Beyond reductive approaches to ‘cancel culture’ as bad or good

The language and spectacle of public cancellation has a long history, but in recent years movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have prompted what’s been described as a “cancellation” or “cultural boycott” of celebrities, brands and companies.

From its beginnings in African-American subcultures – and following a long tradition of the appropriation of black language by white people – the term “cancel” and its meanings have been appropriated by predominantly white mainstream media since the mid-to-late 2010s.

Reminiscent of debates in the ’90s over “political correctness”, the term has also been mobilised by conservatives as evidence of an assault on free speech. Both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have referred to “cancel culture“ in their public addresses.

Putin claimed protests against the invasion of Russia were “trying to cancel a whole 1000-year culture, our people”.

In Trump’s 2020 address to the Republican National Convention, he stated that:

“… the goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it.”

Yet what “cancel culture” is, and the effects of cancellation on those cancelled, are uneven and unclear.

To quote actor Jennifer Aniston from recent reports: “I’m so over cancel culture […] I just don’t understand what it means.”

Recent high-profile cancellations have included public figures such as Roseanne Barr, whose talk show was cancelled after she tweeted a racist comment likening Valerie Jarrett, African American woman and senior advisor to Barack Obama, to an ape. They have also included more controversial cancellations such as author J.K. Rowling, whose tweets were labelled transphobic. Yet, as Rowling later reflected, her book sales only increased at the mention of being “cancelled”.

Rapper Kanye West’s social media accounts were restricted (although his Twitter/X account has now been reinstated) and a documentary about his life cancelled for antisemitic statements.

Popular singer Billie Eilish was also called out when videos of her mouthing a racist slur were circulated on social media. Fans publicly destroyed Eilish merchandise and posted calls on social media for her to be boycotted, with Eilish publicly apologising via Instagram in response. There appear to have been no lasting impacts on Eilish’s career, despite her public shaming.

Moving beyond either/or understandings

As these examples make clear, the definition, influence and impact of cancel culture need to be understood in more nuanced terms than currently dominate news cycles and public discourse, especially given the political weaponising of the term.

Applying an either/or, good/bad logic to understanding cancel culture – as either an empowering means for marginalised communities to hold high-profile figures accountable for offensive actions, or a dangerous viral trend that stifles public debate and demonises individuals under the guise of moral virtue – fail to account for how these understandings, and others, can co-exist depending on the particular breach, dynamics and circumstances of any one cancellation event.

Attention also needs to be directed to the social resources and status of those who are “cancelled”, as these factors shape uneven impacts of cancellation, especially between high-profile celebrities and ordinary citizens. Race, class, gender, and a number of other factors powerfully shape the “effects” and permutations of cancel culture.

Are ordinary young people especially implicated in cancel culture?

Given the centrality of digital spaces to youth wellbeing, connection and belonging, it’s especially important to consider how the phenomenon of “cancel culture”, and affordances of digital technologies, may be shaping digital youth political activism, and to what effects.

Research has shown how social media can empower marginalised groups by enhancing social visibility, highlighting experiences of injustice, and providing a platform for digital activism, expressions of solidarity and support.

Yet, importantly, research also indicates that people who are cancelled commonly experience criticism from a large online audience, including harassment, threats, and demeaning personal comments, and reportedly experience mental health impacts associated with public humiliation and social exclusion.

But what do we actually know about the prevalence of “cancel culture” as a feature in young people’s lives, online or offline, and/or its varied effects on diverse groups of young people?

Preliminary data from a Monash study indicates young people have an awareness of the risk of cancellation, including by future employers who they fear may “cancel” them for “unprofessional” presentations of their younger selves on their social media pages.

One participant (aged 16) explained that “cancel culture has become big … if you do one thing wrong, everyone hates you for it”.

An older participant (aged 27), reflecting on the impact of social media on his own career, explained:

“I think the idea of cancel culture … is starting to increase. I think people are being held accountable [for] what they post online, even if it’s just a passing comment on a post.”

In these ways, the language of “cancel culture” appears to have trickled down into everyday vernacular concerned with reputation, visibility, and uncertain futures.

A recent US national poll indicates 61% of young adults reported not speaking out on at least one occasion due to fear of retaliation or harsh criticism, while 34% of young adults reported retaliating or harshly criticising another person in response to something they had expressed. Others have reported anecdotally on the experience of US college students who describe how the fear of being called out shapes what they do and say online and offline.

Yet, significantly, a US consumer report (2020) on young people’s political outlooks also found that the majority of those aged 13 to 39 believe cancel culture is effective in creating social change.

Allowing mistakes and cultivating compassion online

Encouraging a culture that invites people to critically reflect on the impact of their words and actions on others, and that enables marginal groups to speak truth to power can support a more just society. At the same time, systemic inequities linked to racism, misogyny, sexism and queerphobia cannot be reduced to questions of individual immorality.

We also know that public pile-ons involving vitriolic hatred and harassment can be harmful, and arguably especially for ordinary people with little social and economic capital to fall back on.

A sign with the words: Think like us or be cancelled written on it against a blue sky with clouds.

Balancing the interplay between learning and risk, public critique and commitment to social justice is especially important when considering the experiences of young people as digital subjects.

Eminent digital media scholar Professor Lisa Nakamura, of the University of Michigan, suggests “… cultivating a culture of forgiveness and compassion around things people have said and done on the internet is one of the ways we can address the ‘trash fire’ that the internet has become”.

We suggest listening carefully to the experiences and views of young people as targets, witnesses to and actors in cancellation events, is a critical place to start.

As part of Social Sciences Week, Monash University is hosting an event on 5 September between 10am-11am that explores the phenomenon of cancel culture. You can register to attend here.

This article was co-authored with Deakin University academics Kiran Pienaar and Kim Toffoletti.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site