The cancel cult

Hodda Alazani, Staff Writer

Anyone who has been on social media within the last few years has  likely come across the expression that someone “has been canceled.” Questions abound. What exactly does that mean? Are we declaring a human being obsolete as a public figure or does it have deeper implications? Is it ever appropriate to “cancel” a person as if they were a Netflix subscription we can no longer afford? Some arguments over cancel culture revolve around its threat to freedom of speech, but in reality, the first amendment only guarantees we won’t be imprisoned or executed for our opinions. It allows us the freedom to make almost any statement, no matter how idiotic. However, it does not shield us from the scorch of public outrage. So where does that leave us?

Canceling has become the newest term for publicly denouncing a person due to discrepancies between public expectations for acceptable behavior and an individual’s actions. However, it often has much more to do with what someone says, than what they actually do. Cancel culture, despite sounding like a decent way to prop up the right sort of people while shunning those we perceive as wrong, can be deeply problematic. It promotes an unforgiving society that doesn’t allow for personal growth over time. It also defies any recognition that those we idealize are human and prone to error.

Perhaps the best, or worst, thing about cancel culture is that anyone can cancel anyone. On the one hand, it is seemingly democratic. On the other, it is a product of mob rule. Most instances of cancellation-worthy behavior or accompanying responses originate from the online world, factoring into the often unwieldy influence social media has on the phenomenon. Adding to its impetus, exposing someone’s past has never been easier than it is now. Every post is imperishable and can pop up to haunt us years later with a vengeance.

As social values evolve, the tide of internet approval can change course over time. What was passable at one point may be considered reprehensible later on.  As Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia’s department of media studies says,  “Canceling is an act of withdrawing from someone whose expression — whether political, artistic or otherwise — was once welcome or at least tolerated, but no longer is.” Yet, people are called out for statements made during an earlier era or at an immature stage in their lives.

Take, for example, a popular Twitter account known as Brother Nature (neé Kelvin Peña) that came under fire for racist tweets he posted when he was twelve years old. While racism is inexcusable and must be called out in order to create change, what the internet fails to understand is that people grow up and learn. Another online personality and YouTube creator Kurtis Conner received mass condemnation for using a homophobic slur eight years ago in several tweets from when he was fifteen.

Should the words we used nearly a decade ago be used to completely define or judge our character today? The logical or at least humanistic answer is no.

There’s also the matter that cancel culture doesn’t appear to have any long term effect other than destroying its most recent target. Often, within just a few short weeks, no one remembers the last scandal because they’ve moved on to a new person to berate and attack online. It seems that a majority of people participating in cancel culture are more energized by feeling or seeming righteous, rather than actually being right. “Alternative facts” (i.e. lies) and conjecture are often thrown around readily while each user vyes for a more affecting battle cry. 

The most unrelenting characteristic of cancellation is that almost no form of apology is ever considered acceptable. The internet has a habit of deeming a person unworthy and brutally shaming them without exception. There is no opportunity for education or redemption. This inflexible response is not healing or enlightening. It is simply divisive and often gives rise to a counter-wave from anyone who identifies with the target to respond defensively or launch counter-attacks making online cancel conversations a seething breeding ground for escalating tensions.

If the true goal of any online community was to promote a more ideal world without sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and the like, it would emphasize civil interaction. Users would rationally explain why certain posts are offensive, accept authentic apologies, then give their target a chance to show that they’ve learned from their mistake.

When actress and U.N. women global goodwill ambassador Emma Watson’s statements on feminism were scorned for not being racially inclusive enough, she apologized and committed to educating herself on more diverse perspectives. Though a number of individuals and organizations esteemed for their work in promoting cultural equality praised her response, the online criticism raged on.

Reactions like this circumvent any cultural learning process or revelation – a direct contradiction to the intention cancel culture boasts. 

Perhaps the most overbearing quality of cancel culture is the dangerous precedent of perfection it sets for everyone and the tendency it shows to target those who espouse good intentions. This movement seems more focused on a take-down of anyone posited as a cultural hero than it is on shooting the real big bad wolves that roam the virtual woods.

Of course, there’s a line that must be drawn. No one is arguing unrepentant neo-nazi’s are just nice people who deserve a little more kindness and understanding. However, those who intentionally and repeatedly engage in truly virulent, abusive or even violent rhetoric don’t seem to interest cancel culture enthusiasts in the slightest. 

The punchline to all of this is that cancel culture is more guilty of hypocrisy and moral turpitude than many of its victims. Take Logan Paul, a popular creator on Youtube, who posted a video displaying a man who had committed suicide in a Japanese forest and laughed about it. It was a despicable thing to do and even though people rallied against him, he’s back to making videos and millions. Apparently, if a target’s entertainment value is high enough, anything is forgivable. 

There was also Kanye West, a target for cancel culture due to his statements that slavery was a choice. Despite this stance, his album still clocked 180 million streams as of June 2018 and he’s thriving.

One journalist came under attack by Liam Neeson fans when she published an article quoting him saying he wanted to beat up a black man to avenge a friend that was raped. Neeson was assumably canceled due to the heat from the internet’s reaction. Still, Neeson is continuing on with his career. He retained a starring role in Men In Black: International and is set to secure roles in other projects.

The fact is, cancel culture is anything but righteous. It does nothing to further ethical values in our society. In fact, in most cases, it only exposes how very trivial, ruthless and self-aggrandizing we can be. It is an endless cycle of online harassment that produces nothing than more sensational, teary-eyed videos of someone recounting the ways they were misunderstood and saw their lives fall to ruin.

This sort of vulnerability only inspires further jokes, attacks and humiliation from the online community. For each publicized impropriety, there are countless critics seeking to satisfy their compulsive need to win the title of “wokest” in the land. Even if anyone was treated unfairly, no one really cares. And that’s okay as long as it’s entertaining…right?