Cancel Culture is a relatively new catch phrase we have been hearing a lot lately as its usage has become common place. Although I was familiar with the term as a moderate user of social media, I ignored it as another fleeting infatuation rooted within social media. But it caught my attention especially in the past six to nine months when it came to the forefront during the Pandemic and the #BLM movement. Cancel culture has taken a strong foothold in our society at large, not just in America, but globally and has now become a universal phenomenon pervading social media and gripping us all in its clutches. In the last few days, we saw Twitter suspend President Trump’s account indefinitely and social media fired up with people shouting out their opinions with utmost passion. Some finding it an extreme move stating that it is a suppression of one’s freedom of speech, while our former first lady, Michelle Obama vehemently pushing for a permanent ban on Trump’s Twitter account. So, who is right in this situation? Is there a right or wrong? There is no straight forward answer for this debate, and it is precisely the reason why this issue is so complex and controversial. The intent of this blog is to share my insights and views, not to offend anyone. It is just another perspective on an extremely muddy and emotional topic.
To familiarize you with the term, Dictionary.com refers to Cancel Culture as a practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel Culture is generally performed on social media in the form of group shaming. Christopher Brito in the CBS news segment states that cancel culture initially triggered as a pop culture on Twitter around 2014 when someone tweeted his girlfriend “you’re canceled”. This one word took on a life of its own and became a way for Twitter users to show disapproval for a person’s words or actions as a joke or lightheartedness. And very soon it morphed into a mainstream culture. The essence of cancel culture is essentially twofold, withdrawing support and silencing someone. However, the critics oppose it completely, especially the journalist as they see this as a deterrent to their freedom of speech. In fact, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate aka Harper’s letter was published in the Harper’s Magazine in July 2020 and signed by 153 signatories and they supported their stance by providing the explanation and warning that “the free exchange of information and ideas was being compromised by an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issue in a blinding moral certainty” – Washington Post article by Sahrah Eliison and Elahe Izadi.
In most part, there are two major categories to cancel culture that should be taken into consideration. Canceling someone for their heinous acts that break the universal moral code and harms others, is justified and statutory. For instance, the long parade of influential men such as Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and many more accused of sexual offenses after the #MeTooMovement, got exactly what they deserved, some were convicted for their crimes while others ostracized and cancelled from society for their morally repugnant acts. And then there is the second category with a set of behaviors though socially offensive and morally questionable, fall under the gray area where one cannot draw a clear line of demarcation to be declared as universally cancel culture behaviors. In these circumstances, the acts or statements of the person accused become a matter of public opinion and usually influenced by ideologies, and pre-programmed political, religious, racial and gender views and biases.
Certainly, cancel culture is a new phenomenon but variations of it such as boycotting and other similar practices for punishing people, companies and institutions for their poor behaviors have existed for centuries. These are age old tactics, each practice may use a different action to penalize the perpetrator, but the goal is the same – reduce harm and bring social change. During the American Revolution in 1760s the colonies boycotted the use of British goods to make a statement when British started imposing taxes on the colonies. In 1930, Gandhi staged a march to defy the salt tax being imposed by the British and instigated Indians to harvest the salt themselves. And in the not so recent past, Salman Rushdie’s book ‘The Satanic Verses’ published in 1988 received contempt from Muslims across the world for the disdainful depiction of Mohammad that was perceived as a blasphemy against Islam. The book was banned and burned in many countries and Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie. And couple of decades later around 2009, the infamous debacle of Tiger Woods unfolded in the public eye. Tiger up until then was not only a golf legend but darling of the media and public. He had the largest sports endorsements in the history of athletics but after his admittance of his transgressions, Tiger mania ended precipitously and he got dropped by all the endorsers, his reputation tarnished, and all his adoring fans vanished into thin air. These are few examples from our past where different methods were used to cancel individuals or institutions, but the intent and end goal were the same. The major difference though in the case of cancel culture is that public shaming happens on social media and a mere tweet can destroy your life in seconds.
Another observation that I find interesting is the reactions from the Millennials and Gen Z on this phenomenon. Cancel culture is very much their baby, something that they architected but their position on this subject seems surprising at first. They are the generation that is supposed to be more fair, more accepting, more tolerant, more empathetic and less judgmental. In fact, Obama in his latest book ‘The Promised Land’, writes on how he remains hopeful about America’s future because he has learned to place his faith in the next generation, ‘whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature’. Yet, with the power of social media at their fingertips, the Millennials and Gen Z are very quick to call out people and write them off for a simple lapse of judgement. They take to social media and quickly cancel the person or institution in a heartbeat. Seems harsh, intolerant and tad mean? Perhaps at face value, but if we see beyond the facade, their actions make sense. They are a generation that wants to hold society to a higher standard, they recognize the equal worth of every human being and have no tolerance for any type of injustice or inequality. And it is exactly for this reason why they are vocal, standing true to their beliefs, holding individuals and society accountable for their actions. Idealistic perhaps, but a much-needed social awakening.
To some extent, I am in agreement with the cancel culture concept and admire the position the younger generation has adopted. Holding people responsible for their words and actions if used with caution can be effective especially when we are trying to be better than our previous generations, striving for equality and justice. For instance, most recently a White woman called the cops on a black man in Central Park who was bird watching and asked the woman to keep the dog on its leash. The situation escalated, the episode was captured on camera and story went viral. Because of the false accusations she made, the woman was fired from her job, ended up relinquishing her dog and labeled as racist by social media. Although we see the brunt of cancel culture being felt excessively by the celebrities and companies as their pitfalls and mistakes get pasted all over social media, the painful impacts of cancel culture are being experienced equally or more by the common folks. Celebrities with their power and money can eventually make a comeback but the repercussions suffered by civilians can be long term.
The cancel culture mentality can be attributed to what we call group think or crowd mentality. In the spirit of being right and exercising their right for freedom of speech and expression, people on social media jump on the band wagon, hastily dismiss the person for their wrongdoing without giving a second thought to the consequences or questioning if the retribution fits the crime. Instead of using this platform as a powerful weapon to bring change, people are misusing it and that has proven counterproductive. Sometimes innocuous remarks are taken out of context, moments of human weakness or lapse in judgement turned into a horror story and the person accused is left feeling like an ogre by the incessant trolling and name calling in social media.
At the end of the day, we are all mere mortals with weakness and shortcomings, celebrities included. We all make mistakes and not all actions or words have to be tried in the court of public opinion and if the self-appointed public court of virtue and morality finds you guilty, then they humiliate you and strip you of all dignity. Living in the western hemisphere, we often find practices of certain third world nation’s archaic and brutal, acts where women are punished for having sex before marriage or couples stoned in public for an extra marital affair. We find these acts shocking and abhorrent as it goes against our human rights beliefs and convictions. Why are we then not equally shocked by the toxic treatment of people in social media? Isn’t this going against the basic human rights of mutual respect? We all know words hurt so why then is verbal-lynching acceptable in our society? The answer is simple, it is not!! It is a choice the next generation needs to make, do they want to live in a society that is vitriolic and punitive or a more empathetic and kinder one that gives people the benefit of the doubt, room to make mistakes and learn from it. Cancel culture is here to stay, it may take on another new catch phrase, but the premise will live on. We just have to wait and see how the next version of cancel culture will evolve and how the next generation molds it to bring the change they so desire.