If you have been active on social media over the course of the past few years you might have noticed an increased level of social awareness at the hands of its users: battles which until a few years ago went unnoticed in the eyes of most people, are now receiving the recognition they deserve.
What role does cancel culture play in this scenario?
Let’s have a close look at one of the most recent examples of this phenomenon.
In 2020, American comedian and the host of “The Ellen Show”, Ellen DeGeneres, along with her producers, was accused of fuelling a toxic and problematic workplace. The accusation began in March 2020, when Kevin T. Porter wrote a tweet inviting people to share their experiences connected to said hostile work environment.
Allegations started piling up, including behind-the-scenes sexual misconduct and racism: such controversy almost cost her her viewers’ support and show cancellation. As a consequence, despite her apologies, a consistent share of her viewers attacked her and discredited her on social media.
So, what is “cancel culture”?
Cancel culture is the act of boycotting, withdrawing support from a public figure, brand or company, due to behaviours, actions or statements that are considered problematic, with the aims to erase the target from the public eye for the sake of social justice and equality.
The question arises…
Is cancel culture functional to social progress?
There is no moral referee in this conflict, no rules involved, no judge in the trial.
Some abuses are absolutely inexcusable, as in the case, for instance, of sexual abuse. Some other times, however, it simply takes one Tweet from your past for you to be publicly shamed. One step out of line from several years ago and you are permanently discredited.
Cancel culture does not leave room for redemption.
Barack Obama himself during an interview at the Obama Foundation Summit condemned cancel culture on this ground by declaring that “The world is messy, there are ambiguities”.
As a matter of fact…
Cancel culture often lacks a holistic approach. In such a polarized conception of society, retrieval and engaging in constructive dialogue do not always seem to be an option: individuals get vilified instantly. Either you are (and you have always been) pure, good and immaculate, or you are bad and unwelcome. “That’s not bringing about change” declared the former U.S. president “If all you are doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far”.
On one hand…
When we blindly attack people’s problematic behaviour on social media, there are cases in which online battles might not have the outcome we hope for: it is the case of the “backfire effect”. Studies show that when people are presented with new pieces of information that challenges their bias, the first primal reaction will be to get defensive, because they hold to their familiar beliefs. In this way, instead of solving the root of the problem, it only escalates their defensiveness into contempt, which is ineffective in pursuing progress.
More and more people feel uncomfortable being on social media because of the fear of being attacked, discredited and “cancelled”.
To the extent that...
It has been argued that cancel culture can be conceived as a threat to freedom of expression.
In the Summer of 2020, more than 150 journalists, writers and intellectuals signed “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”: this one was published in Harpers Magazine with the aim to implicitly condemn cancel culture on the grounds of the so-called “intolerance of opposing views” and censorship.
Now, let’s observe the issue from a different perspective: what if the target of said “cancellation” is not the one who has been wronged in the first place?
Where are we going with this?
Here is a practical example: the #MeToo movement shows evidence that social media is an extremely effective tool when it comes to giving a voice to the marginalized communities who otherwise would not have the same opportunities to speak up.
How does this example apply to cancel culture?
Said movement has the goal of raising awareness on sexual violence and harassment. Not only by building up a feeling of solidarity among the survivors, but also by giving primarily support to marginalised communities: for instance, women, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community.
If we conceive society in terms of institutional oppression, cancel culture is a tool that provides opportunities to the marginalised groups to hold their oppressors responsible for their wrongdoings and problematic behaviours, regardless of who they are and of their social status.
What about the “Harper’s letter”?
The publication of the previously mentioned “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has fuelled the controversy over cancel culture and free speech.
As a consequence...
A group of journalists published a counter-letter on The Objective declaring that, what the Harper’s letter neglects to mention, is that the signers are mostly high-profile individuals belonging to privileged groups, who can hardly suffer the consequences of institutional oppression and of an actual deprivation of freedom of speech.
In short, they are not the ones who are mistreated in the first place.
The point is that...
As opposed to what these intellectuals claimed, it can be argued that cancel culture is not a threat to their right of free speech. It is about setting speech boundaries while limiting hate speech towards said oppressed communities: giving them the freedom to express themselves and feel valid: while leading the way to an equal society.
On one side, cancel culture perpetuates the toxic idea of a polarised society in which progress can only be achieved through the metaphorical eradication of those who display problematic behaviours.
On the other hand, it allows voiceless oppressed communities to hold their oppressors accountable for their abuses and misconduct, leading to the creation of a more equal society.
A question for you…
Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli said: “The end justifies the means”.
Do you think that this quote can be applied to the end and means of cancel culture?