand the biggest risk for humiliation and have the most to lose.
We’re living in a strange era where anyone with a platform who says/does anything remotely uninformed can be subjected to the same relentless public shaming as someone who has committed serious atrocities. If we put anyone under a magnifying glass for long enough, we can inevitably find something we don’t like or agree with. So when does canceling actually make a difference?
In March of this year, social media tried to cancel Taylor Swift…again, for being “problematic”. Hot take: We’re all problematic.
We all continually look for that perfectly idealistic and altruistic role model…and we all continually come up empty-handed. As said beautifully in Harry Potter And The Order of The Pheonix…”The world isn’t split in two: good and bad. We’ve all got both dark and light. What matters is the side you choose to act on”.
Then again, because of J.K. Rowlings derogatory views, are we even socially allowed to support the books and movies we grew up with? Such is the way of cancel culture.
What is it about someone else’s rise to fame and success that makes us so prone to judgement?
Social media is helpful for marketing and exchanging ideas, but it has also created an increase in bullying, harassment, and if you’re a celebrity, you are undoubtedly one wrong move away from the public executions of your career.
When Canceling Is No Longer About Legality or Bigotry
Disclaimer: There undoubtedly are serious crimes and offenses that need to be taken seriously such as those of Harvey Weinstein, Shane Gillis, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, or R. Kelly, etc–examples of people rightfully called out, and held legally responsible for cases of assault and derogatory comments about racial and LGBTQ+ minorities.
However, with certain popular names–such as the cases with Scarlett Johannsson, Taylor Swift, Adam Levine, and Doja Cat (who represent the flawed character and humanness that we all exhibit)–our quickness to invalidate and cancel their careers doesn’t quite measure up to the cases we witnessed at the onset of cancel culture. Rather, it speaks to our obsession, hyper-fixation, and entitlement to the things that those who live in the spotlight do and say.
Our fundamental fear of erring doesn’t exempt us from erring. It’s not that those who cancel others lack the record to be called out themselves…they simply lack the limelight.
False Equivalences That Highlight a Double Standard
We can’t approach the shortcomings of Taylor Swift the same way we did with cases like Harvey Weinstein, Armie Hammer or Woody Allen. These are false equivalences that highlight how a person can receive the same backlash for saying the wrong thing as a someone who has caused physical and psychological harm to someone.
In 2021, Adam Levine was canceled for his reaction to being accosted by a fan on stage. During a performance in which the star sang with his eyes closed, a fan rushed onstage to grab him. The star exhibited visual signs of shock and disgust, eliciting outrage from viewers. This instance of cancellation was a turning point for the conversation about consent and cancel culture.
A man was accosted by a woman. Yet, unlike previous instances of assault that have been spotlighted in the media where the roles were reversed, fans were quick to condemn Levine for a perceived “lack of gratitude” toward his fans in spite of the clear violation.
While many jumped to his defense, highlighting the double standard that men who are accosted face when they have their boundaries violated by women, others moved to cancel him outright–perceiving him as arrogant.
In this way, the rules of cancel culture don’t quite work. On the one hand, cancel culture can incentivize consumers to economically boycott big names that have a record of clear human rights and boundary violations…but on the other hand, canceling can also stem from a feeling of entitlement to the extent that real people no longer have the agency to establish boundaries and are forced to choose between appealing to fans at the expense of their own safety or otherwise letting their careers publicly burn at the stake.
Similarly, shortly after Doja Cat’s rise to fame, she was canceled for her activity in chatrooms that had some questionable users. Although she apologized for her involvement during her teen years and the skepticism was understandable, whether or not the talk of cancellation was an acceptable response still remains to be seen. The evidence that fans brought to the internet about the singer’s teenage years and early music was not quite groundbreaking. Doja Cat remains one of the most listened to artists today.
Celebrities You’d Think Would’ve Been Cancelled But Who Remain Powerful As Ever
Neither Doja Cat nor Levine committed any kind of actionable or harmful offense and yet have received marginal backlash from fans that has put their entire careers in the hotseat at times.
All the while (ironically, but unsurprisingly), others who have been and unapologetically remain embroiled in some of the worst allegations and legal affairs remain uncanceled, receiving enough relentless support to rev up their political campaign–making our cancellation priorities seem a little bit questionable. This continual slap on the wrist is only thickening the plot of their plight in the public eye.
When celebrity Kanye West began making internally racist statements about slavery and running for president, fans were quick to shame him deservingly. When he made threats against Pete Davidson and harassed Kim Kardashian, fans were immediately put-off. Even though Refinery 29 was the only article to ask the question of whether or not he should be canceled, he too remains uncanceled and wildly successful. He also has garnered compassion for his battles with Bipolar. What set Kanye apart that helped fans see his humanity rather than his flaws?
Similarly, Kim Kardashian was widely criticized for telling women to “get up and work” in a viral interview with Variety. People were outraged due to her family’s obvious history of privilege, exploitation and nepotism. Many of her previous employees and interns reported being blatantly exploited and mistreated while many influencers spoke out about her businesses appropriating POC designers. Though the Kardashians have repeatedly been cited for cultural appropriation and exploitation, all (including Kim) have yet to be canceled.
However, of all things, she is curiously facing backlash for her split with Pete Davidson… What about Kim Kardashian sets her apart from those that have been canceled before her?
It is almost as if cancel culture only seems to be serious until money, wealth, prestige, trends and online popularity get factored in, then the culture collapses and the shortcomings that are normally condemned as unacceptable become minor slaps on the wrist, and the moment is allowed to pass.
Lack of Conversation Can Cancel Innocent People
…Driving them to the brink of self-harm, blacklisting, and poverty–Even when they’re standing up for the very values that Cancel Culture rhetoric is trying to uphold
Adam Smith, once a CFO, attempted to stand up for LGBTQ rights by yelling at a Chick Filet worker in a drive-through. He described feeling righteous in his attempt to cancel Chick Filet for fueling hate group rhetoric…
Ironically, his video of verbally harassing a Chick Filet worker in the name of LGBTQ+ rights soon went viral and he too was canceled. The following day his company received death threats. For the years that followed, he was unable to find work, he had plummeted his family into poverty, and was questioning his own life. His experience was life-changing. In a CBS documentary, he describes feeling the deepest empathy for those who are canceled even in spite of what they’ve done.
Likewise, Bret Weinstein (not in any way related to Harvey Weinstein) is a biologist and former professor who was canceled on the basis of finding the school’s equity policies to be problematic and counter-intuitive to the student culture.
Although he was attempting to advocate for POC visibility and call out Evergreen for policies that he didn’t feel were economically or socially sustainable, he became the target of canceling by the same students he was trying to advocate for.
He sent a faculty email suggesting that the school’s equity plan was a form of segregation. Despite him actually helping to craft the equity plan, ironically, his attempt to better understand how to best meet the needs students and faculty was turned on its head. The students, moved to publicly defame him as a “racist” without a lack of context or an attempt to facilitate a conversation. They proceeded to address the questionable policies of the school by scapegoating Weinstein as a white supremacist.
When Bret Weinstein took an interview with known hyper-conservative conspiracy channel, FOX News, this exacerbated the conflict and Bret was quickly deemed a white supremacist.
The claim in question was as followed: “One’s right to be–must never be based on skin color.” Weinstein was addressing the school’s move to reverse the Day of Silence. Initially students of color could dismiss themselves to emphasize the politics of race in America. Evergreen moved to reverse it by dismissing white students and not allowing them on campus– a questionable stance for some as it undermined the role of allyship and skin politics in conversations about racial identity. This was Bret’s concern and it became the impetus of the allegations that he was a racist.
Even though Bret attempted to explain this to the student body and called for a discussion with the student body to better come to an understanding on the quote in question, the students denounced him, even going as far as to accuse him of being a member of a hate group. The students proceeded to follow and harass him on his way home.
When Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem, the country was in outrage. Even though many progressives stood by him and he eventually got a Netflix deal to make an autobiographical show about racial injustice, the athlete has continued to face criticism and mute. To this day, though he remains a prominent activist figure, the athlete has been blacklisted and his career has suffered exponentially due to the backlash that he faced from simply kneeling during an anthem.
Though Kaepernick was canceled by conservative Americans, his support from progressives has not been enough to fully re-instate his athletic career. This is a pivotal example of how easily those in the limelight can be fully delegitimized, devalued, ostracized and struggle to retain their career– even when their actions were fully justified.
Although Trevor Noah has been a known advocate for human rights, progressive conversations and disruptive political discussions, he still receives backlash with regard to his racial commentary that has been deemed too taboo.
In an interview with BBC, Noah turned the argument of cancel culture on its head. To be Black is an extremely nuanced and complex experience and not all Black identities are the same. Trevor attempts to shine a light on this by playing on taboos and juxtaposing the African community with the African American community–while also deprecating his own narrative as a Black African man having grown up during the South African apartheid before he immigrated to America.
Despite it being disruptive stand-up, and in spite of Noah’s frequent progressive commentaries to combat racism and xenophobia, critics have repeatedly attempted to cancel him.
Noah, nevertheless, defended these commentaries as what it means to be a POC and to be Black have many different sides, experiences, and ethnic histories and one POC experience cannot assume responsibility for every POC experience. Knowing the nuance, the variety and diversity of these topics and keeping comedy in context is how Noah facilitates these complicated discussions.
In this sense, even those who are attempting to advocate for the same values that cancel culture is trying to uphold can just as easily be canceled, dehumanized, blacklisted, and driven to the point of self harm.
Cyberbullying and Harassment Disguised as “Wokeness”
Much of canceling, as we saw with Bret Weinstein at Evergreen, doesn’t facilitate a conversation and a bridge. Issues are often reduced, assumptions are made, and the person in question loses their right to rebut or clarify. Unlike in court, a canceled person has no defense.
Cyberbullying is quite a common issue with social media. Anyone with a platform must grapple with the criticisms, judgements, and harassment of anyone that views them even at times where the person in question hasn’t stepped on any toes or said anything that warrants skepticism. The anonymity of apps make stalking, harassment, and bullying a pervasive par for the course that should’ve never been normalized.
Rebecca Black was among the first pop culture stars to really be canceled…and not because she did anything wrong, but rather she simply made a song that people overwhelmingly didn’t like. Viewers were not so much offended as they were amused.
The internet banished the singer for years and moved to abuse her on social media for over a decade. Moreover, she was among the youngest to be blacklisted at the age of 13.
6 years after Friday, Rebecca was still being told at 19 by producers that they simply would never work with her. Although Rebecca Black has said that she has “reclaimed” her growth, it took nearly a decade for the star to re-emerge due to the ruthless backlash and cyberbullying she faced.
What is notable about Black’s story is that she wasn’t wrong for posting an embarrassing song. She wasn’t causing harm or upsetting anyone. She wasn’t exploiting or verbally abusing anyone. There were no allegations, no questionable choices and statements. She was just a child wanting to make music and be taken seriously.
Even if her music wasn’t well received, the ridicule and hatred she faced had sullied her career chances for years. Ethically, anyone could sympathize with the star, and yet the industry’s refusal to work with her after almost a decade shows the superficiality and selectiveness of cancel culture, exposing more of its underbelly.
Cancel culture is a form of a boycott, but being a boycott does not make it ethical or deserved. Many in the industry have done far worse with mal intent, and yet their fashion lines, music, and reality TV shows are still supported which begs the question of whether or not cancel culture is even about a code of ethics anymore or is it simply a dog whistle to cyber bullies, a form of posturing and adhering to trends (even “woke” trends).
When Chef Pii hit the tiktok scene with her Pink Sauce and users began buying it, it was made clear shortly thereafter that her product was flawed. According to tiktokers, nutrition facts weren’t accurate, the ingredients were questionable, the color seemed unnatural and the product was arriving damaged or melted.
These were flaws that needed to quickly be (and could be) remedied. Nevertheless, users wasted no time in defaming the small business chef while also attempting to be woke by prefacing their harsh video responses with the disclaimer that “we should support small businesses but…” before blasting the chef and anyone who dared to try her creation.
While some points were valid, such as why people were eager to try a mysterious sauce but reluctant to get vaccinated, the rest of the conversation quickly disintegrated into hateful rhetoric targeted toward the Tiktoker and her product.
Many businesses encounter issues when they’re starting out, but the internet was relentless and unforgiving in spite of this known fact. Tiktokers harnessed the opportunity to slander the product and Chef Pii altogether.
Although Chef Pii continues to promote her product and partner with food chains, she still faces degradation online.
Suffice it to say that when people are protected by anonymity and when they feel righteous in their cause, they waste no time in participating in cyberbullying and online hate rhetoric.
Bullying is easy to “let slide” when you honestly believe that you’re the good guy and that the same can’t happen to you.
Canceling has, in recent years, resulted in threats and slander. It is a vehicle to hate on anyone who tries to achieve anything. Rarely do we actually question the reasons behind canceling, and yet we’re quick to send people into indefinite hiding as a punishment for being flawed while trying to start their careers.
Neither of these stars deserved to be bullied, but they were allowed to be–and we should all take note of this.
Just because we make mistakes or do things that others do not like, that does not mean that we have simply failed at life. That does not mean that our lives are invalid, or that we should face ruthless criticism and go into hiding.
Activism That is Displayed out of Fear of Being Cancelled is Dangerous
Many of history’s most unforgettable atrocities were encouraged by our simple fear of going against the zeitgeist. Whether this fear resulted in people becoming bystanders to the torture and dehumanization, staying silent about it, or participating it, fear of being expunged in society is a powerful force that no one should underestimate. Psychology and sociology teach us that humans are tribal and since our cave days, our in-group/out-group way of engaging with community has played a huge role in our survival.
Simply put, no one ever wants to be in the “out-group” (isolated from the group). In 2022, this means more than just isolation, it means being disqualified from the social fabric, it means having your life exposed, it means being subjected to hate comments, death threats, bullying, intimidation, and it means potentially being associated with habit or label that is inaccurate. It could mean the inability to support yourself or your family, losing your career, and having to hide from the world.
As we saw with Brett Weinstein and Adam Smith, a small disagreement can cost you everything. A misunderstanding can earn you the title card of racist or supremacist. It can make others surround you and ridicule you in every way. As we saw with Rebecca Black and Adam Levine, if someone doesn’t like or agree with you, it can send you into isolation indefinitely.
Fear and intimidation are powerful engines for compliance. If our social activism is rooted in our inherent fear of being canceled, is it really even activism and is it really progressive?
In a conference in 2019 Ayeshat Akanbi warns us of the dangers of becoming the very thing we hate and shines a light on the value of not equating talent with character.
Do Social Shunning and Shame Really Incentivize Accountability? Not Really.
The idea that we can address any and all offenses by posting negative comments on social media or unfollowing someone–for example– and expect them to magically evolve to be a better person does not incentivize genuine nor sincere growth. It’s actually quite superficial while encouraging the cancelers to believe that harassment is how to address the worlds most pressing isms. Moreover, most times, it doesn’t actually work.
Many are harassed, publicly condemned and shamed, but ultimately resume their careers… if they want to, that is. If not, it is likely that the emotional weight was too severe, they’ve been fully blacklisted and are unable to work, or the crime was worthy of legal action.
Celebrities, professors, youtubers, tiktokers (and anyone “on the come up“)–at the end of the day– are people. They have boundaries, they have complexities, they have flaws and areas in which they need to grow.
Some of them, such as the case with Colin Kaepernick, Bret Weinstein, Taylor Swift, Adam Levine, Adam Smith, and more, have suffered as a result of cancel culture even when they themselves were advocating for the alleged progressive values that served as an impetus during the popularization of cancel culture.
Even if we make mistakes as we saw with Chef Pii and her Pink Sauce, sometimes it takes a few errors to get your platform off the ground and that shouldn’t warrant the immense hate, ostracization, and blacklisting that one might receive when their shortcomings are highlighted.
This hate doesn’t make anyone better, it makes people afraid to be seen and it can costs individuals their mental health, their livelihoods, and even their entire careers. This, we know. Yet the internet continues to encourage it through our social media habits.
This is also what makes internet culture more ominous than constructive.
While there are cases of illegality and severity that need to be brought to the forefront, where do we draw the line between actionable and purely personal?
Johannsson’s questionable movie decisions could never hold a candle to Woody Allen’s scandals. Doja’s teenage chatroom and early music history could never hold the same weight as Shane Gillis’s homophobic stand up… and are we really moving into the social era of condemning small business owners for their missteps, and smiting the careers of anyone who doesn’t walk in lock-step with our personal views (such as the case with Levine, Swift and many others)?
People mature and develop at different rates and so the motivation to search a person’s past to stunt their success or entitle ourselves to what they do is arguably questionable, obsessive, seemingly selective (from person to person) and something that should be culturally reevaluated, ultimately.
Anyone who does not have the spotlight must remember that those who are are not invincible, that they too deserve the same privacy and humaneness. Many with a platform do face mental health challenges that can worsen when they are subjected to the harshness of the internet.
Cancel culture among teens has resulted in a depression epidemic. Psychologically, few people can actually cope with having every minor statement held up in the same esteem as an illegality. As we move toward a more inclusive world, we need to reckon with whether or not it’s necessary to sacrifice tolerance and humility for the sake of “wokeness”.
Barak Obama warned us of this as the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
There is no one person who does not err and while we can attempt to reinforce a culture of inclusion, it’s possible that we need to pacify our aggressive online behavior (or online culture altogether) to really adopt a wholesome approach that shifts us in a progressive direction rather than a mob-like echochamber. By creating a society that condemns others through online activity with no rehabilitation, that magnifies flaws and creates false equivalences, that harasses, bullies, and verbally abuses for any sort of trespass, amusement and shortcoming, how are we interpersonally creating more awareness, tolerance, and progress in this day and age?
How are we encouraging others to exercise self awareness and grow in ways that are not just posturing? By focusing so heavily and publicly on others and publicly stoning the careers of anyone problematic (which is everyone-let’s face it), how are we exercising self-awareness in our own lives at the grass roots level?
The Ancient Greeks had a sort of cancel culture but it worked differently. It was an organized “exile culture” whereby the community would vote on whether or not a member of the community should be exiled for 10 years. After they served their sentence, they were welcomed back with open arms into the community and allowed to resume their normal lives. They were given a chance to reflect and be re-introduced. It was alleged by Aristotle that this was to prevent tyranny.
In 2022, we all must live with the crushing weight of online permanence and culture. There is no end date and no organization. At the cusp of cancel culture is the false ideology that people cannot change and if something they said–even decades ago–resurfaces, then they don’t deserve to have the room to change. Cancel culture revels in permanence in a way that is suffocating. Even when you think you’re doing something right, you could wind up in the same place as those you too tried to cancel.
In reality, no one is ever 100% right, whether we’re talking about politics, entertainment, or ourselves.
As we shift our focus away from holding others accountable and facilitating a culture that strives to rehabilitate others through unlearning the many harmful messages that we’ve been spoon-fed since we were children, and as we obsess over looking for the shortcomings of others, we make a less emotionally safe environment for future generations that doesn’t really uphold social awareness, nor self awareness. We create more culture wars.
Facilitating More Culture Wars Through Virtue Signaling and Stifling Social Progress
The worst thing about cancel culture is that it is stifling to progress. By creating an atmosphere in which people are afraid to fail, afraid to be flawed, afraid to say the wrong thing, and ultimately, afraid to be wrong, we’re arresting our social development. The first step to being learning and evolving is acceptance of what we don’t know and a recognition of our own implicit bias.
When cancel culture attempts to bring about social change, it not only creates a breeding ground for intolerance, but it facilitates virtue signaling. Now more than ever, people want to be seen having the right opinion, screaming into the ether, while doing no internal work to change their own biases. We’re deeply afraid of confronting our own problematic behaviors so we deflect.
How we identify racially, culturally, and sexually are continually being unpacked. Every season we are exploring these narratives with new and exciting terminology to make the world more inclusive. When we put the focus on condemning others who haven’t updated their mental software to keep up with the zeitgeist rather than focus on education and rehabilitation, we effectively fail to facilitate real conversations and real legislative change because our dialogues become performative culture wars in which no side can be heard or properly understood.
Perhaps, facilitating inclusion and compassion lies in turning the focus back onto humility and rethinking the intention behind our aggressive need to “find the flaw”.
Accountability is defined by merriam webster dictionary as “the quality or state of being accountable especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”.
Condemnation, dehumanization and public harassment are not responsible ways to incentivize accountability nor growth, understanding, and tolerance. If we culturally shift our perspectives away from holding others under a microscope and address issues of racism, sexism, boundary violations, and gender exclusion at the root, perhaps we can not only avoid frustration with those in the spotlight, but also with ourselves and have greater mileage in making change that is substantive.
Imagine what life would be if accountability wasn’t unfollowing or public shaming, but it was instead, changing our political institutions, making room for others to be heard, making the entertainment industry safer for minorities, and a collective approach to public cases through the lens of education and social progress.
At some point, we’re going to have to revisit the impetus behind canceling. Are we wanting to traumatize individuals, hold them to unrealistic standards of infallibility or do we seek to genuinely evolve and rehabilitate? Society can hold people accountable but how can we do so in a constructive, ethical, and effective way that puts just as much pressure to do better people on the cancelers as it does the canceled?