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What is cancel culture?
According to Merriam Webster (n.d.,) cancel culture refers to depriving public figures of support in response to questionable actions or statements done or made by them. It is mostly a form of boycott in what professor Lisa Nakamura from the Department of American Cultures at the University of Michigan calls the ’attention economy’. Henderson (2019) brings out the literal meaning of the word ‘cancel’ to explain this noting the destruction of the individual’s reputation and socially exiling them the same way Netflix subscriptions and smartphone services can simply be cancelled.
While most definitions limit cancel culture to boycott of an individual, some definitions, like the one by dictionary.com (2020) goes on to include companies as well. However, all definitions have a common denominator and that is the involvement of social media and its ease of information sharing in effectively canceling.
In this write up, I’m only going to focus on the canceling of an individual and not a company. Boycotting companies is valid as their actions mostly involve the collective decision of many, and not an individual who is more likely to make an honest mistake on their own accord. Even though we can’t ignore unjustified boycott movements like the one against Tanishq for their inter-race marriage advertisement by radical mob, that would be a whole new topic on its own.
Depending on how ‘canceling’ is perceived, people have their own examples and roots for this phenomenon. Many sources go all the way back to citing historical events such as the late 1700s French Revolution and modern political movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement as cancel culture exhibits. However, cancel culture may be separated from political movements as the latter is a guaranteed democratic right in the modern world but the former is an extrajudicial punishment facilitated by social media platforms.
Consequently, cancel culture might seem advantageous in giving people a strong voice and fostering accountability. However, it is a slippery slope to intolerance and brings no real positive long-term change.
Does Cancel Culture Really Foster Accountability and Justice?
Most proponents of cancel culture argue in its favor on the lines of accountability. They believe that canceling people will help educate society and bring positive social change especially in times where the legal system fails to deliver justice (“Is Cancel Culture…”, 2020). However, accountability fostered through cancel culture is only delivered to those who have the ability of being canceled, i.e., only famous people can be held accountable through cancel culture as it revolves around the attention economy.
The examples of persons who have been ‘held accountable’ are endless. The #MeToo movement also resulted in the cancelation of people in power and influence like Bill Cosby over sexual assault and harassment (“Is Cancel Culture…”, 2020). The underlying factor that leads people to resort to cancel culture to hold others accountable is the failure of the legal system. Which means that if the same people committed the same crimes but were not holding the positions they did hold, perhaps the scenario would be very different—they would face no consequences for their actions. This is true especially in the case of movements like the MeToo movement as while sexual assault may explicitly be a criminal offense, it’s effective enforcement is doubted.
If people who are not famous or do not hold positions of influence or power commit these crimes, they will be able to get away with it and still roam free as the root problem is the justice system. This renders the impact of cancel culture’s accountability claim extremely narrow as not all perpetrators are punished and counseled for their actions.
Does The Fear Incited By Canceling and Moral Policing Succeed In Fighting The Opposition?
The constant policing and regulation done by cancel culture is said to make the community better as people will think twice and be fearful before saying or doing something that could potentially be offensive (Bertram, 2020). Although this claim at first might sound like an effective method to correct and prevent offensive behavior, it fails to do so. As Konstan (2003) claims that cancel culture is a reactionary force that denies “careful knowledge of appropriate blame” (as cited in Hooks, 2020, p.24), there is the psychological impact of shame being inflicted on the subject(s) being canceled. This fosters feelings of inferiority in those individuals which further paves way for the growth of arrogance. Arel (2016) goes on to add that this shame also induces pride and desire (as cited in Hooks, 2020, p.24).
Subsequently, it can be understood that not only does cancel culture fail to deal with the problem at hand, but also bears the risk of aggravating it. If the impulse, force, and aggression in canceling movements was replaced by positive reinforcement, healthy behavior, and more civil methodologies of bringing about social change then there would be actual improvement in contrast to what the current fear-inducing wrath of cancel culture does. The next paragraph further explains in detail the psychology of convincing.
It’s Not Just About The Message… But Also About The Delivery of The Message.
Among those who support cancel culture, some claim that it should be used as a last resort and not as an immediate response. They claim that the offenders should first be educated and corrected in a civil manner and only if that does not work out, resorting to canceling them is completely justified. However, by supporting this idea, there is also the acknowledgement that human beings should be given up on and our responsibility towards correcting a person is only to the extent of our own comfort.
This raises the question of the very ethics of why a person participates in correcting a person in the first place. If they eventually give up and already had a plan in place on ruining them henceforth, there is a clear ethical dilemma. Psychological study gives us further insight into this. According to which, a person cannot be impossible to change. While this does not deny the fact that the time, effort, and way people will accept change is subjective, that is not the focal point here. Most proponents of cancel culture resort to the wrong persuasive tactics when they try to convince an offender and their supporters that what they have done and/or said is offensive.
Their sole reliance on rage, reaction, plain facts, and lack of analysis, critical understanding and common ground causes the opposing party to not change at all. While it is understandable why an offended person would react angrily, they must also understand that it is not the best way to get their point across. This leads them to develop the misconception that the offender(s) are beyond change. Morgan (2019) quotes Robert Cialdini, author of ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasio’ saying “It’s not always about the argument, but about the delivery.”
Morgan (2019) further explains the difficulty in changing one’s mind, be it religion, politics, morals, core principals, mindsets etc. She notes how the reaction of the brain towards factors that challenge these beliefs triggers the emotional part of the brain—the amygdala—to a fighting response “as if we were encountering danger” making it even more challenging to change one’s beliefs beyond the already existing minimal difficulty a human faces in doing so. Researches conducted by many neuroscientists further back this claim, like the one by Paul Zak who has specialized in the study of oxytocin—the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of love, happiness, bonding, and trust. He says that when a person delivering a message uses persuasive techniques that stimulate oxytocin, it makes the receiver “more sensitive to social information.”
This leads us to the conclusion that people, whether right or wrong, are not insusceptible to change. Rather, those who resort to cancel culture even as a last resort simply lack effective resources and methodologies to convince their opposition of the message they are trying to get across coupled with a lack of requisite patience in the path of social change.
Additionally, we must also keep in mind how listeners with a preconceived narrative against us might be waiting for an opportunity for us to stumble. This can be best understood with the example of the #BLM movement. We know that the fight for the rights of black people globally has been going on for decades in mostly peaceful ways. However, when the community is pushed too far, it has resulted in violent reactions such as the aftermath of the George Floyd incident. I don’t believe that the reaction undermines the movement in any way. I fully understand why they reacted that way but evidently the media and opposition used their reaction to further the narrative of the movement being baseless and violent. To prevent our opposition from being able to spread their narrative, we must remain composed and sensible whenever we can.
Does Cancel Culture Give Voice To People and Encourage Discussion?
Another major supporting point used to defend cancel culture utilizes the freedom and ease of access to social media. By this, supporters state that all people irrespective of their backgrounds have a voice that is heard at least on the internet, if not in political forums yet (“Is Cancel Culture…”, 2020). While this statement cannot be contested, the way this free speech is utilized turns this supposed advantage into a disadvantage. Hooks (2020) claims that cancel culture has turned the statement ‘innocent until proven guilty’ into ‘guilty until proven innocent’.
Any accusation made by any party, with or without evidence, is assumed to be true. Cancel culture immediately triggers vocalization. There are many cases which prove the danger posed by such an attitude. Tietjen (2019) reports the incident between a 20-year-old beauty influencer, James Charles, and his mentor 37-year-old Tati Westbrook as “a mess of unconfirmed facts, hurt feelings.” This online canceling incident that began at the hands of Westbrook in May 2019 triggered widespread voice against Charles on grounds of sexual harassment among other things. The only evidence for these claims was the video posted by Westbrook where she merely talked about it. Soon after, there was adequate evidence that proved the claims of Westbrook false and revealed that Westbrook had personal motives behind the stunt and had nothing to do with the alleged crimes of Charles.
Moreover, cancel culture also places infinite power in the perspective and interpretation put forth by the offended party. Regardless of what the intention of the subject that offended a person or community could’ve been, without any insight into the context of the statement or action, the victims statement of “I’m offended and find this hurtful to me” is taken to be real and final (Hooks, 2020). There is oversimplification. The internet constantly magnifies. A water droplet into an ocean, if we consider this to be the internet, would take little to no time to turn into a tsunami.
This kind of pressure exerted by cancel culture negatively affects decision-making people, groups, and government bodies. The enraged call for quick action panics decision-makers resulting in “hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms” as the latter needs time and thought whereas cancel culture calls for immediate actions (“A Letter on…”, 2020). Having considered these cases, the infinite power placed in the hands of a canceler and their proponents accompanied with a rushed call-to-action has proven to be destructive and often misused for personal motives.
Is Cancel Culture Democratic and Liberal?
Cancel cultures’ leftist nature and democratic ideals are attractive to most youth these days who are enraged against tyrant governments and right-wing leaders. Ironically, cancel culture has evolved into a problem against the very democratic values it sought to protect. It is now seen as a force that threatens free speech, justice, and open debate—all of which are primarily democratic values and those that cancel culture is said to be built upon.
The slightest of inconveniences and disagreements cause editors, journalists, professors, researchers, and any person participating in the field of academia or producing any form of content for the public to be bullied, boycotted, fired, or even jailed (“A Letter on…”, 2020). However, the latter is more of a consequence from the political right-wing, while the former are the intolerances created by cancel culture proponents.
While that gives us a general overview on the issue being discussed here, there are countless number of cases that back this belief as well. In University of California, an Instagram post spotlighting a campus organization representing “a group for people of all ideological backgrounds” was immediately taken down after opposition from leftist students on claims over the organization suppressing marginalized groups. Phillip W. Magness is quoted to have written that “Students with non-left political beliefs routinely report feeling pressures to censor their own beliefs on campus. And far-left faculty now routinely launch political crusades against disliked funding sources, aiming to block or control their non-leftist colleagues from even accessing money that is necessary to conduct research, support programs, attract students, or hire new faculty to their departments.”
This shows that under the banner of cancel culture, the force behind it is so inclined towards protecting leftist ideals, they end up refusing even the voicing of any disagreements whatsoever. Thereby contradicting the basis of leftist ideals without realizing. College campuses that succumb to this “are cultivating a dystopian regime where intellectual conformity is mandated” (Yang, 2020). Moreover, we have already discussed earlier how cancel culture establishes the norm of “guilty until proven innocent”, which is yet another ideal that is a challenge to democratic sentiment. Coleman (2020) mentions how canceling can easily turn into “mob-like forms of vigilante justice.”
Despite this, it is important to consider the intentions of those who defend free speech. We must not forget the line between bigotry and democracy. The intentions of a person who wishes to defend free speech only when they seek to make discriminatory remarks and not in other less controversial cases is not a genuine representative of authentic democratic ideals. Keeping those exceptional cases aside, cancel culture remains a force against democratic principles which further damages the ability to effectively defend these principles as intellectual conformity and discouraged discussions stun debate and reasoning skills.
It is irrefutable that cancel culture gives voice to minority communities and might bring legal accountability in times where the legal system fails, or to induce fear of doing something potentially offensive to prevent it (“Is Cancel Culture…”, 2020; & Bertram, 2020). However, such accountability will only be delivered to the famous and powerful people while lesser known persons are free to commit crimes and remain legally innocent due to a broken justice system that people refuse to fix.
Moreover, fear-inducing change is no change at all, as Konstan (2003) and Arel (2016) have linked how fear, shame and guilt leads to arrogance, pride and desire (as cited in Hooks, 2020, p.24). Some proponents of cancel culture also fail to understand many other aspects of psychology. Their inability to change someone’s mind and lack of accountability for the same makes them claim that their opposition is a hopeless case. Clearly, the work of Morgan (2019) in the field of persuasion and mindsets disproves their claim.
Ironically, cancel culture, which rose in the name of democracy has now become a threat against democracy as its proponents have succumbed to intolerance, closed to debate and back the idea of intellectual conformity—intentionally or unintentionally (Hooks, 2020; Yang, 2020; Coleman, 2020; & “A letter on…”, 2020).
Online lurkers and so-called social activists who constantly remain in fight or flight mode have ruined the lives of many innocents by reacting narrowly instead of responding civilly. Hooks (2020) believes that most people that hop on this band wagon do so to feel socially included and not necessarily because they see genuine authenticity. Its extrajudicial nature and constant pressure for change has resulted in hasty decisions by people and the government (“A letter on…”, 2020).
To conclude, cancel culture is the equivalent to a wolf clothed as a sheep in the modern society. It may seem like it makes sense and is justified at a first glance. However, greater insight and knowledge deplores it and calls for long-term, discussed, informed and well-thought out solutions through which society will go down a more progressive, empathetic, and united road.
Featured Image Credits: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News. https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/is-cancel-culture-a-positive-movement-1.72713731
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate. Harper’s Magazine. (2020, August 21). https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/.
Bertram, C. (2020, August 11). What’s wrong with “cancel culture”? Crooked Timber. https://crookedtimber.org/2020/07/30/whats-wrong-with-cancel-culture/.
Cancel culture is intolerant zealotry. (2020, Jul 19). Press & Sun-Bulletin http://aus.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.aus.idm.oclc.org/docview/2424715842?accountid=16946
‘Getting Canceled’ and ‘Cancel Culture’: What it Means. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching
Hooks, A. M. (2020). Cancel Culture: Posthuman Hauntologies In Digital Rhetoric And The Latent Values Of Virtual Community Networks (thesis).
Is Cancel Culture (or “Callout Culture”) Good for Society? ProCon.org. (2020, September 8). https://www.procon.org/headlines/is-cancel-culture-or-callout-culture-good-for-society/.
Lemoine, A. (2020, July 31). What Does Cancel Culture Mean? Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/.
McEvoy, J. (2020, July 1). Every CEO And Leader That Stepped Down Since Black Lives Matter Protests Began. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jemimamcevoy/2020/07/01/every-ceo-and-leader-that-stepped-down-since-black-lives-matter-protests-began/.
Peter T. Coleman, opinion contributor. (2020, August 14). Getting tight – the psychology of cancel culture. TheHill. https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/512050-getting-tight-the-psychology-of-cancel-culture.
The New York Times. (2019, November 18). Here’s What Cancel Culture Looked Like in 1283. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/opinion/cancel-culture-victims.html.
Tietjen, A. (2019). James Charles, Tati Westbrook And the Chaos of Cancel Culture: Women’s Wear Daily. Wwd, , 3. http://aus.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.aus.idm.oclc.org/docview/2319454462?accountid=16946