As an undergraduate, it can be easy to be consumed by cancel culture, whether locally at university with student-led protests or more widely on social media with digital movements mobilising against celebrities.
Having witnessed and participated in a combination of the above, I have developed a love-hate relationship with cancel culture that has not been easy to navigate. For example, I strongly believe that everybody deserves a second chance. But I will not support alleged perpetrators of severe crimes.
What I have noticed is that, whichever end of the spectrum I sit on, regardless of for or against, cancel culture simply does not work.
What is cancel culture?
For those who are reading and have no clue what cancel culture actually is, this section is for you. As someone who thought they knew the definition, there are nuances that must be acknowledged.
According to Merriam-Webster, cancel culture is ‘the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.’ The word ‘cancelling’ itself could entail anything from something as small as a tweet, to bigger actions like boycotting a company’s products, as long as there is a clear withdrawal of support from an individual which then plays a part in a larger campaign.
Even from a pro-cancel culture perspective, there are serious flaws within the above logic. Engaging in cancel culture ultimately means that you are focusing solely on one individual: the offender. Instead of thinking about the concerns of the victim or prioritising the way in which they themselves would like to enact justice, you have people speaking up on their behalf who, a lot of the time, have no context or are arguing for the wrong things.
For example, people have been cancelled inappropriately for things they have not even done. Amidst the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a clear parallel between cancel culture and the white saviour complex, which is particularly damaging given that its roots lie in the “call-out culture” of the civil rights movement.
In this way, the situation becomes less about how best to resolve the actual issue at hand and more about the best ways we can punish the individual for their wrongdoing. People end up losing sight of the positive intentions behind cancel culture, leading to a toxic environment of hate that usually ends up in relentless online trolling.
What is the result?
In other words, cancel culture does not actually achieve anything most of the time. Even if punitive measures are enacted and the justice system prevails, systemic issues remain: cancelling a celebrity over a racist act from their youth does not solve institutional racism. Of course, this does not mean we should not hold individuals accountable for their actions and obviously in some cases cancel culture has been invaluable. Take, for example, the #MeToo movement’s power in convicting Harvey Weinstein amongst others.
However, I would argue that nine times out of ten, it does not work. We need look no further than the biggest cancellations of 2021 alone as evidence of this. J.K. Rowling’s alleged transphobia has not stopped the sale of her books. In fact, Bloomsbury said that, following the controversy, the Harry Potter books increased the children’s division revenue by 27%). While Justin Timberlake’s alleged misogyny towards female singers has not ended his music career.
In my eyes, it does not seem morally correct to destroy an individual’s life and career over a wider, deep-seated problem in our society. While it is important to call people out for their wrongdoings, this can be done without the mass ridicule and public banishment.
As someone who strongly believes in the strength of transformative justice, I think there is a great potential in education and helping people grow rather than instantly reaching for the extremity of cancelling them at any given moment.
If we truly want humanity to change, I would argue that calling someone out should always be accompanied by calling someone in. Unfortunately, cancel culture seems to only include the calling out part.