• 02/26/2021

What Is Cancel Culture? Breaking Down the Controversial Trend

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Digital trends often make their way offline and change the world. Selfies opened the door to social media influencers and created a new virtual job market. Six-second videos lifted musicians and singers into superstardom, changing lives through what they produced after becoming professionals. The latest digital trend is cancel culture, which is a little more complicated.

If you’re confused on what to think about cancel culture, you’re not alone. This guide explains how to break down the controversial trend and decide when it’s helpful and when it’s better to take a step back.

What Is Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is a new term for people deciding the fate of public figures based on their actions or words. Sometimes this happens when past details surface about a person’s life and other times it occurs when an ongoing problem gets a national spotlight.

When Did Cancel Culture Begin?

Public shaming is nothing new, although the specific term for cancel culture didn’t appear until the last decade. Most people are familiar with historical public shaming episodes because history lessons still teach about them.

The Salem witch trials essentially canceled women accused of witchcraft. Modern society doesn’t also murder those who get canceled, but that’s what happened to the innocent women who died on trial for witchcraft because the entire town got unknowingly high on LSD that tainted their water supply.

More recently, the “red scare” swept through the United States in the 1940s and 50s. People began to suspect friends and neighbors of being communists, even if there was no firm proof. They’d cancel these individuals by kicking them out of social groups or trying to get them arrested. 

These two examples of public shamings stem from a heightened sense of anxiety and other factors. Anxiety is still prevalent today. Even though people can practice helpful breathing exercises or talk with a therapist, the anxiety can still turn into a bad form of cancel culture if people get panicked for their safety or wellbeing.

When Is It Good?

Cancel culture applies a singular term to a movement built by unique cases. Sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s not. Canceling someone can be great when it calls out an abuse of power that people would otherwise ignore.

In 2020, Ellen DeGeneres Show staffers went public with accusations of sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying from three producers. If the world didn’t have to cancel culture, the staffers may have filed internal complaints that would get ignored or protested and only get some of their accusations investigated.

It’s much easier to get a show and their sponsors to seek justice for workplace injustices if they know their viewers will boycott if they appear unconcerned or try to cover up the problems.

People can also use cancel culture for good if it deplatforms someone using their influence to support dangerous and hurtful beliefs. J.K. Rowling faced numerous cancel culture run-ins for supporting transphobic beliefs over the years, over the years for having transphobic views, which goes far beyond stating her personal opinions. Voicing support for that mindset empowers people who feel the same way, increasing hospitalizations and murders in the trans community.

Even though J.K. Rowling and the Ellen DeGeneres Show are still successful in their respective industries, the public conversation around canceling them focused on critical social issues that could lead to further change in smaller businesses and leaders.

When Is It Bad?

Sometimes cancel culture isn’t a good thing. One young woman lost her admission to the University of Tennessee Knoxville because she said a racial slur to white friends in a Snapchat video when she was 15. Although the messaging behind the cancellation — that saying racial slurs is wrong — comes from the right place, it doesn’t teach anything. 

The woman didn’t have to research the history behind the slur or write an essay about why it’s wrong. After getting called out for a mistake, people have to learn from them to become better versions of themselves. It’s a difficult thing to experience, but it’s part of accepting your personal journey and growing stronger from it. Cancelling a young person and moving on doesn’t create the lasting change that supporters want. 

Cancel culture can also provide an unintended escape for those who abused their positions of power. They might never face actual repercussions because the outrage dies down after a clever public relations move.

The companies for Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s food products recently faced cancellation. People called out how their company packaging relied on slave imagery that portrayed slaves as pacified people happily serving their masters. It continued the myth that these racist stereotypes were okay to accept when they’re inaccurate portrayals that whitewash history.

Both companies removed the images and renamed products after the outrage, but was that the desired outcome? It made them appear understanding and willing to change. Externally, they did nothing to educate consumers on why those stereotypes are so harmful and didn’t donate to groups working to fight other forms of systemic racism.

Will Cancel Culture End?

People will always need to hold influential individuals and companies accountable. Cancel culture has become a powerful way to do so, which means it likely won’t end anytime soon.

If anything, public outrage may not happen as quickly or frequently if other crises are more concerning. It could create the image that cancel culture ended, but history shows that it always pops back up later on.

Research the Facts First

After breaking down the controversial trend, the power rests in your hands. When outrage occurs and cancel culture shines a light on new issues, research the facts regarding each case. Read about the history behind things like racist stereotypes, slurs and workplace harassment to decide if it’s a one-time problem or a product of a more significant issue. You’ll know if canceling is worth your time if it will result in lasting positive change

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