Holding people responsible for their actions is a concept that has existed as long as we have. With the rapid growth of global communication through technological advancement, however, society now has the ability to do something that has thus far been essentially impossible: holding people accountable on a massive scale. Where 100 years ago it was much easier for people to sweep bad behavior under the rug, we now have social media platforms where millions of people from around the world are allowed to see what you’re saying now and what you said 10 years ago.
Nothing one puts out on the internet ever truly goes away. As social media and technology develop at a rate society can barely keep up with, people are in the process of learning how to cope with all of this massive new influence. This has had positive effects — the ability to ethically hold continuously hateful people accountable — as well as negative — we sometimes don’t know when and where to stop. This is what is referred to as “cancel culture.”
Let’s start by looking at the positives. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling has been skirting outright transphobia since as early as 2015, when she published her novel “The Silkworm,” which contained questionable scenes involving a trans woman. From there she began liking various transphobic tweets until finally she made her position clear in a tweet supporting a woman who was fired from her job for spreading transphobic beliefs. Since then Rowling has not held back in her internet campaign against trans people, shoddily masking it as feminism. Luckily, a good portion of the internet has met her in stride and for the most part collectively agreed to leave behind childhood nostalgia in favor of standing together with trans people.
There’s no way that Rowling could be so thoroughly “canceled” that she loses her massive fortune and influence. She will always have diehard fans and people purchasing her products and further lining her pockets. However, by coming together as a community and treating her words as the hateful drivel it is, internet communities are sending a message to trans people that their happiness is being chosen over the author that defined the childhoods of many. It has also created important discourse and brought attention to the contents of the “Harry Potter” books and how many of the elements that seemed harmless upon first read actually perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Rowling’s situation, for the most part, has shown a healthy and productive method of public accountability. This is not the case for many celebrity controversies. Thanks to social media being accessible to nearly anyone and everyone, what should be a relatively simple concept of choosing to ignore public figures one disagrees with has turned into convoluted witch hunts that serve no purpose but to take away from why social consequences are important in the first place.
What’s important is separating getting “canceled” from facing well-deserved consequences. They are not the same thing. Cancel culture refers to the irrational manner in which people on the internet approach even the smallest of issues.
Often people responsible for canceling are quick to disregard the nuance of a situation, primarily in regards to the amount of time passed. A tweet from 10 years ago doesn’t automatically point to a pattern of behavior. It’s also important to remember how much ideas can change, both on the personal and societal level. Most people don’t carry the same beliefs at 25 that they did at 15. Additionally, the social climate of just a decade ago is massively different from today’s.
Cancel culture at its core can largely be attributed to mob mentality.
Alex R. Piquero, Department of Sociology chair at the University of Miami, said that “there is something about being in the collective group at the same space and time, and people can be influenced by the crowd, especially when emotions run high among like-minded people.”
People desperately want to fit in and be liked. By joining a mob of people set on canceling a celebrity, it aligns one with the ideals of the masses and takes the pressure off them to become informed and incite real change. There is also a bit of a power trip that comes with having the ability to change a person’s life so drastically.
While cancel culture persists, people are often afraid to speak out against the mob because it could seem like aligning with the harmful ideas that are supposedly being fought against.
In a tweet, singer Lizzo argues that “cancel culture is appropriation.” She goes on to say, “There was real outrage from truly marginalized people and now it’s become trendy, misused and misdirected. I hope we can phase out of this and focus our outrage on the real problems.”
To separate cancel culture and mob mentality from attempts at real accountability and change, we need to look carefully at our own intentions. Next time you see someone with a massive amount of influence doing something you disagree with, ask yourself: Who is most affected by their harmful words? How much do I know about this topic? What am I able to do that is actually productive in creating a safer and more welcoming space for everyone?
The internet is an unstoppable force. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated with how things are handled by the internet en masse. What you can do is approach internet discourse cautiously. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Celebrities are not your friends, and letting yourself feel betrayed by one vague tweet from 2010 is unhealthy. Most importantly, do your research and corroborate your sources.
We cannot be discouraged from working towards a better world for everyone; it just matters how we do it. It’s time we leave cancel culture behind.