From a harmless internet slang phrase, to a toxic social movement, Cancel Culture is rampant on social media platforms and in pop culture. Cancel Culture, formerly known as Call-out Culture, is an unofficial system of boycotting initially directed at celebrities expressing seemingly unpopular opinions or views on the internet. With its sources originating from the mega-platform Twitter, Cancel Culture backs on the concepts of Groupthink, Political Correctness and the shift in the political spectrum.
Vice describes Cancel Culture as:
“[A] way for marginalized communities to publicly assert their value systems through pop culture”
My first experience with Cancel Culture was with none other than Jeffree Star himself, a member of the beauty community and multi-million dollar brand owner of Jeffree Star Cosmetics, after videos with racist content surfaced. The videos, which can be interpreted as a roleplaying bit where Star allegedly threatens to throw battery acid on a Woman of Colour to lighten her skin, sparked vast outrage among the community. Additionally, other videos and racial slurs previously recorded on the internet’s searing record of permanence were located and hashed out in the process. Star came out and apologized for his remarks in this video, however many people have not accepted his plea for forgiveness and explanation despite such efforts.
The videos rightly sparked outrage amongst not only the beauty community, but in all other channels the footage had spread. Many supporters boycotted the brand silently, however, the vast majority of customers openly “cancelled” Star over social media and even in some circumstances going as far as damaging his brand’s products on video.
Often times, you are looked down upon for purchasing the beauty products of “Cancelled” brand owners and companies, which can cause many people to question their purchases as well as their social status.
“The moral rubrics that celebrities and public figures are bound to remain in good standing when they correlate to the target audience that is the lynchpin of their support.” [Source]
However, this incident is not isolated and the actions of this culture do not simply live amongst the beauty community.
Groupthink: From Fiction to Psychology
The term Groupthink is often associated with the “Newspeak” dictionary in the fictitious novel, 1984, by George Orwell, however the concept is very real and discussed in many social psychology applications.
Psychology Today defines Groupthink as:
“When a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent. […] In a groupthink situation, group members refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus. In the interest of making a decision that furthers their group cause, members may ignore any ethical or moral consequences.” [Source]
In 1971, Irving Janis introduced the term in the November issue of Psychology Today after their study which focused on how decision-making can be influenced by stress. In Janis’ study, antecedent factors such as flawed group structure, situational context, and overall group cohesion levels impact whether or not Groupthink will occur.
There is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. The dysfunctional group dynamics of the ‘ingroup’ produces an illusion of invulnerability (an inflated certainty that the right decision has been made). […] Furthermore, groupthink can produce dehumanizing actions against the ‘outgroup’.” [Source]
Many psychologists will argue for the fact that we are more insecure than ever before. Curating our lives on social media by focusing on numbers, perfect angles and flattering filters makes us feel vulnerable to those in our cyber-world and the real world. Confidence is critical, and without it, many people can succumb to Groupthink.
“When groups feel threatened — either physically or through threats to their identity — they may foster a strong ‘us versus them’ mentality. This can prompt members to accept group perspectives, even when these perspectives don’t necessarily align with their personal views.” [Source]
All human beings are allowed to succumb to their passion to fight injustice, however, Cancel Culture is not the way to change things permanently. By censoring any discussion about these issues and only focusing on the views of your echo-chamber, you are limiting yourself and not allowing the opportunity for complete understanding. By deeming all constructive conversation and discussion that falls beyond the realms of the beliefs surrounding specific positions, we are limiting our understanding of each other.
It is possible to disagree with someone or something and still constructively discuss it in order to learn from it.
Often times, with psychological, biological and epidemiological study of human interaction we can understand why such opposing positions are upheld instead of simply dismissing them entirely.
In an article written on The Lamron, Emma Short describes the issue of Cancel Culture by saying:
“The permanency of cancel culture is daunting, though. It represents a withdrawal of support forever, which is not productive for positive change. There’s no excuse for any form of racism, sexism, discrimination or abuse — and there’s no defense for anyone who has displayed instances of these offenses — but if someone is permanently canceled without any hope of redemption there’s not much motivation for them to correct their problematic behavior,”
Despite the current political and social discourse, it is actually possible to be against racism, sexism and intentional hate or prejudice without lighting your pitchfork and “cancelling” someone publicly over the internet.
A Band-Aid on a gunshot wound
We must not confuse the desire to discuss and openly critique certain views with unwavering support. There is a significant difference between those who discuss opposing views openly and academically and those who act out and uphold those views with their actions and their votes. By closing ourselves off from this opportunity, we are socially suffocating progress.
Anecdotal evidence and observation illustrate that even discussion of the opposite perspective alone merits cancellation and a diagnosis of the socially appropriate “ism”, along with the mis-used accusation of hate speech.
“When all think alike, then no-one is thinking” Walter Lippman
Dr. Steven Pinker, Canadian-born Harvard professor and Cognitive Psychologist tweeted an article from Psychology Today, written by Dr. Pamela Paresky. In this article, Dr. Paresky attributes the movement to politics by noting:
Those on the political right might be more inclined than those on the left to see the world and its people as requiring reform and salvation, so it can appear to be a political difference. But it is an apocalyptic view, not a liberal one, that rejects redemption and forgiveness in favor of condemnation and excommunication.
Although this view can be seen as extreme, it is worth noting to discuss further. Certain actions should most definitely be “cancelled” in accordance to the term, but it is most certainly cruel to publicly remove the person’s right to improve and better themselves in the future. Despite the statistical evidence that a murderer will continue to murder (and a rapist will continue to rape) if left unchecked by the law, the idea of justice as well as rehabilitation is currently being considered as an option for prison reform. Many psychologists and justice systems alike are combining Psychological treatment and therapy while inmates are serving time for crimes committed.
The prison argument is an extreme one compared to the softness of cancelling someone over Twitter, however the moral motives can still be applied. By turning our back on individuals who do one wrong action, we are certainly not making them feel like its worth any time or effort to change in the future. If we abandon people through cancellation, how are we contributing to the long term improvement of our society? If they are already condemned for life, why should they bother to seek growth and retribution? This then perpetuates the behaviour. By practicing firm correction with the opportunity for redemption within safe parameters, we can continue to inject a more responsible and reasonable level of social discipline in our society.
Fear of being outcast from the group is an incredible tool to influence behaviour, however Cancel Culture is using this very powerful tool incorrectly.
By creating the toxic environment of cancel culture in non-crime related circumstances we are creating a curated echo-chamber of fear amongst the online community. By merging the permanence of online history with the ever growing imperfect and emotional nature of human beings, we are fuelling this stunningly intense fire. It is a Band-Aid solution for a systemic problem, and simply outcasting everyone who does not fit a specific ideological social mold will only temporarily “fix” the deep set issues in our society. Although there are edge cases that merit the removal of their platform for the safety of the lives of others, we still need to be discussing and working together in those circumstances instead of blindly RSVP-ing to the weekly witch-hunt without any indication or forethought. I
Although I cannot propose an indefinite solution, it’s worth thinking about when you begin to feel the pressure to cancel someone in the next big social media scandal. Throughout history as human beings, we have used social isolation to our advantage to promote a society with less racism and more acceptance, but in order to do that we need to discuss the philosophical and psychological meanings more deeply. We need to discuss why these topics merit such social punishment, and we need to continue to dissect the nature of human beings in order to progress forward. If we are living in a world of “one strike you’re out”, how can we progress and be better than we were in the past?
Prejudice, racism and discrimination is wrong. Period.
No person should be handicapped due to their ethnicity, their sexual orientation or their identity. By discussing issues in depth and understanding our own biases, we can move forward together beyond simply following the crowd and create opinions and solutions that are backed by constructive discourse. We can understand why some people act in a discriminatory manner towards others and by having those discussions and allowing people the chance to be better, we can move forward to create a society that does not support these injustices in the long term.
By continuing to perpetuate Cancel Culture, we are suffocating our own growth, our progress as a species, as well as our innate understanding of how we can continue our lives in a morally positive direction.