Photo by: Brett Jordan
Content warning: mentions of suicide, sexism, racism and sexual abuse.
With social media becoming easily accessible to the masses over the last decade, a movement known as “cancel culture” has become one of the consequences of how fast information can spread. Cancel culture refers to the mass shaming of an individual, typically those who hold fame and power. After the individual commits an act deemed inappropriate or unacceptable by society, many people begin the act of “cancelling” the person in question.
The cancellation in question can range anywhere from a few days of angry social media backlash to a ruined career for the individual. Their reputation can be tarnished, and in certain instances, they may become infamous for years to come. Social media has played a major role in the development of cancel culture by allowing people to share their thoughts to a crowd with extremely low barriers of entry.
A person can be cancelled for many reasons but the causal factor is usually that society has deemed their actions to be unacceptable, immoral, shameful or something worse.
Influencers such as YouTubers tend to be cancelled in the most public, vocal ways. In Jan. 2018, YouTuber Logan Paul was cancelled for his actions in a video he had published, in which he laughed at the body of a suicide victim discovered in a Japanese forest. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg found himself at the centre of a controversy in Sept. 2017 after he used a racial epithet during a livestream. Once-esteemed YouTuber Shane Dawson was cancelled in 2020 after a series of actions that had taken place for years resurfaced, including racist remarks, making sexual jokes about minors and joking about sexually abusing his cat.
Since its inception, cancel culture has become a controversial topic. Some believe that cancellation holds individuals accountable for their harmful actions, while others believe that cancel culture spreads a harmful rhetoric that eliminates opportunities for forgiveness and second chances. To understand unique perspectives on cancel culture, it is important to consider that individuals may have varying definitions of the phenomenon.
“Cancel culture is a response to something that could be publicly harmful to multiple people,” said Scott Yoo, a third-year dramatic arts student. “It’s almost an emergency response to something that could be very harmful to many different people. Whether that’s on Twitter, Instagram or YouTube comments, I feel like it’s a bunch of people responding to something that they think could hurt someone, or has hurt someone.”
Yoo sees the morality of cancel culture as situational. “My personal opinion on the matter is that cancel culture can be good, or it could be bad,” said Yoo. “There’s a YouTuber that got famously cancelled named David Dobrik. What he did was truly horrible, and what he was doing was harmful to multiple people. So, it was good that he did not receive gratitude from his fans for a while, because he did something very harmful.”
However, Yoo also believes that cancel culture’s effects are not always necessarily positive. “Sometimes cancel culture may become more of an attack rather than a defense. Two wrongs never make a right, like when cancel culture turns into very harmful comments.”
Yoo elaborated on harmful comments directed at those in controversy and why sending them is morally incorrect. “Andrew Tate, for example, definitely needs to get cancelled for what he’s been saying. I think that’d be very good. But, I don’t think it should get to a point where Andrew Tate feels so threatened that he feels unsafe.”
Yoo also spoke to the positive impacts that a person’s cancellation can hold. “When people cancel others, it is to protect an already marginalized group of people. Or, it is in response to something done that is morally unacceptable or possibly even criminal.”
Yoo believes that in certain instances, if a cancelled individual demonstrates positive change after a controversy, they should be allowed to have an opportunity to improve.
“I think cancellation can be deserved at times,” said Yoo. “Obviously, each circumstance is situational, but if the person who has been cancelled shows true growth in character from that cancellation, I think they should be given a second chance. If they truly understand what mistake they made, how it affected people and why it is never okay to make that mistake, I think it’s fine to ‘un-cancel’ them. They’ve shown true growth in character, and they know what they did was wrong, and they can grow from that. If they can show that in some way, I believe they deserve a second chance.”
Kristiana Anania, a fifth-year concurrent education student, believes that cancel culture usually does more harm than good. “I would define cancel culture as in relation to pop culture,” said Anania. “It’s almost killing someone – killing their image, because cancelling can seem as though their whole identity is gone for something that they did.”
Anania referenced the relationship she once held with cancel culture. “I used to like cancel culture, because it would hold people accountable for their actions that were pretty terrible. But, I think the term has been overused for small things now, for very small mistakes. I don’t think someone should be cancelled over that, or looked down upon. People will shun them for their mistakes, but we all make mistakes,” said Anania. Despite this, she also recognizes that there are certain lines that must not be crossed. “If it’s more of a serious allegation, then it shouldn’t be looked at as ‘cancel culture’, it should be looked at as a legal issue.”
Anania spoke further on the difference between cancellation and legal concerns. “There are some justified examples for cancellation. If someone’s bullying someone, that is justified. If it’s an allegation, like sexual harassment, then it’s above cancel culture; you should actually go to court. Then, there’s the unjustified ones, where it’s just a small mistake that anyone could make. In most cases, I don’t think it’s justified.”
Anania suggests that these situations should be looked at with compassion because the person who committed the error might not have been aware of their insensitivity at the time. “Let’s say they use a racist term, but they didn’t know that it was a racist term. They weren’t culturally aware of it. But, then everyone on the Internet starts hating them, sends them death threats and says they can’t be forgiven for that.”
The death threats that Anania referenced are not uncommon for an individual to receive after a cancellation. Many people who have found themselves at the centre of a controversy report onslaughts of hateful, threatening messages.
Anania thinks that the intentions of those who willingly partake in cancel culture are typically negative. “For the most part, some people are jealous or sad with their lives, so they want someone else to feel pain, and they want their life to be over because of a small thing. They know that everyone makes mistakes, and that they can learn from them,” said Anania.
Anania notes that not every person who speaks about the negative actions of others has ill intent, however. “I think there is a minority who wants to see the good in people. They don’t want to cancel them, but they want them to be held accountable. They want them to acknowledge their mistakes.”
Like Yoo, Anania believes that forgiveness is incredibly important in the cancellation timeline – however, she fears that this type of compassion is dwindling as time passes.
“I think with cancel culture, forgiveness has kind of been lost,” said Anania. “People think one mistake means you’re a bad person, and I think they forget that they’re a person, and they don’t forgive. It’s terrible, because forgiveness is important for both parties.”
It is certainly worth noting that many cancelled figures are able to make a comeback on their respective platforms. Internet users generally decide the level of quality of an apology and the actions that follow, with certain individuals finding success in returning to their former glory, such as PewDiePie. Others, like Shane Dawson, seem to be cancelled to the point where their career stands virtually no chance of returning to the success it once held.
Cancel culture is certainly a controversial topic in modern society. There are many factors to consider when considering a public response to an individual’s behaviour, including the controversial action, the growth they might experience and the second chance society might provide them with.