Is Cancel Culture Effective?
Fall 2020 | By Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17 | Illustrations by Matt Chase
Mob mentality. A modern social justice practice. An impediment to free speech. A platform for marginalized voices. Call it what you will. Cancel culture is a concept so hotly debated that it remains in limbo, much like many individuals’ attitudes toward it.
The one common theme everyone seems to agree on is that cancel culture involves taking a public stance against an individual or institution for actions considered objectionable or offensive. But is it an effective way to hold those in positions accountable, or is it punishment without a chance for redemption?
In July, when Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” — a critique on cancel culture without directly naming it — it was met with immediate backlash. The letter was initially signed by 153 notable individuals, including J.K. Rowling — who has recently faced calls for cancellation due to social media comments considered transphobic by some. For Mel Stanfill, UCF assistant professor of texts and technology, the letter is an example of how cancel culture can be a complicated practice.
“I think cancel culture can reflect awareness that people are not willing to accept things that they used to accept or have not been able to resist in the past, but in some ways it’s a moral panic,” says Stanfill, who is also an assistant professor of English. “The Harper’s letter was a bunch of really rich and famous people writing in a national magazine about how they’ve been silenced — yet they still get access to this forum. So it highlights the fact that [cancel culture is] this fear over something that is not actually real. So if we’re going to talk about cancel culture, we can’t talk about it in isolation, we have to put it in context.”
Influences From Black Culture
While public shaming and silencing are practices that have been around as long as society itself, cancel culture is a somewhat new concept with specific ties to Black culture.
According to the news site Vox, the first reference of canceling a person in pop culture possibly comes from the 1991 movie New Jack City, when Wesley Snipes’ character, Nino Brown, says, “Cancel that [woman]. I’ll buy another one,” referencing his girlfriend’s disapproval of his violent ways. In 2010, rapper Lil Wayne referenced the quote in his song “I’m Single.” But it was after a 2014 Love & Hip-Hop: New York episode when cast member Cisco Rosado told his love interest “You’re canceled,” that the term gained traction on social media. Soon after, Black Twitter began using it both jokingly and seriously to express their disagreement with others.
“There are also these series of practices on Twitter, some of which have come from Black Twitter, of skilled insults, which come from the Dozens, a game common in Black communities of finding clever ways to put someone down,” Stanfill says.
And while cancel culture’s origins are linked to playful banter, it also stems from one form of protest: boycotting. Started by the Irish in the 1880s, boycotting became a powerful social and political tool used successfully by African Americans during the civil rights movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks.
“If you don’t have the ability to stop something through political means, what you can do is refuse to participate,” said Anne Charity Hudley — North Hall Endowed Chair in the Linguistics of African America at the University of California, Santa Barbara — in the same Vox article. “Canceling is a way to acknowledge that you don’t have to have the power to change structural inequality. You don’t even have to have the power to change all of public sentiment. But as an individual, you can still have power beyond measure.”
The internet heightens that power by collectively amplifying the voices of marginalized people who may be a minority — and otherwise silenced — in their physical communities. It’s also allowed others to become aware and support them as allies.
Since #BlackLivesMatter began in 2014 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, the hashtag has grown into a historic global movement. For decades, Black communities have spoken out about racial injustices and police brutality, but social media has bolstered attention around these issues and seriously shifted the nation’s recognition of the need for change — especially after the death of George Floyd.
Social media’s public access has also allowed this form of public shaming to become a practice for people of all backgrounds to address varying issues.
Public Shaming Throughout Human History
A core element of cancel culture, public shaming has been used since societies were first formed. Stocks, or public restraints, were used in medieval Europe up through Colonial America, where Puritans used them to punish criminals. Tarring and feathering was also a form of public corporal punishment used to keep people in line. And during World War II, French women who were deemed traitors had their heads shaved, says Stacey (Barreto) DiLiberto ’03 ’11PhD, a UCF lecturer in philosophy.
Though often tied to personal punishment, public shaming has also been understood to be a positive social practice.
“Public shaming is a long-standing public ritual that helped to uphold social bonds and make sure people within communities were equal and understood the norms, and to ensure no one got too high and mighty,” says Amanda Koontz, UCF associate professor of sociology.
One common example, Koontz notes, comes from the !Kung people, a band society — the simplest known form of society — in southern Africa. During Christmas 1969, Canadian anthropologist Robert Borshay Lee presented the group with a large ox as a gift. Members made fun of his offering and called it a “bag of bones,” and it was later explained that this “shaming of the meat” practice was standard to keep someone humble whenever they brought back a large kill.
“We have a tendency sometimes to say things via social media or other platforms that maybe we wouldn’t say if we were face to face with someone.”
This type of equalizing is understood to be a positive practice as the !Kung’s strong communal bonds have not been disrupted by the complex issues of modern societies, such as racism, sexism and political polarization. The in-person practice among people you know and live with also doesn’t translate to the scale of the global internet community, where often you’re ultimately engaging with strangers.
Celebrities have always been highly susceptible to public criticism because of the nature of their privileged position. But in the era of cancel culture, they’re even more susceptible because they’re often viewed as agents of change, Koontz says.
The #MeToo movement is one example of how publicly calling out powerful individuals can lead to a widespread cultural shift. When sexual abuse allegations against former film producer Harvey Weinstein became public in 2017, it led to his conviction as a sex offender. Other influential people have faced their own reckonings for similar misconducts, and societal attitudes toward sexism and sexual harassment are becoming more intolerant.
But sometimes, public denouncement of powerful individuals can have the opposite effect of what is intended. When the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries premiered in January 2019, #MuteRKelly began trending, calling for the singer’s conviction for sexual crimes and an end to his career. But the increased negative attention around the artist seemed to backfire as on-demand streams for his music increased from 1.9 million the day before the docuseries began airing to 4.3 million — a 126 percent increase — on the day after the three-day premiere concluded.
“The general public seems to have this power to hold accountable people who we’ve historically deemed powerful entities, but is that authority ultimately fleeting?” DiLiberto asks. “Yes, celebrities are real people too, and they say stupid things and do reprehensible things as well. But why should we care so much about what they do, as opposed to our own actions or our immediate community around us?”
The Digital Divide
Whether you view cancel culture as empowering or destructive, the practice says a lot about our current cultural climate, which has been influenced by the increasingly digital world we inhabit.
“We don’t have this distinction anymore between public and private, and it’s almost as if we’re living more of our lives online than we are in the real, tangible world,” DiLiberto says.
This new way of living seems to be even more true during 2020, a time when we seem to be in constant crisis — from the COVID-19 pandemic to a resurgence in public awareness around long-standing racial injustices — all within an especially important election year. People are experiencing more unrest and heightened isolation, leading us to spend more time online. Globally, new social media users have grown by about 11 percent this year, and people are spending about 40 percent more time on social media, according to a July report from DataReportal.
“If something comes on your timeline or feed, and it’s outrageous or terrible, we often have this knee-jerk reaction, rather than really investigating issues or listening,” DiLiberto says. “We share so much stuff online, and we have a tendency sometimes to say things via social media or other platforms that maybe we wouldn’t say if we were face to face with someone.”
In instances where someone has done something particularly egregious, perhaps committing a serious crime such as sexual assault, the case to cancel may seem clear-cut. But in other instances where certain behaviors may be more questionable than seriously problematic, deeper thinking, which requires time and effort, about the person and issues is required but rarely happens.
“The instant nature of social media means that very large, complicated social issues get condensed into one sentence, one minute for TikTok [videos] or just a photo on Instagram,” Koontz says. “Everything is becoming very succinct, and it both discourages nuanced discussion and encourages all-or-nothing stances. Cancel culture is ‘You’re all good, or you’re all bad,’ and human nature is much more complicated than that.”
Humans are flawed beings, and it’s in our nature to make mistakes. And tactics such as online doxxing — publicizing private or identifying information — and their potentially permanent effects could leave everyone susceptible to being canceled. It’s worth asking, what motivates authentic, positive change?
Amy Cooper — a white woman who called emergency services regarding Christian Cooper, a Black man, during a viral Central Park dispute about her illegally unleashed dog — has been fired from her job, charged with a misdemeanor for filing a false police report, and faced notoriety and ridicule. Cooper has apologized for her actions, but who determines the sincerity of it? She was dealt real consequences, yet racist incidents continue to happen and appear online daily.
“When you have these forms of public shaming [oftentimes through] filming these interactions, it turns social issues into something that is completely individualized,” Koontz says. “It puts great responsibility on an individual, and it does not [always] encourage actual societal change. We haven’t taken care of the larger institutional or systemic issues.”
Social media has certainly changed the way we communicate, providing more ways to connect than ever before. But in many ways, it’s dividing us and causing us to focus our energy where it isn’t always needed.
“So often we are told, ‘We must act and speak out, or we are part of the problem,’ and therefore we are not necessarily taught or trained that inaction or not speaking out can be a form of social-justice action,” Koontz says. “At some point, we need to think about ways we can create positive change instead of fueling negative causes.”
Perhaps we all need to take a step back and listen.