Deep dive into “cancel culture”: the good, the bad, and the problems…

Online, the pressure to be “politically correct” is suffocating. Hoards of people on twitter flock to the scene of any drama to witness (or take part in) the downfall of some famous person in voyeuristic pleasure. Now, with the coronavirus epidemic confining all of us indoors, many are getting caught up in the strong current of “cancel culture”. Perhaps this is all out of boredom… Even the famous celebrities out there like Justin Beiber with massive cult-like followings are not exempt from the wave.

And while the younger generations all over the globe clash on the Internet, the media outlets potter around frantically, prophesying that this apocalyptic cancel culture movement will obliterate free speech.

But is cancel culture all that bad??

What can we do?

And, why does it exist?

Since the term “cancelling” is quite vague, it makes sense to take a look at its generally agreed-upon definition first…


What is “cancelling”?

Term appears to have first been coined in 2016 and is mostly referred to as “cancelling” or “cancel culture,” but you may also hear “online shaming” or “call-out culture”.

Things that would typically get you “cancelled” today would be:

  • Using racist, sexist, or anti-LGBTQ slurs
  • Saying the n-word
  • Being insensitive towards a vulnerable group
  • Being manipulative

This information is often are dug up from the target’s past videos or tweets, (but these may sometimes be recent).

Diagram of what the scene looks like when it plays out on places like Youtube or Twitter…

Why “cancelling” doesn’t work…

Trial by Internet… the Court of public opinion… A large reason behind why people see “cancelling” as toxic is because the target is often seen as guilty until proven innocent. Another reason is because the virtual onlookers also seem to extract some ‘peverse joy in [this] de-platforming’.

There are many metaphors out there comparing this “group-think” phenomenon to the jeering crowds at medieval executions or eager spectators cheering at the colosseums. And, in a way, cancel culture is exactly this.

French sociologist and psychologist Le Bon who studied the in the behaviour of crowds at hangings in the late 19th Century, observed how ‘when an individual becomes a member of a crowd, they are transformed and lose their sense of personal responsibility, falling prey to the dominant emotion of the crowd.’ This transformation is aided by the sense of anonymity that comes with being in such a large crowd. Early disposition theorist Floyd Allport builds on this with the idea that individuals ‘learn to submit to authority and to large numbers’ and that this learned response explains why people are so willing to take part.

This satirical short film in The Times accurately depicts how ludicrous it all is…

While this chaos is (quite literally) hysterical, Stephen Fry in a Munk Debate points out something very poignant about human nature and “political correctness”:

‘One of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right than to be effective.’

I’m sure most, if not all of us, have experienced what it’s like to be half-way through an argument, realise you’re most likely wrong, but continue anyway. We, as humans, generally feel happy when we a are “right”.

Honestly, we get blinded by this desire to be “right” and often don’t see that the evidence right before our eyes would never hold in Court. It is because most accusations don’t hold water that the effect of “cancelling” doesn’t last. Ricky Gervais, upon being asked on WIRED if he was “cancelled”, laughed saying:

‘Every day I reckon, every day by someone, but luckily it doesn’t mean nothing.’

More importantly for the spectator, beauty YouTuber Wayne Goss, in his statement on cancel culture, brings up an crucial issue. He explains that cancelling on the Internet is not like reality TV and that by liking, sharing, and commenting, the spectators ultimately break away from being spectators, becoming participators in the blame-game at work. In so doing…

They become a ‘butcher and they keep the slaughter going’, which is part of the problem.

Many bore witness as porn star August Ames was “cancelled” on Twitter, an event which led to her suicide.


Withdrawing from “toxicity” is healthy

On the other side, youtuber Kat Blaque reminds us that even if it is true that a person has the capacity to change, there is another truth: we are under no obligation to be present for that growth.

‘It is very healthy for people to draw the boundary and say, you know what? Maybe you can change, maybe you you have the capacity to change, but I’m no longer invested in you as a person or as a creator’.

In terms of mental health, this is by no means a bad thing. If anything, this kind of regulation of problematic behaviour through social exclusion can useful and reminds me of the structure of ancient Irish Gaelic culture. People in this society would have an “honour price”, which literally translates as the value you have in society based on how much you contribute to it in light of your skills. Should you commit a crime or faux-pas like murder, you can even be left with no “honour price” to your name. In this situation, you are ignored and completely shunned by your fellow humans.

Frankly, it isn’t a bad way of thinking and in some cases it appears to have worked! Competitive Smash 4 player ZeRo was accused with sufficient evidence of soliciting underage girls and was subsequently cancelled and shunned by the Super Smash Bros. community. It reveals a slither of hope of what such movements can do.

YouTuber PsychIRL links this to psychologist Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, wherein behaviour that is rewarded ‘will persist’ while behaviour that is punished ‘will be extinguished’.

‘If we do something bad (i.e. socially inacceptable), it reflects badly on our own self-image and endangers our acceptance into that one group.’

PsychIRL continues: ‘from an evolutionary perspective, being in a group led to a higher chance of survival. Because of this, we go out of our way to keep from being embarressed.’

But here we come across another wall… What are the limits? And can we somehow look at the situation objectively?


Context is important

Honestly, what is morally and politically “correct” is (to an extent) simply subjective and evolves from era to era. However, what is useful in any era is to pay attention to context.

The main issue with cancel culture is the fact that there is no distinction made between past and present.

We often cringe at the previous videos clips, photos, and tweets of others online, but all too often it’s never marked at what date in time they were made. Because of this, we view and judge them based on our current context – morals and ideas of political “correctness” – that exist for us at the moment of reading or watching them.

This is odd for me, as a humanities student, since it has been pratically second nature for me to research an author’s background or historical context when analysing a text. In real life, this (strangely) appears to get thrown clean out the window…

There is a limit to how much you can judge things based on what is “politically correct” now, in 2020.

Recently youtuber Jenna Marbles just broke down about people bringing up her videos made in 2011 and 2012 seen as sexist and racist. She apologised yet again and self-cancelled herself to her 20 million subscribers.

Many were sad and echoed youtuber Gabbie Hanna’s sentiments…

With a lot of fake news floating around and a ton of dubious “receipts” (evidence) out there, we need to keep a level head. It is imperative that we learn how to take a step back and think about historical context. This is what is called “compassionate cancel culture”. The you of that exists at this very moment in time is no longer the you that existed only a few seconds ago. And this applies to all of humanity.


How far is “cancel culture” a threat to free speech?

This is one of the big question many have when it comes to cancel culture. The answer is honestly “yes” and “no” since there are generally two sides to cancel culture.

Lawyer Wendy Kaminer who had signed the ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate’ published in Harper’s, spoke out:

Cancel culture is a ‘bizarre aversion to being argued against…[that] now borders on the pathological.’

‘What’s so bad about defending “the free exchange of information and ideas” and critiquing “intolerance for opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”?’

Well… really, you can’t really be blamed for thinking in this way since one of the most famous people out there, Trump, is the epitome of the worst of cancel culture. In an article by the Washington Post, the President of America is said to ‘intimate critical media organisations, stop the publication of books that he doesn’t like, and purge the executive branch of anyone who disagrees with him.’ A prime example of this is when he practically forced Alexander Vindman, United States Army lieutenant colonel who was previously on the National Security Council, into early retirement. Frankly, the list of threats to free speech could go on and on…

In short, we live in a democracy. Because of this fact, it is inevitable that we will come across at least one “intolerant” group. Philosopher Karl Popper proposes that the best course of action in order to stay true to our utopian ideal of “free speech” is to counter this group with rational arguments and logic. Crowd psychologist Ezra Park also forwards this notion by stressing the need to return to a space which he calls the “public”. This is essentially a space where rational discussion on issues between people occurs.

But there will always be a case where this method doesn’t work and where the other party just does not want to listen, let alone discuss anything. In the case that this happens, philosopher Karl Popper suggests that…

We must be prepared to ‘defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant’, otherwise ‘the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance along with them.’

So, at the end of the day, yes, a section of cancel culture is a threat to free speech; however, it doesn’t always need to be that way and there are times where we will have to consider the limits of freedom of speech and hold intolerant groups or rhetoric accountable.


The effect of rapid technological development in society

Why did cancel culture come about? Well, aside from the surface explanations (i.e. preventing people from using their social status to shield themselves from the repercussions of their “offensive” behaviour), there might well be an underlying reason if you try put it in the wider scheme of things…

‘There is something fundamentally flawed’, says investor and philanthropist George Soros, something ‘missing in our open societies. There’s a crisis of values, a lack of a common purpose. People are groping for it in different ways, and I see the need for it but I don’t know the answer.’

We are in a world where it seems everyone is obsessed with the “politically correct” and purging themselves of everything and everyone “toxic”. But I argue that this phenomenon is only to be expected. Hear me out.

An entire generation was thrown into a virtual world, a world in which we had the ability and the choice of being anonymous and detacted from the repercussions of our opinions. It was (and is) a very morally and ethically grey world. It transformed not only how we interact physically, but has also warped our psychology. With the click of a button or a swipe on the screen we have access a mass of different opinions online… we now have the ability to find out so much about what people would previously do behind closed doors. And this comes from all of our social media feeds.

The virtual realm is morally and ethically confusing.

Perhaps less so now, but before there were barely any censors and you could see some pretty inappropriate stuff on the Internet. Since it was suddenly so easy to get your voice heard with just the click of the button, many just didn’t think too deeply about the consequences. Before, you would have to walk up to the person and debate face-to-face, something much more intimidating.

With so much chaos, it’s no surprise that there would come a time where people would call for order and structure. This is a factor to why cancel culture came about. We found that we needed to order our world. We needed to re-establish boundaries of what is morally and ethically “okay” since it appeared that everyone felt like they could say whatever they wanted on the Internet without any suffering consequences. (Although, again, we still need to factor historical context into this equation…)

We, as a society, have never had to experience self-awareness on quite this scale before.

You could say that the cancel culture movement is just one of the delayed effects the advent of the Internet has had on our society. After all, with every bright light of hope, it also has its shadow. All of this really links to what philosopher Karl Popper said about open societies. He explained that we will often find ourselves up against reactionary forces who are ‘unnerved by the instability and rapid social change’ that has been unleashed.

Thinking about it this way, it kind of seems quite apt that the media describes the cancel culture as being “dystopian” and Twitter as being a ‘dispriting minefield‘.


So… what’s the take-away?

  1. Is cancel culture all that bad?? No, cancel culture should not be written off as being completely harmful or bad. Simplifying it as just a culture of fear excludes a section of the movement that genuinely see it as useful and positive as long as there are limits.
  2. What can we do? We can learn to look at everything we see, hear, or read on the Internet with a grain of salt. Not everything we see today would have been interpreted in the same way 10 or 15 years ago. Historical context does play a part and we should be lenient (to an extent) when chosing to judge the actions of the past.
  3. Why does cancel culture exist? Well, aside from the surface reasons, it might just be a natural reaction that society has towards this big change in behaviour both morally and ethically that the Internet has brought on. A period of self-reflection on the past is sometimes necessary to create a new order.

So while cancel culture can be seen as just some form of intolerance disguised as tolerance that just seeks to gleefully restrict others with codes and rules… the lesson we can draw from this all is one stressed by some of the Greats – Chomsky, Foucault, Popper – and that is to remain critical. Critical of yourself and others so that a freedom of speech can prevail and a future where intolerance is the norm is kept at bay.

It’s as British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell said:

‘We ought to always entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt.’

To keep democracy alive, we must keep on finding rational and logical arguments to counter the irrational again and again. This is what being in a democratic society with free speech means.

Basically, we need to…


What should we do… ?



Recommended further reading :

Featured image: Ana A Raisin


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