Cancel Culture: Toxic or Justifiable

Elizabeth White - Writer

To cancel or not to cancel, that is the question. In a world where everything you have ever thought can be broadcasted to the world, people rarely stop to think whether the world needs to hear what they think. Social media has allowed us as a society to open up express how we feel and share our thoughts and experiences, both negative and positive. Now, as much as this can be a good thing, it is not always the case. Every thought, every judgement and opinion could be seen as problematic. In today’s political and social climate, not everyone shares the same views and ideals. Putting those strong opinions and thoughts out there can lead to confrontation. Confrontation and mistakes can lead to being cancelled.

Social media has created a culture of cancelling, where people’s past comments are dredged up and shown the light. If those comments prove problematic they are “cancelled”; excluded, ostracised, them and their endeavours no longer supported by society. This culture of cancelling applies more specifically to celebrities than regular people. Celebrities, being in the public eye are subject to more of a vigorous analysis of their behaviour.

The real question is, how moral is cancel culture? Is it moral and justifiable to tear someone down for something they have done and said? Regardless of whether or not they have apologised for their behaviour and words, it is right to bash someone so heavily and so publicly? Part of me believes that everyone should own up to their actions and be held responsible for what they have done, acknowledging the hurt they have caused others. However, another part of me is uncomfortable with bashing someone who is attempting to repent for the pain they have caused. The majority of the internet seems perfectly comfortable with cancelling their once favourite celebrity for life because of a stupid comment they made then they were thirteen. A sort of eye-for-an-eye mentality emerges where we - as a public - retroactively take revenge for those past wrongdoings, even if those wrongdoings had no impact on us whatsoever. If they show no remorse then fine, cancel ‘em but if people are trying, can cancel culture be fully justified? Everyone makes mistakes but a celebrity’s mistakes are amplified just because they are famous. Is it right to potentially ruin someone’s life over a mistake?

More celebrities that can be counted were cancelled in the last year or so. Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Cardi B, Kevin Spacey, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Jeffree Starr, Taylor, Swift, James Charles, J. K. Rowling, James Gunn and Jake Paul. All of these celebs were cancelled for a variety of reasons ranging from accusations, and in some cases convictions of sexual abuse and rape. Others for transphobic comments, domestic abuse allegations, publicly lying, being an obnoxious youtuber, queer baiting and diversity pandering.

Some of these celebrities - in mine and many others opinions – deserved their public fall from grace. Take R. Kelly as an example. The once popular 90s R&B singer has had a career fraught with rumours about his attraction to underage girls and his mistreatment of them. The singer has been accused of holding multiple young women against their will at his home, supposedly brainwashing them. The most notable women being one Joycelyn Savage (23), who moved with Kelly to Chicago at the age of 17 to pursue her music career. Soon after, Savage cut off all ties with her family, seemingly without provocation. His secret marriage to the 15-year old singer Aaliyah when he was 27-years old did nothing to redeem his career. His very public fall from grace in the last year or so has been welcomed by many who see him as a menace and a paedophile. However, other instances of cancelling are a little less black and white as shown in the case against R. Kelly.

Let’s take the most recent incident involving now ex-BFF’s James Charles and Tati Westbrook. Their very public and sudden feud in which, initially, James was cancelled quickly turned around to see Tati being the one cancelled and James redeemed. Those that tore him down now lifted him back up, lavishing him in positive comments, as if they had not tried to destroy his career. If you somehow managed to miss all the drama that took place, let me give you a quick rundown of how all the drama unfolded.

It all started when James Charles promoted Sugar Bear Hair supplements – a brand that is a rival to Tati Westbrook’s Halo Beauty supplements. Tati saw this as a betrayal and effectively launched a campaign against Charles, defaming his character and accusing him of using his fame to coerce straight men into sexual acts with him. In an incredibly long, forty-minute video, Westbrook succeeded in destroying Charles’ public persona which resulted in his subscriber count going from 16.5 million to 13.5 million in little under a week. This resulted in a very public breakdown during an 8-minute apology video addressed from Charles to Westbrook, in which Charles subsequently announced his hiatus from social media until further notice. In the midst of this, Charles was being publicly abandoned by other celebrities such as the majority of Kardashian-Jenner clan, Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus. Westbrook went from only having 5,907,814 subscribers to 9,447,869 in just five days. This drastic rise/fall of subscribers respectively shows that cancel culture can be a particularly lucrative “business” for some at the expense of others. Just when we thought the dust had settled and that Tati was the victor, on 18th May, Charles released a video titled ‘No More Lies’, a video that catapulted him from villain to victim. The video showed Charles’ text messages and Instagram dm receipts. These were all dated and time stamped proving his innocence, inevitably destroying Westbrook’s allegations against him. As someone who watched said video, I can say I was utterly convinced of Charles’ innocence after previously doubting him. This video and the aftermath saw Charles’ subscriber count return to what it had been before the incident whilst Westbrook lost 200,000 subscribers as a result.

Now, what can we learn from this complex, drama filled, yet short-lived feud between these two YouTube giants? That public opinion is constantly fluctuating. Motolani Alake, writing for notes that ‘‘Cancel’ is a hastily utilised tool of justice in the court of public opinion, when the very impatient millennials feel the court system might be too slow and pragmatic to deliver a sharp and fulfilling verdict.’ What Alake highlights here, is how impatient the general public can be for results, so we cancel before the truth is fully revealed to feel like we have achieved something.

We as human beings are flighty and easily led. Three million of us were so quick to cancel Charles (this writer included) not wanting to be associated with someone with such a tainted public image. Especially in the era of the #MeToo movement, a reputation for being sexually inappropriate can mean the death of one’s career. So we jumped ship and jumped fast. And then we climbed back up. This behaviour also rings true in regards to the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard domestic violence case. We were all quick to believe Heard, and admonish Depp and all those that still choose to employ a “wife beater”. But then soon enough information came to light that seemed to prove Depp the victim and Heard the perpetrator. Once again, we flip-flopped. Does cancel culture have any real weight if the public cannot decide who is guilty and who is not? In the case of James Charles, his cancellation proved to have no lasting effect on his career as he has fully re-gained the following he lost. Therefore, is cancelling even an effective tool?

I for one find cancelling exhausting. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe those that commit egregious wrongs should face the consequences of their actions (Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, I’m looking at you guys). But does cancelling everyone and everything really have the desired impact? Yes, refusing to support those who do wrong by others sends them the message that their actions will not be tolerated, but if we do not uphold these publicly imposed sanctions, do they learn? Does our outrage expressed in two-hundred and eighty characters do anything? I’m not sure it does.

That may seem like a disheartening thought and this article isn’t meant to convince you to not stand up for your beliefs and hold those who abuse their power to account. What I hope I’ve shown in this article is how complicated cancel culture can be. How cancelling can be toxic to those trying to repent for their actions and how, though it may have the best intentions, cancel culture does little to actually impact the wider society around us.

If we want to see change in our society; stop the discrimination, the bigotry, the political turmoil, what we need to do is be more proactive in our efforts. I’m not sure plaguing Taylor Swift with snake emojis does that. In my own way, I am trying my best to remain neutral. This does not mean that I am not informed or do not care, but that I have the right to reserve judgment until all the facts are given. Jumping on the social media bandwagon does nothing to solve the problem, in some senses you could be attacking an innocent party. Though cancel culture now seems embedded within the foundation of the internet and social media, I think we need to evaluate whether cancel culture is right or wrong. As a society, we need to reflect on, and examine our behaviours in order to establish a better society: a better society not ruled by social media.



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