As people locked down over the last six months, and global internet usage soared, the topic of ‘cancel culture’ arose in public conversation.
Cancel culture can be defined as the practice of withdrawing support for public figures or companies after they have done something considered objectionable. This then causes a social media backlash and their ‘cancelling’, which deprives them of their platform or ability to make a living.
This modern form of ostracism initially emerged from humorous takes on cancelling in popular music and TV shows. Technological advances have then enormously accelerated the ease and frequency with which individuals can be boycotted.
The development of social media platforms such as Facebook lead to considerable increases in the representation of people online, and Twitter and Instagram then allowed these individuals to share their opinions with great ease, and so accessing the views of public figures online became that much easier.
The cancelling of these public figures has then arisen as a means of groups enacting consequences on someone whose behaviour they do not respect, in a bid to dismantle the person’s authority and influence on others.
These criticisms and implications of anti-participation effectively enact consequences in an internet economy where attention is economically productive.
However, some instead see cancel culture as an intolerant mob rule over online free speech and debate, which the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains is due to ‘safetyism’.
This is where people are afraid to express unpopular opinions on social media for fear of being called out, and so marginalised groups become wearier to broadcasting their beliefs.
Michele Gelfand has alternatively explained cancelling through the social observation that tighter societies have harsher sanctions for devious behaviour.
Accordingly, internet platforms can be seen as these ‘tight societies’, where people follow those who share their beliefs, and so media becomes an echo chamber where opinion is constrained and repetitive, and those who differ are ostracised.
Only recently, French-British rapper Octavian has been dropped by his record label and management company following the surfacing of allegations of long-term physical and emotional abuse.
This sits amongst the latest wave of celebrity cancel culture. This summer saw Ellen DeGeneres be cancelled for revelations of her treatment of her staff and JK Rowling was disowned by Harry Potter fans for her controversial views on transgender rights.
Right-wing politicians such as President Donald Trump have also embraced cancel culture, boycotting brands such as Apple and HBO, films such as The Hunt, and innumerable journalists, civil servants and politicians in recent years.
Cancel culture can also be denoted in university culture. The awareness that the student body has the power and online facilities to expose anything which would be considered objectionable can pressure professors and lecturers to abide by political correctness.
Equally, many students are also aware of expressing unpopular opinions online since this could lead to university-imposed sanctions and social ostracism, which can be seen to have occurred recently in Durham when the university reported incidents of online homophobia and racism in its student body to the police last month.
However, cancel culture often has negative connotations, regarded as a violation of free speech and censoring of unusual opinion. This was expressed in the Harpers Open Letter – published in 2020 and signed by over 150 prominent authors, thinkers and journalists – who bemoaned cancel culture for damaging tolerance and open debate as it impinges on freedom of speech; therefore, harming democracy.
Cancel culture’s implications that actions are unforgivable and permanently damage reputations profoundly affects those cancelled, often leading them to be cyberbullied, receive death threats, lose jobs, friends and money.
Some consider cancelling to be a ‘slack’ form of public scrutiny that does not produce any real effects. As seen with the comedian Louis CK, who admitted to sexual misconduct in 2017, has successfully returned to comedy, with a sell-out tour and a new comedy special the following year.
Twitter outrage, therefore, doesn’t always become total erasure, a claim supported by Connor Garel of Vice’s contention that the phenomenon of cancel culture rarely has any tangible or meaningful effect on those cancelled.
Nevertheless, the cancel culture that developed within the #MeToo movement can be seen as useful, as it removed platforms from individuals who had been accused of crimes, thereby reducing their influence.
In 2017, women used Twitter to speak up about widespread workplace cultures of sexual assault, which then lead to Harvey Weinstein being sentenced for rape allegations and Kevin Spacey to have his career significantly damaged based on sexual assault accusations.
Cancelling can thus give disenfranchised groups tools to effect change, correcting their sense of powerlessness.
The opposition between cancel culture as damaging and cancel culture as empowering means that it can be a polarising topic of debate, more so now than ever before.
Regardless of one’s interpretation, it is evident that through the world’s continual and increasing internet presence and sharing of opinion, it is a phenomenon that is here to stay.
As a result, cancel culture has the potential to be developed to become more mediated and productive, where it currently may fail to recognise the human potential for change and learning.
Instead of punitive cancelling, cancel culture could adopt more humane accountability with more mediational callouts that allow for apology and remorse as in some cases, people can’t be cancelled forever. And so, they should be treated with according belief in human progress.
However, it should be recognised that this viewpoint adopts the privilege of forgiveness. For certain disenfranchised groups, internet autonomy is instead a necessary tool for activism, where some allegations are too important to dismiss.
Illustration: Ece Kucuk