‘Cancel culture’ is the online shaming of a public figure for a choice they have made. Whether that be past or present – perhaps in a Tweet or interview slip-up — the platform given to the individual is destroyed in a matter of minutes.
‘De-thronings’ have become a bizarre feature of online culture with ‘so and so is over parties’ dominating our feeds. It seems that the most enticing subject of discussion is now controversy and who has been caught out. This has led to a cycle of meteoric rises followed by tragic falls.
Scandals have always been entertaining to dissect and debate. But this new sense of anticipation that accompanies ‘cancelling’ is a new obsession. In some ways, cancel culture reflects the republican nature of the internet — we determine who dominates our timelines. In this way, ‘cancelling’ was initially well–intentioned policing.
But has the democratic Internet become a little too prepared — keen even — to chastise figures? And, are we taking just a little too much pleasure in spectating careers destroyed and tearful apology videos?
James Charles knows a thing or two about being cancelled. For what feels like the dozenth time, he has been cancelled over a controversy concerning his participation in a Tik Tok ‘mug-shot’ challenge. Charles emulated a mug shot photo through make-up, creating a bruised and bloody nose effect before posting the photo on Instagram. Huge backlash followed, with many accusing him of glamourizing domestic abuse. For this case and many others, what comes after (endless online hate, revoked brand deals, destroyed relationships) are all very real consequences for the cancelled individual. But on closer inspection, is this virtual policing what it seems? Is it really working for the greater good by making examples out of public figures? Or, has what started as a collective effort to call out untouchable celebrities now become an operation to ostracise any individual who has made mistakes?
To answer this, we should consider where our desire to cancel comes from. One possibility is jealousy. We are so smug in watching them fall because they acquired success we can only dream of. There may be an element of this to it, but for the most part it seems that cancel culture is fear under a cloak of ‘wokeness’. In other words, we partake in cancel culture because we want to publicly distance ourselves from the actions of that individual. Purposefully signposting our disapproval of it, without actually educating ourselves on the issue first, is just easier. Even if we ourselves have not formed an informed opinion on the matter, jumping on the bandwagon is just easier. Even if this bandwagon is a viciously personal attack on someone who has publicly acknowledged and apologised for their actions — at least we have disassociated ourselves from them.
Being ‘woke’ means championing tolerance, but if this can’t be practised when people get it wrong, then the whole premise is undermined. Obama has voiced a distaste for this ‘call-out culture’. In a speech at the Obama Foundation Summit, he acknowledged the complexities of the world today.
‘The world is messy. There are ambiguities … I get a sense among certain young people — and this is accelerated by social media — the way of making change is to be as judgemental as possible and that’s enough … that’s not activism, that’s not bringing about change … that’s easy to do’.
In a nutshell, ‘cancel culture’ is too simplistic. There’s no attempt at understanding an individual’s decisions in a three-dimensional way. It doesn’t drive progress or promote open discourse around sticky topics, it’s just scaremongering.
Ultimately, we do need some degree of ‘cancelling’. Without it, celebrities are given free reign. But we need also to ensure our responses are proportionate and that the punishment fits the crime. It’s essential that the focus is shifted back to the matters at hand and not the cancellation itself. Instead of fixating on the personal effects on lives and careers, we should discuss the topic that has provoked offence or the issues that have been brought to light.
Instead of focusing our attention on an individual’s alleged misconduct, we get caught up in the drama of the after-effects. Losing sight of the original need to talk about important issues in a way that will allow for social change and progress is self-defeating.