One of the most powerful trends to sweep social media in the last few years has been “cancel culture”. Packed with the collective power of nobodies, it wields the power of a mob to force changes.
Cancel culture refers to the act of cancelling or boycotting an individual or organization, based on what they have spoken or how they have acted, which is deemed objectionable to a large section of people.
It can largely be credited for helping amplify the changes of the #MeToo movement and the current racial discussion, among others, by providing a platform to millions of collective voices and bring about changes in the society.
In both instances, individuals who felt powerless in front of formidable figures or the establishment, expressed their anger via social media and forced them to take remedial action. Even a dominant movie mogul like Harvey Weinstein was forced to face consequences of his actions, mainly due to the effect of cancel culture.
Considering its part in the #MeToo movement, it’s ironic that the first use of cancel was misogynistic when in a 1991 movie called ‘New Jack City’, the gangster Nino Brown called for his girlfriend to be cancelled saying “Cancel that b****.” Although Lil Wayne referenced it in 2010 as part of a song, the trend caught on in social media after a reality show ‘Love and Hip-Hop: New York’ used it in a fight where a character called out to his love interest, “you are cancelled”. By 2015, the origin had become irrelevant and it was widely used across the world to express disapproval for something or someone.
At its heart is the idea that people who have helped make careers of some, have given them power and money also have the power to take it all away, if the said person does not conform to certain ideas.
It is also about holding people accountable to what they say or have said, sometimes years ago. Kevin Hart faced backlash in 2019 for his old homophobic tweets in 2011. It made him step down as the Oscar host.
Harry Potter author, JK Rowling is the latest to face cancelling for speaking about her outdated views on the transgender community. It’s too early to say what effect it will have on her as social media may not have enough power to make any difference to her or maybe she does not care.
In the case of celebrities, who depend on the power of social media, they lose social currency and are financially affected. If powerful, they have enough support to ride it through and many do not face long-term effects. Cancelling of Karan Johar and others, as a reaction to nepotism claims in the SSR case, may not have long-term effect for them.
Kevin Hart is also an example to show the limitations of the cancel culture. Although it caused him damage in the short run, it did not end his career in the long term. He is back to making money and performing to house full audiences.
However, cancel culture may not be as innocuous as it sounds. If overdone, it can be seen as a form of cyber bullying. People are tried and hanged before they even have a chance to respond, and if in the wrong ask for forgiveness or even make amends. It can also be instigated or amplified by others, to settle old scores.
The impact of cancelling is more severe at an individual level where friends can gang up and boycott a person. It causes the person being cancelled to feel lonely and socially cut off. It can be traumatic and can lead to depression and even suicide. However, are these people really friends? How strong is a friendship if they can turn against you at the drop of a hat? Most in person friends would allow us to speak our mind and if in the wrong, seek forgiveness and a second chance.
Cancel culture, if not moderated may lead to a society where there is no place for evolution of ideas or alternate viewpoints being discussed.
Even newspapers, traditionally a space where everyone has a say, have not been spared. James Bennet, a senior editor at the New York Times, resigned amid a furious backlash over the newspaper’s publication of a controversial and unfiltered comment piece penned by a Republican Senator.
Post this, over 150 writers and public figures, including JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie, signed and published an open letter in Harper’s magazine calling out “cancel culture” for stifling free speech. They said it creates an atmosphere where people fear speaking their mind or expressing alternate opinions, expecting severe repercussions. While their motives have been questioned and maybe debatable, we cannot deny that cancel culture is leading to a very narrow conformist view of life. It’s a case of either you are with the mob or get crushed by it.
The aim should be to find a balanced space where everyone can speak their mind and have a healthy debate. We should be able to draw a line between calling out someone from bullying them.
We must of course use social media to express our opinions, to react by aligning ourselves with what we think is right. It is a unique power that we can use for the benefit of the society. It gives us the ability to hand out social justice through a social platform by the society itself. However, we must fact check and differentiate between cancelling someone from threatening them.
It will be good to bear in mind the words of former US President Barack Obama who said that easy social media judgments don’t amount to true social activism. Speaking at the Obama Foundation summit, the former US President said: “The cancel culture is predicated on this idea of purity; the illusion that you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”
The idea of cancel culture is to hold people accountable for their actions, past or present and give them a chance to make amends. The idea is most certainly not to act out a vendetta against anyone who dares transgress against the views you hold.