What a long strange year it has been, and yet in some ways it has been so short, condensed by the repetition of spending months within the same four walls; shutting the curtains because the view of sunny outdoors is psychologically painful; falling into the same routine; washing the same dishes; wearing the same four stretched-out shirts; shuffling the same path on a loop from the bed to the couch; having the same conversations.
“Today’s numbers went up.”
“Today’s numbers went down.”
“I wonder when they’ll find a vaccine.”
“Why don’t Americans just wear the damn mask!”
We stood on balconies and terraces and clapped and clanged and cheered, sometimes with tears in our eyes because it was beautiful, because it felt good to make noise after so much quiet, because it felt special to join voices together even when Pain, Panic, and Isolation were the minor chords that held the melody together.
As the virus crept along handrails and passed between handshakes, another virus was metastasizing, a gross cancerous lesion that had been disguised in terms of economic anxiety exploded to the surface. A police officer – a man whose job it was to protect and serve the citizens of a nation and who swore an oath to that end – smirked into a camera lens while smothering the life of the very citizen he swore to protect.
Spirits shattered, hearts tore open, tears fell, but this time, galvanized by injustice, and a fatigue that gave way to fury, feet also moved out of the doors of houses, stampeding toward justice. Systems that seemed eternally bound to tradition and natural order had become permanently destabilized. Cracks in the foundation showed that the systems were formed at the sacrifice of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us.
We are in a historically helpless time.
We are in a historically helpless time. Unified in grief at social injustice and pandemic-induced trauma, and confronted by cruel, reckless governments and law enforcement, social media has become a catalyst for expressing our fear, helplessness, and outrage – and all of these feelings are related.
Our helplessness is rooted in fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of failure, fear of destruction. We are helpless when we do not feel empowered to care for ourselves, our families, or our communities. A pandemic is the surest way to achieve total helplessness as a species. The virus does not care about you, it doesn’t care if you are a good or bad person, a person who is struggling to make ends meet or a person who is born with plenty. It doesn’t care if you are healthy and young or frail and old.
Fear elicits a biological response in humans. It’s part of our DNA, part of our programming. We are hardwired to resort to tribalism when we are fearful. We reach out to those who look like us and think like us, and we band together with them in an effort to stave off fear. What happens to the collective human mind when it is overwhelmed by helplessness?
It creates scapegoats.
This is a natural part of seeking psychological relief, but now we’re seeing it played out on a mass scale. Things suck, this guy over here did something that everyone agrees sucks, let’s let him know how much we think he sucks, he’s #cancelled. Great, does everyone feel better now?
Alone, effects of a call-out are temporary; relief is fleeting, amounting to a fart in a hurricane. Together, a hivemind response is like the world’s entire cow population releasing methane, corroding the planet’s atmosphere: catastrophic.
The term “cancelled” first circulated on Black Twitter on 2018 as a joke, meant to describe the social backlash against individuals who publicly unleashed offensive behavior or ill-conceived statements. It quickly morphed into a social media-wide movement. In the past few months, in light of the American President and the Republican National Convention’s attempt to “cancel” cancel culture, it’s become an especially thorny topic. In many ways, it has been conflated with political correctness, and in others it has become a form of righteous protest.
Since the term first appeared in 2018, hundreds of individuals, companies, and brands have supposedly been “cancelled” for infractions both large and small. Most recently, in 2020, fast fashion giant Boohoo came under scrutiny when news broke that some of the factories in its supply chain do not pay their workers a living wage.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling was “cancelled” for her statements on gender identity, Ellen Degeneres was “cancelled” after reports surfaced of her show’s toxic environment for which the comedian and talk show star was allegedly the cause. While the term might apply to reactionary groupthink, humans have had a tendency to place those with opinions they largely disagree with in social internment (or as Galileo Galilei might point out, actual prison) since the dawn of civilization.
Is cancel culture a viable arm of social justice, or is it doing more harm than good?
In short, cancel culture is not new, but it has certainly coalesced into a much larger protest movement spurned by the unification of shared ideas on social media. Is this destructive response really benefiting anyone? Is cancel culture a viable arm of social justice, or is it doing more harm than good?
There are a lot of caveats to consider. First, bad ideas and value systems flourish in darkness. Whether through conditioning and the environment you were raised in, a lack of critical thinking skills, or the absence of balanced and investigative research, you might believe something really terrible and really false. You might even believe this thing for a long time. When you express this really terrible and really false opinion publicly, you experience pushback, and might lose followers by the millions. Groups of people might demand that you be fired from your job, hosting duties, or speaking engagements, and people refuse to buy tickets to your shows or purchase your album/book/products. More than just an angry comment section, cancel culture seeks to do economic harm to its targets, in order to teach them a lesson about social responsibility.
Second, cancel culture requires all public figures (and brands) to understand every culture’s social mores and traditions, which is patently absurd. These aren’t elected representatives we’re talking about here and, as such, they don’t bear the same social responsibility. Take, for instance, the demand for a boycott against H&M after the Swedish fast fashion giant placed a child’s hoodie with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” on a black model. While this is an appalling image in the United States, where the association between creature and race were (and still are) made by vile bigots, it doesn’t translate the same way in Sweden, where the product was created. It underscored the need for brands – and celebrities – to have local teams and advisors who can prevent accidental, ignorance-based offenses.
And third, however vehement the reaction might be, cancel culture doesn’t actually work. In 2018, Kanye West was “cancelled” after he made a televised statement in the TMZ offices in which he said, “400 years of slavery, that sounds like a choice”. One month later, all seven tracks from his album “Ye” debuted in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. In 2020, he became a billionaire, based primarily on the financial valuation of his fashion company Yeezy.
Scarlett Johansson was “cancelled” multiple times, after defending Woody Allen, after playing an Asian character in the film adaptation of a popular Japanese manga, Ghost In The Shell, and after agreeing to play a transgender character in a film while being cisgender herself. She defended the decision saying, “You know, as an actor I should be allowed to play any person, or any tree, or any animal because that is my job and the requirements of my job,” and eventually walked it back and quit the project. Soon after, Johansson landed a starring role in one of the most prominent films of 2019, Marriage Story, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance.
Revered comedian Louis CK was “cancelled” after the New York Times broke a major story about his sexual misconduct towards women throughout his career. After two years of lying low, Louis CK emerged back in the comedy scene, with the announcement of a world tour.
On the other hand, there are plenty of cases where serial abusers with provable track records of violating, assaulting, and harming others deserve to be marched out of society by an angry mob. Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Les Moonves, and Harvey Weinstein are prime examples of unrepentant abusers who should no longer have access to money, power, or fame. But cancel culture sweeps even the hapless blunderer into its frothing current, extending to moments of profound ignorance or hastily worded responses.
In a year where we all feel like the walking wounded, where we are bruised from the hourly assault of bad news, there is some form of relief to be found in the social act of cancellation. However, who among us is without blame? Furthermore, is there a single case of cancellation where you really feel like you’ve had all the facts, or where you weren’t basing your entire reaction off of hearing from one side?
Cancellation reduces us to a generation of people reacting to headlines, but never reading the facts. In HBO’s excellent series I May Destroy You, the episode “Social Media is a Great Way to Connect” makes the following point, “You could leave social media. The business models of these networks incentivize us to behave in certain ways, in ways that promote speaking often at the cost of listening”.
And this is the most damning indictment of them all. Cancel culture fundamentally omits dialogue and nuance, demanding the world be seen in only black and white terms. One mistake, one slip of the tongue, or one terrible opinion could erase your right to exist in the world without interference, attack, abuse, or loss of livelihood. It removes the ability for humans to learn from their mistakes and grow from them by placing the cancelled person in social internment.
Nearly every instance of cancellation is an opportunity for learning, for all parties involved. Mistakes are teachable moments, they are opportunities for individuals to learn about why they might be wrong on important social issues, to make amends with the grieved parties, or to fully own the responsibility for the error of their ways. Cancel culture has become toxic, depleting both the oxygen and reasonable exchange of dialogue needed for positive outcomes to flourish. It also tends to put a target on not only the back of the cancelled party, but also innocent families and loved ones.
Cancel culture should be fully, systemically replaced by accountability culture.
Cancel culture, while well-intentioned, is a rotten model. It should be fully, systemically replaced by accountability culture, which holds the accused accountable for their behavior, and demands dialogue in order to enact positive change. Except in the cases of alleged criminal behavior, our instinct to cancel should be curbed by a more nuanced approach. First, an attempt should be made to open dialogue with the accused. Why did they behave this way? What was the thought process? What experiences in their lives lead them to thinking or acting this way? Second, do they understand why it is wrong, or is being perceived in a negative light? Finally, are they willing to engage with the opposing side, to have a public discourse about their behavior, to own their opinions, and take responsibility for the hurt they’ve caused? From these seeds, we can grow, not only as individuals, but as a society.
In these fraught political and social times, it seems important to remember that we’re all on this planet together, a whole bunch of fallible and flawed human beings who are more similar than we are different. In the words of Alexander Pope, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”