Cancel Culture: Good or Bad?

So-called “cancel culture” is the inclination, usually on social media, to draw negative attention toward those individuals who have transgressed certain cultural mores. This is often observed when someone has made a social media post that is construed as bigoted against a marginalized group. This “cancel culture” is an interesting phenomenon that takes something very human – ostracizing transgressors – and cranking it up exponentially.

Being able to ostracize transgressors has been a way for tribes to ensure social cohesion for as long as humans have been recognizable as human. When spending time with a group of friends, if one of them says or does something the others find to be crossing an implicit or explicit line, they will express their displeasure and the transgressor will feel ashamed, thereby disincentivizing any future transgressions. Dealing with gossip and ostracization is practically a cliche of small towns, gated communities, and retirement homes, resulting in a type of monoculture within said communities that (at least in principle) facilitate social cohesion. But not since the explosion in popularity of the internet has such public shamings become inflated to such gargantuan proportions, often becoming international.

The arguments in favor of cancel culture are 1) that it is finally holding people accountable who would have otherwise gotten away with their transgressions and 2) that it works. The #MeToo movement is a great example of both arguments: monsters like Harvey Weinstein would likely have gotten away with their heinous acts if it were not for the sort of public shaming on the international scale that social media affords us. Harvey Weinstein was 1) held accountable only because of being “cancelled” on social media and 2) has been successfully punished as a result.

Of course, the argument against this is that the punishments do not universally and consistently fit the crime. Small transgressions can lead to disproportionate social media outrage. Old transgressions can be dredged up as ammunition, disregarding any growth a person may have undergone or any evolution in what is deemed acceptable since the old transgression was made (i.e. people are held to modern standards for things they said prior to the adoption of the current standards).

One response to this might be that such drastic measures are necessary. If a person makes an offensive Tweet or Facebook post, if only a handful of people call them out on it, they are likely going to ignore the negative attention, or possibly even double down. It is precisely because of the seemingly disproportionate response that the public ostracizing is even effective.

However, people’s myopia ensures that not everyone will be caught, resulting in an uneven implementation of cancelling. And likely we would not even want to live in a world where every small transgression of somebody’s personal and cultural mores have been transgressed. Such a world sounds absolutely dystopian. Unfortunately, people will continue to transgress if they know they can get away with it. When people commit crimes, they do it because they believe there is a good chance they will not be caught. Whether smoking weed or selling drugs, committing acts of vandalization, or robbing a liquor store, the people who perpetrate these crimes do it because they have assessed their odds (whether their assessment is good or not is another story) and come to the conclusion that the odds are in their favor to get away with it. But we would not want to live in a world where Big Brother was always watching and ensuring that no crime went unpunished, because people value their privacy, even when they are not involved in any criminal activity. We would also not want that level of surveillance ensuring we didn’t use the wrong nomenclature for some issue important to people a thousand miles away or that we worded something poorly when making a drunk Tweet or something. If we were able and willing to create such a climate, we would all end up as transgressors at some point. I’m not even sure if the most passionate advocates of piling on transgressors possess enough time and energy for so much outrage.

A response to the uneven employment of social media outrage is likely to be that those few people who are caught are made into examples for any other would-be offenders. Interestingly, this phenomenon is one of the issues that both proponents and opponents of cancel culture are likely to cite while making their case. The proponent says people are made examples of, which will act as a deterrence against future transgressions. The opponent says that this creates a chilling effect that stifles speech, even encroaching into potentially important and useful discourse. If everyone becomes afraid of talking openly and honestly about, say, race for instance, then important conversations around race will not be broached and thereby go unspoken. This leads to the enactment of both laws and shifts in the cultural zeitgeist based on bad or false premises.

Another issue is that there does not appear to be room for redemption. At least not for those who don’t already have a sizable platform. Just your regular Joe or Jane online can swiftly become the target of the world’s enmity, resulting in job loss and psychological damage, and then they are usually just as quickly forgotten about and jettisoned for whatever fresh new outrage has captured attention. There is no path to redemption for those folks. People who already have a platform, however, can often times climb back into people’s good graces via apology videos, public relations campaigns, and the simple passage of time. In other words, the cancelling, in addition to being disproportionate to the crimes and unevenly employed against transgressors, results in inconsistent outcomes for those who have been cancelled.

There is also the issue that there is no universally agreed upon ethical standard to which we ought to hold people. I’ve already mentioned that such standards shift and evolve in time. I have talked about other places on this blog that when I was in middle school and high school back in the 90’s and very early 00’s, using homophobic slurs was commonplace. Even people who weren’t overtly bigoted were not immune to calling something they don’t like “gay.” I can’t imagine what people would think nowadays if the type of things high school kids said back then was all available for people to see on social media.

But it is not just temporal, but also spatial (both real space and online space) where cultural mores differ. This obviously leads down the rabbit hole of moral relativism vs. moral universalism – should we condemn Islam for its views on homosexuals, or should we hold them to a different standard? What about homophobia within some black communities here in the United States? And, simply, what about people who just don’t know what the current “right” way to talk about certain subjects are? And how do we even know that what is currently considered the “right” way truly is the right way to talk about certain subjects?

The moral relativism vs. moral universalism issue has an interesting aspect to it in this discussion aside from just the obvious. Proponents of cancel culture adhere to an orthodoxy (or, at least, what they believe the orthodoxy to be), which seems to result in even greater ire directed toward people who belong to the favored groups expressing heretical views. For example, Blaire White, a transgender woman who speaks out against what she considers to be the excesses of the queer theory orthodoxy of the LGBT movement, is often the target of angry reprisals by those who adhere to the LGBT movement’s queer theory orthodoxy. And so, a certain orthodoxy is arbitrarily enforced, where transgressions by certain groups (most of Islam, some black communities) are ignored or downplayed while others are held to a sort of universalized standard.

My own view on cancel culture is that, while I can understand (and even sympathize to some degree) with the arguments in favor, I come down firmly against cancel culture. I think it is arbitrarily and haphazardly enforced, though I shudder to imagine what universal enforcement would look like. For the most part, I think “cancelling” is done by people who are virtue signaling and attempting to feel better about themselves through hollow performative displays of moral superiority. But most importantly, I think the chilling effect “cancelling” has on discourse is a defeater of any arguments in favor of cancel culture. Certainly people who act criminally and cause real, tangible harm, such as Harvey Weinstein ought not only to be ostracized, but also imprisoned. But I think it would be better to live in a world where we have to endure the discomfort of people expressing views opposed to our own than to live in a world where, in furtherance of the tribalistic, suffocating, and ultimately unfeasible goal of so-called “equity,” we have to encounter the arbitrary and disproportionate discomfort that comes along with public shaming by social media mobs. Cancel culture a form of culturally sanctioned cyber bullying that ultimately makes the world a worse place to live, not better.