Cancel culture helps hold public figures accountable
Comedian Roseanne Barr caused public outrage over her racist Tweets earlier this year. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
As anyone with a Twitter account has likely observed, the act of “canceling” or “calling out” celebrities, brands and internet personalities has become more common as social media usage expands. “Cancel culture” involves a group publicly denouncing just about anything or anyone after a scandal — be it filming and posting a video of a suicide victim, old homophobic tweets or new racist ones.
All too often these call-outs can be misdirected, harsh or even violent, causing others online to criticize those who participate. Yet canceling is not, at its core, a trend — and, on its own, it isn’t toxic.
Canceling, a kind of formal denouncement made by internet users en masse, is the internet’s (and often the real world’s) attempt to regulate itself and those with power or influence, specifically when it comes to inappropriate social behavior. In its most innocent and well-meaning forms, canceling someone is not an attempt to harm them in any way — it’s just an attempt to hold them responsible.
For instance, when it came to the internet’s attention that Macy’s was selling plates that labeled portions by jean style, many felt the plates encouraged disordered eating. Yet the outrage that followed was not a call to close all Macy’s stores; it was to remove the product, an initiative that was achieved and accompanied by an official apology.
While every case of calling out is not as cut and dry as the Macy’s plate incident, ameliorating the situation through change or an apology is usually enough to cease the internet’s wrath. A lack of an apology, or a refusal to change behavior, is when canceling can have more lasting consequences. Kevin Hart, for one, came under fire after his homophobic tweets from a decade ago surfaced just after he was announced as the 2019 Oscars host. He was given the opportunity to apologize but initially declined.
In Hart’s case, his failure to apologize created real consequences when the Academy decided to withdraw its offer. A declaration of “canceled” does not always mean a total deplatforming; rather, it’s most often a request to correct problematic behavior, which once denied, may lead to an exodus of support.
Canceling is by no means a perfect system for regulating public figures’ behavior, especially with the anonymity of the internet. Some use harsh and violent language against those who have been canceled, bringing undue cruelty to people who may still be learning what they did wrong. Attacks can even further overwhelm and essentially turn into cyberbullying. Monica Lewinsky, though canceled before the term came into use, has pointed out that the sexist harassment she received from the media and individuals online took her “from a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide.” As she has said, online shaming can even lead some to suicide. This form of online harassment should not have a platform, and it’s very much separate from the forms of cancel culture that have value.
There is value in calling out those who exhibit certain behaviors. Bringing awareness to homophobic, racist and sexist comments or actions by public figures gives a voice to those affected.
At the University of Maryland, we’ve seen the impact that public pressure can have. Former football coach DJ Durkin was kept in place by the Board of Regents despite Jordan McNair’s death taking place on his watch. Yet one day after his reinstatement, he was fired, with university President Wallace Loh citing public pressure from several campus groups as one reason for his decision. Cancel culture seeks to harness public sentiment to get results such as Durkin’s firing.
The core of cancel culture — to hold people with large platforms accountable for their actions — is a useful asset for many marginalized groups. It empowers people to speak up when something upsets them and allows for a public discussion about which behaviors shouldn’t be tolerated. The undesirable aspects of cancel culture are its occasional tendency to disregard fact, form a herd mentality and bully. But don’t completely write off cancel culture — instead, encourage fact checking, patience and compassion. Public figures deserve a chance to correct their mistakes, but if they don’t, the public has the right to forcefully reject them.
Ray Newby is a rising sophomore English major. He can be reached at email@example.com.