On Cancel Culture

27 May 2021

Cancel culture is defined as the "popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive." 

Like free speech, this concept has evolved to mean very different things to different people.

Cancel culture developed with the aim to attain some form of meaningful accountability for public figures who are typically answerable to no one however, many have developed the view that it is a form of harassment intended to silence anyone who sets a foot out of line under the nebulous tenets of 'woke' politics.

There are a spectrum of cancellable offenses. On the more extreme side of things, there are high-profile sexual offenders such as Harvey Weinstein who, let's face it, deserved to be cancelled (if you even want to call it that). But then there are regular people who become viral and are cancelled for something as simple as following the wrong people.

That last example is an interesting one - and one I've seen grow in popularity with the rise of modern social media. While I might argue that one should be mindful about who they choose to follow (for different reasons), it's not practical to vet every single account in an attempt to offset ‘future cancellation’. 

And because it needs to be said: in the vast majority of cases, following, interacting with, or consuming the media of someone who has been cancelled or deemed problematic does not mean you are encouraging or responsible for the cancellable offense. In some cases, this mentality causes a 'chain' of cancellation which cancels the original artist and everyone who continues to consume the media of the artist.

An example comes to mind of sharing the title of a film I watched and liked some years ago. A response I’ve received multiple times - from multiple different people is: Don’t you know? That director has been cancelled.

If we separate the art from the artist, then it also means that the art cannot justify the actions of the person. Keeping this in mind, we can continue to consume cancelled artist’s content but should not blindly defend the artist as a person, especially using their art as defense. Some may argue that continuing to consume content directly supports these people, such as the case with YouTube and Spotify's creator monetization system. The decision to stop participating in this should be at the behest of the individual.

The one-way communication nature of sites like Twitter encourage this type of behavior. High-profile accounts can receive tens of thousands of replies in the span of minutes, and if something rubs a subset of people the wrong way, it can quickly turn into dogpiling and a mob mentality.

Is Cancel Culture effective at holding public figures accountable?

Accountability is defined as ‘an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions’. With the controversy of cancel culture, public figures are more likely to be confronted by the media (interviewers, journalists, etc.) about their actions, and forced to either take responsibility (usually by apologizing) or deny the accusations. 

What is accepting responsibility, though? Some argue that public figures’ apologies are motivated foremost by the desire to win back their fanbase and clear their name. Others argue that even genuine apologies are not enough - depending on the crime.

Kevin Spacey is an interesting example. He is an actor and has been accused by 13 different men of sexual harassment and abuse (when they were minors). At the time that the accusations were brought to light, Netflix cut the actor from his starring role in the series House of Cards in response.

This year, it was announced that Kevin Spacey is returning to film. He will be playing the role of a police officer investigating the case of an artist who is wrongly accused of sexually abusing children

This begs the question of how to handle cancelled celebrities. Since there are no written rules or guidelines for cancel culture, it’s a gray area. Some businesses may choose to blacklist the celebrity in question, such as what was attempted (and reversed) with R. Kelly on Spotify. But even in cases where it sticks, the accused artist can always find alternate platforms to share and sell their content.

On the one hand, cancel culture spotlights important issues, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and transphobia and brings these issues to the mainstream media. It spreads awareness that these things are going on. Surely this must be better than not reporting on it at all? On the other hand, the concept has been twisted and distorted as “an omniscient and dangerous specter: a woke, online mob that’s ready to rise up and attack anyone at the merest sign of dissent."

Effects of Cancel Culture on a Smaller Scale

There are many cases where cancel culture impacts regular people, such as in smaller communities and among groups of friends. It has also given rise to the prevalence of what’s known as virtue signaling, which is a “pejorative neologism for the expression of a disingenuous moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating good character.”

As time goes on and lines continue to blur, cancel culture has developed into an expectation for people (celebrities & individuals alike) to take a stance or make a statement on absolutely everything all the time. For obvious reasons, this is not realistic or productive. In fact, it's harmful to force people into taking stances quickly on a particular topic because it emphasizes speed and quantity over quality of understanding.

Developing an understanding of an issue and each of its viewpoints takes time and effort. Many (but not all) who express harmful or offensive stances are parroting what they have been told by figures and institutions in their lives, and so they believe it to be true.

Likewise, many who lash out at others on a smaller scale about their problematic stances aren't doing so from the perspective of wanting to genuinely educate about why a sentiment is wrong - or they do, but in a hostile and antagonistic way.

Cancel culture places an emphasis on having the correct opinion, or rather, one that does not trigger an angry mob of dissenters. Because of this impact, many regular people may hold back on expressing their thoughts and viewpoints out of fear of saying something wrong.

It’s not necessary to be correct all the time. However, it is necessary to accept when you may not have the correct information and to learn and accept new information.