2019’s social media platforms have been flooded with one word that is used to describe celebrities, politicians, and influencers alike: Canceled.
2019’s social media platforms have been flooded with one word that is used to describe celebrities, politicians, and influencers alike: Canceled. While social media has allowed people to connect to each other and express their opinions openly over the years, it’s also led to a new norm: cancel culture.
Cancel culture is a new term to describe a form of boycott in which a person is thrown out of social or professional circles. Usually taking place over social media and described as being “cancelled,” the event is characterized by an overwhelming social consensus to ostracize and ignore a public figure. While the term is often used in terms of celebrity news, there are plenty of real-life cases. LA Weekly Columnist Art Tavana, for example, was “canceled” after writing an ill-received line about an actress in an article. Not only was he relentlessly attacked online, but he also lost his job and nearly had to quit his journalism career. His comments may not have been the most tactful, but they certainly did not warrant the response they received. While cancel culture initially began as a way to call out improper behavior and correct it, it’s morphed into a way to condemn people and ostracize them instead of educating them. The political conversations we have on social media have grown more hostile, polarized, and intolerant.
While social media certainly has its role in politics and has led to important movements, cancel culture has shown that it can lead to a misguided form of activism because it rarely improves anything. It’s a cycle of shaming in which the “guilty” person finds his/herself ostracized, and those participating in the ostracization finds themselves being praised. More than just for the perpetrator, one can even be “cancelled” by endorsing a canceled figure. For example, in an article investigating the phenomenon of cancel culture, the New York Times told the story of a teenage boy who was “cancelled” at his school for listening to a song by artist R. Kelly, a musician convicted of sexual misconduct. While some may disagree with the statement that we are not the sum of our sins in R. Kelly’s case, we certainly aren’t the sum of the sins of those we interact with. Former President Barack Obama criticized this cancel culture at a summit a few months ago, “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff—You should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
We idealize authenticity, yet when presented with authentic people—those who make mistakes and aren’t perfect—we shun them. Cancel culture won’t fix society. It will only hide the issues that our country needs to confront. Without hearing the offensive statements that cause us to “cancel” others, how will we know that there’s something wrong? Cancel culture merely responds to a false sense of perfection and unity. It causes our politicians, leaders, and influencers to rehearse and orchestrate every moment, afraid that they’ll get canceled if they make a mistake. In this way, cancel culture kills political and social authenticity and make it more difficult to address serious issues.
Cancel culture isn’t activism. It’s intolerance. It causes people to classify others as either good or bad. This black-and-white perception of our peers has only contributed to the rising political polarization in the United States. Rather than listening to other opinions or ideas, we “cancel” anyone who doesn’t agree with us. If someone disagrees with us, they’re wrong; if someone says the “wrong thing,” they’re a bad person. We’re becoming increasingly intolerant of others. People can still have their own opinions and disagree with others, but cancel culture has caused these disagreements to spin out of control.
Arguments over political issues have grown more aggressive, with each side defending its position by spewing hate at the other side. Ultimately, cancel culture hinders our ability to have productive and meaningful discussions—we’re too busy calling each other out.
We cannot let our ideals of perfection be the enemy of the good. It’s essential to keep that idea in mind as we head into the 2020 election. Cancel culture and social media have caused people to look for perfection in the public arena. We need authenticity. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of cancel culture, we need to learn how to deal with imperfection and differing opinions. Otherwise, we’ll only grow further apart.