Cancel culture refers to a form of public shaming and boycotting used in order to hold someone accountable for problematic behaviour, mostly on social media, and it’s something that seems to be gradually rising in popularity. In theory, this type of public reaction seems useful—if people are held accountable for their inappropriate actions and words, it means that justice is served and the world becomes a better place, right? In reality, things aren’t so simple.
The Aim of Cancel Culture
In attempting to police questionable behaviour, cancel culture does indeed try to make the world, particularly the online world, a better place. People focus their attention on those who are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc, to try and discourage that sort of discrimination in order to cultivate a safe and accepting environment for everyone. And it can work. Most notably, the YouTube community has had their eyes on a shady character by the name of “Onision,” who is shown to have abused several young girls. For years, Onision had sneaked around the law, but persistent members of the online community stood their ground and attracted the attention of well-known TV host of To Catch a Predator, Chris Hansen. Subsequently, Chris Hansen’s involvement convinced the FBI to look into things, and it convinced more victims to come forward with their stories. It seems like justice will finally be served. But as helpful as cancel culture can be, it can also be hurtful.
The Shortcomings of Cancel Culture
While cancel culture can draw the authorities’ attention to grave problems that could otherwise be missed, it can also lead to a barrage of undeserved hatred resulting in unfortunate consequences. Around 2010, internet users teamed up together to figure out the identity of a disturbing individual upon discovering a video titled “1 boy, 2 kittens” in which the mystery figure (Luka Magnotta) killed the animals. His behaviour had been reported to the police to no avail, which allowed Magnotta to eventually successfully murder someone—Lin Jun. Taking matters into their own hands seemed like the only option. And it was a success, as Magnotta was eventually found when he could have otherwise escaped… But justice came at a high price. Originally, the internet users identified someone else as the kitten killer, and the resulting downpour of hatred led to the suicide of an innocent person.
In less extreme cases, it can cause people to wrongfully lose their careers and suffer significant mental strain. In the first half of 2019, beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook posted a video titled “Bye Sister” in which she called out fellow beauty YouTuber James Charles for his “problematic behaviour.” In her video, she listed reasons why she thought Charles was heading down the wrong path, most notably stating that he was using his fame to coerce straight men into relationships. Understandably, the community was shocked, and without even giving Charles a chance to respond, hatred came in like a tsunami. Everyone seemed to jump on board, slandering him and predicting the inevitable and irreversible downfall of his career. Eventually, after a shorter and ineffective apology video, James Charles posted his own video defending himself and explaining the situation. He showed that he had not taken advantage of anyone and that his behaviour was the result of a young inexperienced person still trying to figure out love and relationships. Everything changed. Now, months after the ordeal, James and Tati still have successful careers online. Some people remain strongly divided, but no one can claim anything for sure.
So what is the final verdict on cancel culture? Do the benefits outweigh the cons? Or is it ultimately a toxic internet-based reaction? The answer may be somewhere between these two extremes. Yes, there are several reasons behind why cancel culture may be a negative thing, but its purpose and intent is just. The idea that there are people interested in enforcing safety and justice, like a neighbourhood watch, is attractive. However, the ways in which “problematic” figures and content are approached can absolutely be improved. Instead of immediately shutting people down, it may be more beneficial to identify issues and engage in productive and educational discussions.