Cancel culture is a valuable form of protest that asks society to prioritize justice for victims over perpetrators’ comfort
In a democracy, citizens have the right to peaceably protest ideas or institutions that they find harmful. Cancel culture gives marginalized voices a platform, and allows society to progress by educating themselves about historical violence. Rather than threatening free speech, it asks for society to prioritize ethics.
Cancel culture is simply the latest iteration of petitions and picket lines. In this, social media has become an important tool for activism that strengthens democracy. It has opened new opportunities to exercise free speech and opinion. Its value is the challenge it offers up to outdated ideas, and how it propels society towards a kinder and more contemporary set of values on which to build. Proponents include journalist and influencer Ernest Owens.
“Cancel culture,” according to BBC News, is a public “dethroning” or protesting of leaders who have committed injustices and can no longer be trusted with the power they hold. This can look like a social media hashtag asking the public to boycott a damaging film, or like a call to take down statues of Christopher Columbus, known for his obscene crimes against humanity. The possibility of a topic on which both President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama agree seems unlikely, but we just might have found it. Both have expressed their concerns on cancel culture. Obama explains that “the world is messy” and space for discourse is key if we want to find a solution. But there seems to be a fundamental disconnect here, because those who engage in cancel culture understand the nuances of opinion. Yet, according to Ernest Owens of the New York Times, cancel culture has nothing to do with opinion. There are certain assertions, says Owens, that are both so demonstrably false and damaging to marginalized populations, that their amplification is unnecessary and actually damaging to the sanctity of public discourse Obama speaks of. For instance, a society that removes a statue of Columbus is one that is adaptable and prioritizes the voice of its people, whose values no longer align with the nation’s violent history. While Trump has compared "cancel culture" to “totalitarianism,” he too has (perhaps unknowingly) engaged in some of the most biting social media call-outs. Famously active on Twitter, Trump frequently uses social media to dismiss those who question his authority, says NPR’s senior political correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Yet, President Trump also seems to misunderstand the core of cancel culture, as do other social and political leaders. On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published a letter written by 151 “journalists, academics, and authors” decrying the risk cancel culture poses to free speech. Yet, Erin B. Logan of the Los Angeles Times, considering the outcry of this open letter, writes of just how oppressive and silencing society has been to marginalized voices for more than a hundred years. To her, the letter seems out of touch, although well-meaning, and as if these writers are willing to risk the continued subjugation of certain populations just so that they may write without fear of offending. According to Sarah Hagi of Time Magazine, cancel culture is actually protest, a staple of American culture, but (unfortunately) does not hold as much sway as those in power think. She cites #MeToo of 2017 as one of the movements that set cancel culture off at full speed. Hagi explains that the most prominent benefit that has come from this is the empowerment of marginalized voices to finally join the conversation and call out that which has oppressed them, from protest against sexual assault to police brutality. But social cancellation has not been translating into tangible change at the speed at which many assume it is. For example, while Shane Gillis was eventually removed from Saturday Night Live for to his racist comments, he is still on tour. His career is intact, which means that society is willing to make plentiful exceptions for those in power, and Gillis is one of many. Cancel culture is an act of protest against injustices which seeks to bolster the safety of marginalized populations and denounce violence, subtle or blatant.
Cancel culture is so prevalent and highly debated that its definition and history have made it onto Merriam-Webster, who credits black Twitter activists with the hashtag and the #MeToo movement with the popularization of social media call-outs. Merriam-Webster explains that there is inherent performativity in the public cancellation of a person in power. A social media post and a hashtag spread like wildfire, shared and repeated, but this seems to draw attention to that which one is attempting to protest. In the age of social media, attention and the circulation of a name are in many ways synonymous with power and influence. According to Aja Romano of Vox, the public outrage which cancel culture seeks to muster is validating for those who have been oppressed and abused, but also potentially empowering to the perpetrators. First of all, while cancelling someone on social media might lead to a social awakening and lowered public approval ratings, in very few instances is the offender actually held accountable. For instance, Louis C.K.’s career was interrupted for about 10 months according to Romano, but promptly resumed touring to sold-out performances, likely in response to the multiple allegations of sexual assault. Supporters of Louis C.K. were likely compelled to show up to turn their backs on allegations while many others might have simply discovered him through the massive public backlash which unintentionally acted like publicity. Romano also notes that after sexual assault allegations came out about R. Kelly, his music was streamed more frequently. Activist and professor of reproductive justice Loretta Ross wrote in an article for the New York Times that she worries cancel culture is distracting people from putting in the work to make tangible change. Due to the performative nature of using one’s social media account to cancel someone publicly, cancel culture can be an opportunity to promote one’s own brand. Again, more attention is drawn to perpetrators than to victims of abuse, and their actions which are often systemic, are not investigated further than a call-out. Zach Johnston for Uproxx points out the benefit of “call-out culture,” different from cancel culture, in that it seeks to start a conversation. He cites a tweet from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which claims that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” Indigenous people were quick to tag her and remind her of the populations she was forgetting in her narrative. Although we do not expect all politicians to respond this openly, AOC did reply publicly and thank them for educating her. While for some, cancel culture is a platform for silenced voices to be prioritized over those who are committing repeated injustices, others believe the best way to move forward is to start conversations on social media in order to make tangible change.
Rejecting the premises