What do R. Kelly an R&B icon, actor Jussie Smollett, pop legend Michael Jackson, and Saturday night live actor Shane Gillis all have in common? Well, they’ve been canceled. They have been socially removed and no longer supported. By whom? The public. The demise of these celebrities, as well as other social influencers, is being coined the term ‘cancel culture’.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, cancel culture is the removal of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This canceling can include boycotts and refusal to work with or promote their work (Merriam-Webster 2020). The canceling of the person becomes a part of the cancel culture trend when they are boycotted by a large number of people, affecting their fanbase and career.
The idea of cancel culture can be traced back to mostly black users of Twitter. The canceling was used in black culture as a hashtag for some of the disturbing allegations connected to celebrities like actor Bill Crosby and comedian Louis C.K. (Merriam-Webster, 2020). The canceling was then catapulted by the #MeToo movement enflamed by the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. Cancel culture quickly caught momentum and poured over into other social platforms and infiltrated social media norms and standards across the board.
More recently, canceling someone is no longer just for those who are famous. Regular, everyday people can be canceled, and the cancellation is easily shared and publicized on social media. From your neighbor to people in your friendship circle, anyone can be called out and anyone is cancellable. Favorite celebrities and even deceased ones like Michael Jackson can encounter the social spreading phenomena of canceling and most things posted online on or about influential people have the strongest spreading ability (Yan, 2018).
The Pro Side of Cancel Culture
We have many conveniences these days, like paying bills online or finding people to date on an app. Everything is literally at our fingertips. Another new amenity we have is social justice on social media. It’s now easier than ever to speak up and out for those with no voice and take a stand against the ills of the world, without even having to leave home. Social media creates a space for social discourse and enhances people’s rights, like freedom of speech (Zarsky, 2014). This makes social media a powerful tool to weaken influencers who aren’t upholding an ethical standard that society expects from them. When you are a leader with a large platform and a role model for tons of people, there is an inherent expectation from those that hold or keep you in that status. Thus, when you fail to adequately model the principles of your position or purposely use your influence to go against the greater good, people who looked to you as a leader or role model have the right to uncover, display, abandon, or shall we say ‘cancel’ your influence.
When one speaks of role models, it isn’t necessarily always someone considered to be high profile, famous, or have millions of followers. A role model can simply be “someone I look up to” (Weaver, 2005). This broadens the social reach of cancel culture and who can be held accountable for their comments and actions. Civil service workers, corporate employees, and merchant workers can now be held accountable for unethical actions that could demean or oppress their customers or local populations. Outing those who undermine society’s code of ethics is important because since they now know, more fully, about the person/company, it allows people to choose where to spend their time and money more judiciously. If a person or company isn’t serving society or functioning in a way that’s expected, which includes actions and misaligned beliefs, their community is justified in ‘canceling them’.
The justification to cancel these role models is even more vital when it’s on behalf of the underserved or unrepresented. Camonghne Felix, an American writer, and poet, states cancel culture “Isn’t personal. It’s a way for marginalized communities to publicly assert their value system through pop culture.” (Ibrahim, 2019). Before social media and cancel culture, those with influence were able to inappropriately use their influence to openly debase people and partake in actions that hinder equity in our free nation, without other people even knowing it and without having any accountability or repercussions. Now, they are seen, heard, and ‘canceled’.
The act of ‘canceling’ and no longer supporting the influencer is also setting a new tone throughout social media and society that unethical behavior will not be tolerated. This new required expectation has instilled a little fear and has influencers seeking ways to preserve their influence by being honorable. Self-preservation is when a person tries to preserve their existence, which is a process of the human ego (Perron, 2005). To grow and learn within your ego, some teachings must be learned the hard way, which isn’t fun. However, the growth of ‘hard-knocks’ can be exponential compared to just getting little slaps on the hand. The product of ‘learning the hard way’ has valuable results of self-awareness and self-improvement which can be gained from the social accountability incident. If they were never called out and never had a consequence for their actions, they may never have known that what they did or said was wrong or inappropriate.
This leads to the notion of canceling being a form of public shaming. The history of public shaming is almost immeasurable. Aristotle and Plato even accepted the social norm of shaming in public (Clark, 2017). This old tradition of accountability is not new, it’s just now in digital form. Holding people accountable publicly will, hopefully, deter people from taking part in unacceptable behavior. In a 2011 study, it was found that when shame and honor are involved, cooperation and public harmony increases by 50% (Lum, 2011). So, the act of socially canceling influencers for unethical actions could make the world, at least digitally, a better place.
The Con Side of Cancel Culture
With twenty-four-hour access to people and information in the palm of our hands, we are all connected, yet feel more and more isolated (Kane, Key Concepts, 2019). Our digital connection lacks the validation we need and it’s also getting harder to link actual humans to the interactions and transactions we make online. It’s easier to view people, not as humans, and to think of them as a product or service because you don’t have the genuine connection that you would get from face-to-face interactions. This almost inhumane approach in our digital world has led to the ruthlessness of the cancel culture. Treating people like subscriptions instead of human beings.
When confronted with the notion of canceling a person, we must ask ourselves if it will truly challenge the issue and make a change? If the goal of canceling or boycotting is to just get that person fired or get them to have fewer followers, what did you change? How will society be better after they were canceled? Canceling people instead of condemning actions only perpetuates the facades people put up in public. People hide their opinions, views, and true selves to preserve their reputation, in fear of public shaming. Leading to a disingenuous digital world and unfruitful social growth.
Cancel culture is reminiscent of mob-like behavior. Research shows that people are extremely influenced by others and tend to not rely on their instincts (Torney, 2015). The mob-like approach, combined with a perceived social infraction, can result in something called third-party punishment. Third-party punishment happens when people punish others who violate social rules, even when their actions don’t directly affect them (Jordan, 2016). This exposes the true nature of cancel culture, it brings the motives into question, and make the overall effect uncertain. For example, if someone is not affected by an influencer’s comments on social media but a majority of their digital social circle are offended, and they jump on the bandwagon to cancel them also, then the person who joined in on the cancellation is doing it with no value basis or higher purpose. Without a concrete foundation or deep-rooted personal reason, isn’t the cancellation itself a form of bullying and oppression. Persecuting the person instead of the person’s actions leaves little room for redemption and minimal space for failure or growth, compressing society down to, ‘you’re only worth it when you’re perfect.’
The perception that you must portray yourself as perfect and righteous online, or you will be terminated, is toxic and has led to devasting, career-ending blows for many people, not just influencers. Interestingly, Jill Jordan from Yale University, who did the study on third-party punishment, also concluded that people are willing to punish others, to prove to others that they are trustworthy (Jordan, 2016). So, there is a form of righteousness, or virtue signaling happening with cancel culture which renders it a flawed way to implement social change. If righteousness and piety were at the pinnacle of American society, wouldn’t everyone be going to church?
Innocent until proven guilty. This is a core principle of the American criminal justice system. For someone to be punished under the law, it must be proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they are guilty (Cornell Law School, 2020). Therefore, in cancel culture, which is a form of punishment for forsaking social norms, where is the due process before the punishment is issued? Where is the presumption that the offender is innocent before the social collective decided to cancel them, decrease their social media support, or ruin their career? Perhaps the influencer made a misstep in words or is ignorant of the potency of their opinions and views. Is ignorance of a social movement, history, or using insensitive words punishable by career and social death? As a society, we must be careful of the finality of cancel culture. We cannot be the judge and the jury, on our moral pedestals, sentencing those we don’t agree with to the unrecoverable depths of society’s imaginary perfectionist ocean.
My Thoughts on Cancel Culture
I was very green to the magnitude of cancel culture. I have seen hashtags and posts canceling this celebrity or that politician. However, my opinion on the act of ‘canceling’ someone hasn’t been at the centerfold of my awareness. There indeed have been times where I say, “I don’t like that person” and times where I don’t agree with someone so much that I have unfollowed or unfriended them. Nevertheless, I never really thought of canceling or boycotting everything about or around them as being an option. They are people and they still exist even if I don’t follow them or don’t like them.
After conducting my research on the pros and cons of cancel culture, I have a new outlook on cancel culture and the impact it can have on society, especially with modern-day technology and social reach. I believe it can be used for the public good. Since cancel culture is a form of boycotting, it can be a positive way for us to create change through collective action. To have a more effective social movement, one should participate in boycotting and not just protesting (Kane, Social Change, 2019). I think people in positions of power should be held accountable for their actions, especially public ones, like social media posts. When you are in the seat of influence, your status bestows a higher expectation. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Uncle Ben, Spiderman. If they don’t want the responsibility, they need to give up the power.
Also, someone’s character outside of the workplace can reflect on the company they work for. If a company’s employee is a loudmouth racist online, and it gets shared all over town, it could be assumed that the company hires, and likes, loudmouth racists.
In summary, if you want to be seen and heard, your character matters. You will be judged by the things you say and do because that is how society works. If you don’t like it or don’t want to be held accountable for your character, try not to be seen or heard and stay off of public forums.
Clark, Samuel. “Review of Shame: A Brief History by Peter N. Stearns (review).” Social forces 98, no. 1 (2019): e9–e9. View on Project Muse.
Cornell Law School. 2020. Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/presumption_of_innocence.
Ibrahim, Shamira. 2019. “In Defense of Cancel Culture.” Vice. April 4. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/vbw9pa/what-is-cancel-culture-twitter-extremely-online.
Jordan, Jillian J., Moshe Hoffman, Paul Bloom, and David G. Rand. “Third-Party Punishment as a Costly Signal of Trustworthiness.” Nature 530, no. 7591 (February 25, 2016): 473–476D. View on Nature Journal
Kane Ph.D., Joshua
—. 2019. Video: Key Concepts List Part 1. May 17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c31Tu7SuYyU&feature=emb_logo.
—. 2019. Video: Sources of Social Change Part 4. July 16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=o5B4Ud94qGk&feature=emb_logo.
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