What is cancel culture?
“Cancel culture” was a term people began using a lot around the beginning of the Trump administration in 2017. Sometimes it’s referred to as “callout culture”. It’s mostly been a popular phrase on social media platforms like Twitter.
In Pew Research survey, as of September 2020, close to about 44% of Americans had heard about the term “cancel culture.”
People who were more moderate and liberal viewed the term more positively, while those who were conservative viewed it more negatively.
Some liken the idea of cancelling to the famous novel, The Scarlet Letter.
When Hester Prynn committed adultery, she was forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her chest as punishment for her actions.
Other people view cancelling as a tool to help our society reflect more of the values that it should stand for.
People in support of cancelling typically like to use the term being woke.
What does woke mean?
Wokeness refers to being actively aware of issues related to racial and social inequalities.
Cancelling, to those who see it as a good, holds those in prominent positions accountable for their words or actions that are harmful to the social justice movement.
Cancelling, to those who see it as bad, is restricting people from expressing opinions that are in contrast to progressive ideology. So, is cancel culture good or bad?
Why cancel culture is good
As I was reading through a Brittanica article on the pros and cons of cancel culture, I liked the way they expressed the benefits of it, so I thought I shared them here.
- Cancelling helps marginalized people hold others accountable when the justice system doesn’t.
- Cancelling allows less powerful people to have a voice.
- Canceling is a tool to bring about social change.
An analogy I thought of that I think might help is imagining you and your family were scammed by someone.
What do people do when they’re scammed? In most cases, they warn other people about the scam so it doesn’t happen to them.
In the same way people would want to protect others from a scam, those who are cancelling people want to protect others from being discriminated against or marginalized.
I’d like to believe most people have no desire to see any individual or group denigrated for who they are. They just want to live their lives and go about their business.
If everybody can allow everybody to do that, there would be no need for anyone to be cancelled.
Good example of cancellation
One recent example of cancellation that seems to have helped stir some positive actions was those who decided to be done supporting the NFL.
As a result of those actions, the NFL has taken extra steps to be more supportive of issues related to social injustice.
It may be a result of wanting more positive PR, but actions are still being done.
Many other brands and organizations have had to act in ways that were more supportive of marginalized people because of the public choosing to withdraw their support.
It’s these kind of changes that have made cancelling a good for society as a whole.
Why cancel culture can be toxic
While there’s a lot of good that can come with rightly calling out people for their harmful words or actions, in some cases, cancelling can seem to be not good.
Here are a few of the problems that can sometimes occur with call out culture.
- Little to no redemption
- Trials in the court of public opinion
- No allowance for disagreement
1. Little to no redemption
To my knowledge, I can’t recall many people who’ve revived their careers or their prior status after being “cancelled.”
The #MeToo movement led to many cancellations of politicians, news people, and celebrities who were found to have behaved inappropriately
In the time cancelling became a thing, many prominent figures have been accused or caught being racist, sexist, and other similar terms.
Once the accusation was made it was often the case endorsements were lost, jobs were terminated, and the cancelled person is almost in a state of exile.
Though as I ponder on it, it’s possible most of the people who’ve been “cancelled” had careers that were on the decline anyway.
One recent example of cancelling was Ellen DeGeneres. Numerous former employees reported that she had a toxic workplace.
It would eventually lead to her announcing the ending of her show in 2022. But it’s hard to say if her show would have ended anyway since her show hasn’t been as popular as it once was.
Nonetheless, after endorsements and jobs are taken away, whether someone gets to redeem their career can depend.
Some large organization either has to give them a chance or enough people have to still like them for it to be possible.
An example I can think of that occurred prior to cancel culture is former NFL QB Michael Vick.
He lost a lot of public support after being convicted for running a dog fighting ring. Once he was out of jail, the Eagles gave him a chance, and he was able to resume his career again.
Though people still condemned Vick for his illegal actions throughout his career.
While my religious upbringing has taught me everyone deserves a chance at redemption, a lot of people tend not to feel that way.
I can understand actions seeming too grievous to imagine someone being allowed to redeem themselves from it.
Still, a world where people can be allowed to come back in society as better people would seem to make for a better reality.
Someone like country singer Morgan Wallen, who recently lost his record deal for casually using a racist term, could be an effective messenger to those of his demographic to not use racist terms or act in a way that would be considered racist.
But of course, people who’ve been cancelled have to genuinely want to do actions that make things better for the people they offended or harmed.
2. Trials in the court of public opinion
In some cases with calling someone out, there’s little evidence to support what the person is being called out for.
As a result, we’re assigning guilt to someone based on hearsay. I think most people would agree they don’t want to see anybody be accused of anything they didn’t say or do.
But it’s a slippery subject because at the same time, we want to be empathetic to all people who express being victimized by someone.
But whether someone is or isn’t given the benefit of the doubt often gets based on whether enough of the public or enough powerful people like them.
There are also times where certain people of certain political backgrounds are given more of the benefit of the doubt than others.
I won’t name any names in this case because I’d rather we didn’t get lost in a specific case and forget the larger point.
I think we would all agree that whether someone is Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, black or white, there should be equal amounts of scrutiny when considering accusations made against someone.
But sometimes it seems the level of scrutiny an individual receives depends on which cable news network you’re watching.
3. Less allowance for disagreement
Some groups or individuals have been cancelled for not agreeing with a particular viewpoint.
But it’s tricky to decide whether not agreeing with a certain viewpoint means that someone is being harmful to a particular group.
One example of this is Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and her stance on transgenderism.
She was previously considered an ally of the marginalized, having expressed condemnation for racists and bigots when discussing her support for Britain staying in the EU in 2016.
In 2019, she began vocalizing her disagreement with the belief that trans women should be viewed as women.
Her concern was that viewing trans women as women erased biological women’s lived reality.
Rowling also expressed concern as an assault survivor with men deciding one day they feel like they’re a woman and using the lady’s bathroom to assault women.
Many groups immediately condemned her for her viewpoint, including the cast members of the Harry Potter movies.
Two questions come to mind in this case.
- Is it okay to express that trans women are not biological women?
- Is it understandable for J.K. Rowling to express concern about bathroom assaults by trans women?
To the first question, it would seem on the surface that expressing the idea that trans women aren’t biological women doesn’t harm trans people.
Nonetheless, from what I’ve read on the issue, some in the LGBTQ community do take offense to that, which makes it a somewhat complicated issue to compromise on.
To the second question, given her previous experience being assaulted, Rowling’s concern would seem understandable.
But critics have expressed that it’s trans people that are more likely to be the victim of assault.
Getting back to the main topic though, those opposed to cancel culture feel like they’re unable to be open about having these differing conclusions on certain hot button issues.
Even if a position someone has isn’t necessarily one we like, maybe we can learn to accept people where they are and try to educate people by gently presenting other information to consider.
It’s unfortunate that with the way Twitter can be sometimes, people are more interested in fighting for their side rather than trying to reach an understanding.
How do I not get cancelled?
Beyond prominent figures, everyday individuals can sometimes feel concern that their opinions or previous words of ignorance will lead to isolation from their peers or loss of opportunities.
I can recall seeing stories where people’s old tweets led to them being condemned on social media or fired from their jobs.
But it does remind us that we all need to be careful with what we say and how we say it. If we wouldn’t want the whole world seeing what we wrote, we probably shouldn’t tweet it.
At the same time, for those who have an honest respectful difference of opinion, maybe there is a gentle way to express those thoughts.
Though there likely will always be one person that may find offense with what any of us says.
I’d like to think a majority of people are still willing to listen and understand other people’s perspective even if they don’t agree with it.
Perhaps the best way to go about not being cancelled is to be in the habit of communicating your perspective in a respectful manner.
And it’s of course helpful to apologize when your words are hurtful to someone even if that’s not what you intended.
Here are a few good tips that Verywell Mind recommends to protect your mental wellbeing from the effects of cancel culture:
- Think twice before posting
- Spend less time online
- Talk to someone
Alternatives to cancelling
In an article in The Globe and Mail, I came across an idea from a Canadian author named Irshad Manji.
She expresses that a good alternative to cancelling is instead choosing to have a dialogue with people.
Manji recommends exhibiting curiosity and listening whenever we have conversations with people who have opinions we strongly disagree with.
It’s important to try to give everyone a chance to explain where they’re coming from.
If their views coming from a place of ignorance, perhaps they at least deserve the chance to learn from their ignorance and correct their actions.
If we can make one person better, perhaps they can make someone else better, and maybe eventually one by one, the whole world can be better.