Public shaming seems to have taken a new form. One that taps into the effectiveness of hashtags and the massive influence of social media at large; giving birth to a modern social justice practice. A powerful politician is banned from some social media platforms. A popular actor’s character was cut out of a movie. A John Doe telling stories backing racial discrimination got fired from his workplace. And there are many other incidences.
All these individuals have something in common – they were “cancelled” for behaving outside of perceived social norms. In recent years, cancel culture has been a widely debated and polarizing topic.
What Is Cancel Culture?
The answer really depends on who you ask. For some, it is mob mentality, or a free speech impediment. While others will say it is the voice of the voiceless, or a platform for marginalized people.
However, the central theme most people will agree on is that cancel culture involves taking a public stance (often on social media) against individuals or institutions that have committed some kind of moral violation. The consequences often include people being cast out of their professional circles, the termination of business opportunities, or being blocked from accessing their social platforms to share provocative views.
Cancel culture gained grounds when the #MeToo movement gave voices to thousands of women for telling stories about their sexual abuse. However, it seems to have progressed to shunning anyone doing anything perceived to be offensive by a specific group of individuals, ideologies, or cultures.
The familiar pattern appears to be a celebrity, public figure, corporation, or average person saying or doing something offensive. This is followed by a public backlash on social media, then calls for immediate cancellation. That is, being fired from their job, having their social media accounts shut down, or their products boycotted.
But the important question that arises from this polarizing topic of debate, is whether cancel culture is an effective way to hold powerful (and not so powerful) people and institutions accountable. Or is it an unfair form of punishment without a chance for redemption?
The Social Debate
As mentioned earlier, this is a highly dichotomizing debate. On one side of the spectrum, you will find people who argue that cancel culture is empowering and on the opposite side, you will find others who believe that it is destructive. Whatever the case may be, this debate shows that our current cultural climate is heavily influenced by our increasingly digitized world.
Today’s digital technology appears to have narrowed the gap between public and private life; and people are increasingly losing touch with the tangible world, as they spend more time online.
The two most enduring crises experienced in 2020 highlight these points – the Covid-19 pandemic and all its effects on our society, and the resurgence in public awareness of racial inequity and racial discrimination. The resulting isolation/quarantining and unrest from these crises meant that more people spent more time online.
The problem with this is that when something devastating or outrageous appears on people’s social media feed, there is a general tendency that they will have a knee-jerk reaction, as opposed to taking time to do more research on the issue. And it is generally easier to take a moral stance and/or say hurtful things online, than when speaking to people face-to-face.
That said, one could be tempted to promote the cancel culture argument in an instance where someone has done something particularly appalling (like sexual assault). But in other instances that involve questionable behaviors, temporary lapses in judgement, or differences of opinions (as opposed to criminal offenses), the cancel culture argument might seem like overkill. Instead, these benign “offenses” might be better dealt with through conversation, introspection, learning, and experience.
In the end, social media has completely revolutionized the way we communicate, providing countless opportunities to make the world more connected than ever before. So why does it seem as though we are more divided? Why does it seem that we are focusing more energies on telling stories and engaging in practices that do not encourage interconnectedness? Does humanity need to be more tolerant of each other?