Many social media trends come and go. One that has stuck around, however, is ‘cancel culture’. Cancel culture means a lot of things to different people. Most simply, ‘cancelling’ is when you stop engaging with a person or company for their — perceived or actual — harmful views and opinions. The term has gained greater recognition during lockdown, but the act of cancelling has been present for years.

A quick timeline of ‘cancelling’

Taylor Swift experienced cancel culture as far back as 2016 when feuding with Kanye West. The hashtag ‘Taylor Swift Party Is Over’ reached #1 on Twitter. Then in 2018, Kanye West faced backlash for his support of Donald Trump and the shocking suggestion that slavery was a choice. In 2020, J.K. Rowling experienced first-hand how quickly one can go from being admired to being an object of contempt for her allegedly derogatory stance towards transgender people. 

Getting justice

Everybody can seem more accepting on the surface. But beneath the smiles and silence, there is judgement and discrimination towards already marginalised groups — such as the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and the disabled community.

Cancel culture has helped to hold people who have demonstrated prejudice to account. It has equally prevented the spread of misinformation when it comes to sensitive topics, such as racism and sexism.

Pavel Paulinich has been one activist who made this his focus during the first lockdown. Paulinich started an Instagram account called ‘Karens Gone Wild’; a space, according to him, for people to share their experiences of prejudiced behaviour and to name and shame culprits. One example has been of the infamous Amy Cooper. A woman who called the police after a black man politely asked her to put her dog on a lead so he could continue his birdwatching in peace. Ms Cooper was heard saying: ‘I’m going to tell them [the police] there’s an African American man threatening my life!’ The story went viral, bringing attention to America’s ongoing struggle with racial prejudice and resulting in Amy Cooper’s arrest for filing a false report.

Despite the clear benefits of cancel culture, there are mounting drawbacks. If we continue to ‘cancel’ anything and everything because a wrong has been perceived, how will we build a stronger society? Dismissing people without an opportunity to respond or mend their ways doesn’t resolve issues; it merely suppresses them.   Simply saying ‘we’re done’ stunts the chance to grow and learn. 

‘Call Out’ culture instead?

We could instead consider opting for ‘call out’ culture. Jameela Jamil, known for her uncompromising views on harmful celebrity behaviour, advocates bringing ‘fallen’ celebrities to attention whilst giving them the chance to make amends. Jameela has been calling out big names, including Kim Kardashian for promoting unrealistic beauty standards and Russell Brand for his sexist comments and behaviour. In the case of Russell Brand, Jameela’s method seems to have worked. In 2019 she joined him on his podcast, Under the Skin, for a talk. The collaboration confused her followers because of her previous stance against him, but Jameela pointed out:

‘If we cancel people forever, we devalue progress when they have demonstrated immense change and remorse. Too many people are ignorant and problematic for us to have the luxury of writing them ALL off’. 

‘Call out’ culture perhaps gives us the best of both worlds. It creates a more honest and open society that says, ‘that’s not great, own up and do better’ — rather than writing people off for good. Some may dismiss this as another excuse for people to avoid responsibility for their actions, and that would be a fair criticism. But it’s also human nature to make mistakes, just as much as it is human nature to point out others’ mistakes and expect them to do better. We need to compromise and create opportunities for change.

‘Call out’ culture or ‘cancel’ culture, the important thing is making sure wrongful actions are spotlighted and the same mistakes prevented from being repeated.

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