Cancel Culture. We’ve all heard of it but we can’t seem to get away from it. We’ve cancelled it all— from popular celebrities like Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein to kids shows like Paw Patrol, and everything in between. At this point, one thing is obvious…
We need to cancel “cancel culture.”
Where did it start?
Cancel culture first burst on the scene in 2014 from an underrated joke on the popular VH1 show Love and Hip-Hop. Though it can trace its roots back even further, it then gained mainstream traction as the #The MeToo movement grew. But, what was the original goal? It’s a remarkably simple one— to remove the power and platform of something or someone if they committed a serious wrongdoing. The list of cancelled celebrities include R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many others. It stands a a way of holding such individuals accountable after dozens of sexual assault and harassment cases were brought forward. Even if they never received justice from the law (although many did) removing their platform, and by proxy their wealth and power, became one of the quickest and most effective ways the everyday person could show their disgust and anger against injustice.
Sounds good, right? Hold offenders accountable by removing their status and power. It seems simple enough.
Except it’s been co-opted to mean… well… nothing.
What happened to cancel culture?
In 2021, American Politician Jim Jordan took cancel culture to the Capitol, claiming that people were trying to cancel his colleague; fellow Republican Marjorie Anne Green. The rationalisation was that she didn’t hold the same values and beliefs of those across the aisle from him… But that wasn’t *actually* the case.
In reality, what happened to Marjorie Anne Green was that she had her titles stripped for perpetuating the same conspiracy theories and racist rhetoric that led to the Insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. In other words, the outcome was a direct consequence of her actions. The result was drastically different from what we now perceive as cancel culture— as the people had no say in it. The result? The government made a decision in direct response to the actions of a powerful individual… the very opposite thing that cancel culture does. What cancel culture has inadvertently become a way to deflect any accountability or responsibility for one’s actions, even when they WANT to be held accountable.
In March 2021 the estate of Dr. Seuss pulled six books from the shelves, because they perpetuated harmful and racist stereotypes. What was okay to write in the 90’s (when they were originally written), is no longer acceptable. As a society we have been made aware of the damaging effects of such messaging, but the decision was met with controversy: loud, opposing voices that dominated the conversation. Not only was this more chaos than the action warranted, considering those were six books nobody really read (it’s not like they took The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham off the shelves) but it denied us of a valuable opportunity to talk about how media grows and changes and how to adapt to evolving times with grace and new knowledge. This could’ve been an excellent opportunity for brands to follow suit. Instead, we spent a month debating whether or not Dr. Seuss was “cancelled”.
This debate happens in a loop, over and over again, and seems to only get sillier. At first, the concept of “cancellation” was an effective way for people to use their social capital to bring about meaningful change. From taking down harmful predators, to holding authors accountable for backwards and harmful thinking, like J.K Rowling. But now, it’s been convoluted, co-opted, and stands in the way of actual accountability— instead, we can debate if we’re “cancelling” Paw Patrol and Mr. Potato Head.
So, it’s time to cancel “cancel culture.”
You’re cancelling being “cancelled.” Now what?
It’s become clear that cancel culture isn’t working. In fact, in many ways it does the opposite, drawing so much attention to a subject quite often results in the individual or the action gaining more popularity, instead of ignoring it. Two months ago, popular TikToker @onlyjayus was supposedly cancelled for using racist and homophobic slurs in the past, and refusing to take accountability for their actions. However, despite seeing an initial drop in followers and sponsors, by April they gained 2 million more followers, plus a handful of new sponsors. The controversy served to make them more popular. Something that is becoming more and more common. And that’s not the point.
It’s time to take down cancelling. Not only is it no longer holding people accountable for their actions, it can actually be counterproductive. But in a world where the justice system takes anywhere from months to years, if it even goes that far at all, what do we do to fill the spot cancel culture leaves behind?
I, personally am a big advocate for taking parts of “cancelling” and combining it with de-platforming. If the goal is to take away the social and economic power of those accused, we need to not only draw attention to the issue but also remove them from the equation. Cancel culture often starts and stops at raising awareness, or having a conversation, and in 2021, that isn’t far enough. Even in the case of predators like R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, it took several rounds of “cancelling” and many years for them to feel the effects. We need to take it a step further: to de-platforming the person, or thing, you’re advocating against. Has a social media influencer been accused of sexual assault? Unfollow and block. They can’t get paid if no one is watching their content. They lose social value if they lose followers. Is your favourite author transphobic? As much as it hurts, stop buying their books. Has a politician been accused of running a corrupt campaign? Vote them out.
At the end of the day, the power is still where the power has always been— with the people. So it’s time we put it to good use to create quick and valuable change.
And please, let “cancel culture” be the last thing we cancel.