Maryam Mohseni '24
We’ve all seen it happen, and maybe we’ve even been a part of it. A person, usually a celebrity or other public figure, does or says something offensive, racist, or tone deaf. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues. Then come the calls to cancel the person, or in other words, to effectively end their career or revoke their cultural cachet, whether through boycotting their work or disciplinary action from an employer.
The form of ostracism in which someone is removed from social or professional circles—whether it be online, on social media, or in person—is referred to as cancel culture. Those who are subject to this ostracism are effectively "canceled". While cancel culture has gained mainstream popularity in the past few years, its roots can be found in the civil rights movements. Cancel culture arose within Black culture and channels Black empowerment movements dating as far back as the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s. Publicly calling people out, demanding accountability, and boycotting has become an important instrument of social justice. It’s a way of combating, through collective action of the masses, the power imbalances that often exist between public figures with far-reaching platforms and audiences, and the people their words and actions may harm. In that sense, cancel culture can serve as a way to overcome the sense of powerlessness that many people feel, especially those in marginalized communities. However, as it has gained mainstream attention, cancel culture has also seemed to gain a more dangerous power, at least in the eyes of the many people who’d like to, well, cancel it.
It’s important to acknowledge that ending someone’s career through the power of public backlash is difficult. Few celebrities or other public figures have been truly canceled, and while many have faced considerable negative criticism and calls to be held accountable for their offensive actions, very few of them have actually faced career-ending repercussions.
Today, the debate around cancel culture is surrounded by dramatic rhetoric that shows how incendiary cancel culture has become. In America’s current social and political landscape, it seems more and more difficult to overcome ideological divides, and the line between the personal and the political seems to be vanishing. Although, cancel culture rarely results in lasting consequences for celebrities or public figures and their careers, some people are deeply disturbed by what they view as part of a larger trend: the inability to forgive and move on.
For opponents of cancel culture, rejecting cancel culture doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting the principles of social justice or to stop pushing for equality. Aaron Rose, a corporate diversity and inclusion consultant explains that rejecting cancel culture “does not mean repressing our reactions or giving up on accountability, On the contrary, it means giving ourselves the space to truly honor our feelings of sadness and anger, while also not reacting in a way that implies that others are ... incapable of compassion and change.”
But proponents of canceling believe that any and all losses the canceled person experiences are outweighed by the greater cultural need to change the behavior they’re embodying. And it’s important to note, for those who are calling out or canceling, they’re still the ones without the social, political, or professional power to compel someone into meaningful atonement, to do much more than organize a collective boycott.
Nonetheless, that divide seems to be widening and growing more visible. And it isn’t just an ideological divide, but also a divide between how to navigate ideological differences and dealing with wrongdoing. The idea that a traditional approach, like an apology, atonement, and forgiveness, is no longer acceptable is startling for many. But to those who think of cancel culture as an extension of civil rights activists’ push for meaningful change, it’s an important tool. And it’s clear that, controversial as cancel culture is, it is here to stay.
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