Cancel Cancel Culture?


Luke Leiden

Cancel culture: effective demand for accountability or vengeful mob in digital form?

I’m sorry to say that everyone at Boulder High has been canceled. Not officially, of course, given the lack of public notoriety necessary to truly experience cancelation, but I have no doubt that if we did, students would be dropping like flies at the hands of the relentless mob that has taken an undying hold of our media and culture, an unprecedented threat that goes under the name of “cancel culture.”

Anyone who’s anyone has either seen or experienced cancel culture in some form or another over the past few years. The infamous term is used to describe celebrities deemed problematic as a result of sexual misconduct allegations, racist and homophobic jokes, insensitive remarks, etc., who are boycotted and called out repeatedly over social media. While its presence in modern society can’t be overstated, cancel culture as a collective consciousness only recently appeared in American culture, and didn’t truly escalate until a few years after its integration. 

Despite some debate, most attribute the beginnings of the cultural boycott to Black Twitter users in 2016, though true cancelation emerged with the #MeToo movement in 2017 as a means to hold celebrities accountable for sexual abuse allegations. Still, cancelations didn’t reach a high point until the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, which not only resulted in the cancelations of more celebrities than ever before (such as Lana Del Rey, Doja Cat and J.K. Rowling, to name a few) but also in the cancelations of people in the general public, as the movement became politicized and personalized.

American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey is one of the many celebrities who have experienced cancelation during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past three months, I’ve watched in terror as influencers younger than I have been harassed to oblivion as a result of irrelevant, poorly executed jokes, and mainstream celebrities have practically begged to be boycotted, releasing statements that could not possibly have been more offensive. Even worse, cancel culture has seemingly infiltrated more localized settings such as high school, with teens being canceled from their respective friend groups practically every other week. 

While a portion of this escalation can certainly be blamed on quarantine, with people using cancel culture to seek connection and comfort or express their frustration with the impact of the pandemic, I’d argue it’s more reasonably a sign that the ostracizing nature of our society has reached its limit. 

I’ve always been uneasy about cancel culture, a discomfort likely the result of recognizing so many similarities between myself and the many, many celebrities that have been canceled over the years, a realization that is not incredibly optimistic about the type of future that I—that many of us—would face if we were ever to become figures of public renown. Not to mention the childhood trauma incurred by the Netflix feature Hated in the Nation, in which people deemed canceled by the public were brutally murdered at the hands of swarms of killer robot bees. 

What’s most appalling to me about the whole situation is how it’s been transformed recently, becoming little more than widespread bullying and humiliation, often with serious consequences for the mental health of those targeted, many of whom can barely be considered adults (see TikTok’s Addison Rae and Emmuhlu.) Especially given the well-known understanding of the temporary nature of cancelation, and the significant lack of positive results, it’s like people aren’t even trying to pretend it’s a positive institution anymore. 

Sure, there are definitely great qualities to cancel culture, whether that’s by creating opportunities for consequential discussions or giving minorities the platform to hold those in power—who have historically been untouchable—accountable for their actions. The latter benefit is especially important for the current political climate, serving as a major aide for BIPOC activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.

After coming under fire for a transphobic tweet, British author JK Rowling is considered by many to be officially canceled. (Wikimedia Commons)

Also important is the fact that most prominent criticisms of cancel culture come from privileged White people who are upset and uncomfortable with the threat of silence that minorities have been experiencing for decades. This was exemplified in the recent controversial letter published by Harper’s Magazine, which featured the complaints from many influential (and predominantly privileged) journalists and writers that they could no longer write transphobic manifestos or scathing criticisms of sexual-assault survivors without being held accountable. 

Nevertheless, the fact that criticisms of cancel culture are mainly coming from people who may experience more privilege, myself included, does not detract from the validity of many of their arguments. For one, holding everyone to such a high standard as to say you can only make one mistake in your life and then that’s it, your career’s over, creates a terrible dynamic in which people feel they must be the perfect humanitarian straight out of the womb since there’s no room for growth any longer within our society. Not to mention that people who do try to follow the rules of cancel culture—celebrities who advocate for the underprivileged and shower their social media feeds with acts of selflessness—usually are only adhering out of fear, a tactic that completely contradicts the very purpose cancel culture is said to have been slated with.

Most importantly, cancel culture rarely ever is constructive in making progress against racism, transphobia, etc., with celebrities losing their entire platforms over racist and homophobic tweets as Black Lives Matter and Pride movements are completely disregarded; all attention is turned towards the celebrity and not the larger issue at hand. Moreover, those in power who could really make a difference in advocating for these inequalities find themselves completely untouchable, as only figures who profit off of the attention economy are susceptible to the consequences of mass dissociation. 

Realistically, eliminating cancel culture is not something that’s going to be happening anytime soon; the chances of it disappearing about as likely as the chances of human nature ceasing to exist. Instead, the focus should be on reworking the movement, directing the focus toward uplifting people committed to personal growth rather than shutting them out. The idea isn’t as difficult or naive as it may seem; it’s already very similar to the transformative justice platform that has been expanding over the years in an effort to advocate for learning, conversation and growth instead of silence and ostracization. Especially given the recent spike in criticism of cancel culture, I truly believe it won’t be long before the two different approaches to the same purpose merge, and consequently make each other stronger. 

It’s indisputable that everyone needs room for experimentation, risk-taking and mistakes. So while I encourage you to go out and speak up for yourself, continuing to advocate for accountability and healing, take care that your motivations are in the right interests. Because cancel culture is hereby canceled, and you do not want to go down with it.