The Underlying Toxicity of Cancel Culture
As I walk downstairs to grab breakfast, I’m shaken from the morning haziness by the words, “Latest: Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon have both been cancelled” painted in piercing blue light across my phone screen. I set down my morning coffee, analyzing the headline as I ponder the possible reasons for their newfound societal invalidation. My mind runs through the “criteria” of what would deem someone cancelled. Outlined in my mind is a rubric of sorts, one that is fundamentally shaped by a combination of social media users and a societal set of moral standards. It is a set of standards engraved in the minds of anyone who spends time scrolling through Twitter or considers themselves engaged in “woke culture.” They both had to have done something offensive. Perhaps something politically incorrect, or worse, something bigoted or misogynistic. After a brief search, I find that both Kimmel and Fallon were cancelled for the same reason--a blackface impersonation broadcasted on their shows. In the heat of a societal revolution against racism, ignited by the death of George Floyd, such actions are simply unacceptable and will most definitely get you cancelled. And rightfully so-- people must be held accountable and realize the consequences their actions reap in the world, especially those whose lives run on the fuel of public opinion. However, the issue within the recent spur of internet action is not rooted in the internet’s defense of human rights, but rather the method of doing so and the latent harm it can cause if not dealt with.
“Haven’t you heard? They’re cancelled.” It’s a phrase that has been threaded casually through conversations with friends, family, online and offline, with Twitter as its preeminent platform. The verb, “to cancel,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, means to destroy the force, effectiveness, or validity of something. Read through any example underneath the posted definition and it becomes clear that the act of cancelling usually applies to objects. That is, until recent years, which have given rise to a social-media-driven movement that has reshaped its meaning; this time the internet holds the reins as it attempts to negate the force of someone rather than something. It goes by the name of Cancel Culture.
There are a few reasons Cancel Culture has gained so much fervor through the years, the most probable because it gives people a sense of solidarity and sense of moral righteousness, or perhaps the feeling that they’re banding together with others to take action against a social justice issue. After all, in order to even have a shot at diminishing the status of a celebrity, it would require a large enough sum of tweets to arouse their attention, and an ever larger effort to cancel their career altogether. And even then, those tweets must work their way up a spiraling ladder to reach a management team and eventually the person themself, who hopefully airs on the side of sincere apology rather than shrugging off the internet’s reprimands with a mere “It’ll all end in a few days.” Which, might I add, it often does; within a short period of time, people are back gathered around the couch, families tuning into Fallon’s latest show and inadvertently bolstering his weekly views.
So, what’s wrong with attempting to usurp a celebrities stature if it just takes a number of harmless tweets saying they’re cancelled? Their career remains successful most of the time anyway, right? This is exactly where toxicity takes root; however, because while these call-out tweets may seem harmless, they actually catalyze an environment of hostility, precipitating a ripple of repercussions and no forgiveness within smaller communities and subgroups. See, while a celebrity’s career may be put on hold for a few days or months until calamity dies down, the effect of Cancel Culture is felt on a larger scale in normal groups of people-- the people like you and me without a management team to take the brunt of the internet’s cries. After all, it’s much easier to announce that a celebrity is cancelled than to say to a close friend, “You’re cancelled from my life. Even if you’ve made positive progress since that mistake five years ago, I’m still declaring you erased from my life.”
Cancelling someone promotes the dehumanizing idea that when mistakes are made, that person should immediately be erased, practically “cancelled from existence.” There is no dialogue to be had, no necessary conversations sparked about the deeper-rooted issues at hand. Rather than facing the issue, having important and necessary conversations, and learning and progressing from it, one is simply cancelled, done with, over. Today’s Cancel Culture “deals with the symptoms of a sick society rather than treating the disease,” as put by Jenna Wortham of the New York Times.
Some people have other intentions, hoping they can use Cancel Culture for potential good. Those who engaged in the #LanaDelReyIsOverParty during her bout of cancellation have said that although they figured the celebrity would maintain her career, they wanted to spark conversations about the deeper issues at hand. If this is true, why should these conversations be simplified into the petty sphere of “cancelling?” Can’t we spark dialogue on a more mature, informed level? Cancelling someone subtracts the power and significance of political dialogue into a shoestring flurry of tweets that is often blinded by a “group think” mentality. It suggests that social media is an echo chamber in which someone is cancelled simply because the majority agrees.
So what happens to accountability? Certain people who have committed heinous crimes and are filed under the term “cancelled,” such as R. Kelly for sexual assault, should absolutely face consequences for their actions. However calling people like Kelly “cancelled” once again oversimplifies the weight of his actions, rather than addressing the larger issues at hand. If society really is moving towards change and progress, someone like Kelly will feel the effects of cancellation as he loses support and his victim’s stories are shared. What’s left to do now is to focus on informing others and having conversations about how to treat societal sickness, rather than spitting out a “he’s cancelled” without really knowing why. For offenders whose actions are undeniably wrong, tweeting that they’re cancelled is vastly ineffective compared to starting conversations to inform others on their actions and what we can do to ensure lasting change and progress against it.
Accountability and Cancel Culture are not the same. In order for real change to occur, we ought to set aside futile tweets in favor of informing communities, starting meaningful discussions, and moving past the surface level to address the systemic issues within our society. Perhaps the last thing we cancel should be Cancel Culture itself.
Opinion Piece Written By Kyrie Varieur