What do Ellen Degeneres, J.K. Rowling, Jimmy Fallon, Lea Michele and Charli D’Amelio have in common? Besides being varying types and levels of celebrities, they’re also all recent victims of cancel culture. While their “crimes” range from creating a toxic work environment, to making transphobic comments and wearing blackface, to being an on-set diva and spoiled teenager, each one was publicly called out for their actions.
At the most basic level, cancel culture encompasses the withdrawing of support for companies or public figures when it is discovered that they’ve done or said something questionable or offensive. To say that someone is “cancelled” means just that — they’re over and done with. If the cancellation is entirely successful, they’re publicly shunned out of the spotlight forever. On the surface, this seems like a good thing. Why would the public want to support someone with a problematic past? If a celebrity is not using their platform for good, shouldn’t we do everything we can to take that platform away?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as it seems. The typical use of cancel culture is not as productive as the pure definition may suggest. These cancellations are often only trends on Twitter that are popular for a few days then quickly forgotten about. The intentions are pure: Bigotry is intolerable and people should be held accountable for it, especially celebrities with large audiences. But sending hate tweets does not change the world. Marking people as “bad” and promptly moving on is not enough. This is because the world is messier than we want it to be.
Not to say that anybody should be able to freely spread bigotry or hate speech. Rowling’s transphobic comments, Fallon’s wearing of blackface and similar injustices should be acknowledged instead of dismissed under the notions of free speech and nobody being perfect. However, instead of giving up on individuals, proponents of cancel culture should shift their practices towards accountability. Ask for apologies, retractions and the pulling of insensitive advertisements or statements. Support brands or celebrities that do their homework before speaking on controversial issues. Acknowledge people with different opinions than your own, and ask them what evidence or reasoning they have backing their claims. Admire people that take a step back before responding to upsetting messages, instead of those that let unbridled emotions fuel their behavior, only to later regret comments made in the heat of the moment. Watch subsequent behavior after a celebrity’s “cancel-worthy” incident. Do they repeatedly make the same mistakes, or are they actively furthering more tolerant views, embracing open-mindedness?
It’s human nature to want to find someone to blame. We believe that we can explain what’s wrong with society by attacking other people, thus simultaneously defending our own lives because we are “nowhere near as bad.” And we believe that these attacks are helpful to the world. Moreover, the act of cancelling someone is great for providing for humanity’s deep need for a sense of identity. We align ourselves with the rest of the pack deemed “good” and ostracize those who do not perfectly fit our ideals. Cancel culture has taken the role of “cleaning up the streets” within the internet, but simply labelling people as “bad” (the equivalent of throwing them in jail) says nothing about the possibility of change.
It’s good to be aware of what people have said, and even better to know what they stand for. Regarding celebrities, the benefit of knowing such beliefs is even larger, because these are the people with the means to reach a large audience with the message of their choosing. And like celebrities, social media is great at spreading a message. However, spam tweeting variations of the hashtag “#isoverparty” upon discovering a celebrity’s faults is not going to do anything. These examples of cancel culture do not give people a chance to apologize to those affected by their actions or words, nor does it require a promise to do better in the future. No matter how many times the message is repeated over social media, claiming that someone is bad and can never be better is not a productive message. A focus on accountability acknowledges the fact that humans are capable of change.