Opinion: The Cancel Culture Debates

Does cancel culture exist? If it does, what should be done about cancel culture? These are some of the questions that have permeated social media and the media at-large. I would like to add a few observations to this conversation.

It should not be controversial to acknowledge that the phrase “cancel culture” does indeed exist. Moreover, this phrase has the capacity to alter some people’s views of society. I’d argue that it already has, in some cases.

While some argue that cancel culture does not exist, others argue that some prominent conservatives also engage in cancel culture activities. I’d argue that the concept of cancel culture is of concern to some folks, regardless of political affiliations. I’d further argue that viewing this topic through the lens of one’s political stance can inhibit meaningful discussions.

The term “culture” carries significant weight and deserves more consideration. Of the available definitions of the term, perhaps the following from Merriam-Webster is best suited here:

the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

While this may be the most suitable, it is not uncontroversial. Perhaps the term “set” is the most controversial within this definition. I believe this to be one of the crucial issues with discussions about “cancel culture.” There does not seem to be a general consensus on what is or what should be within that set of values, conventions, or social practices. At times, it appears that some individuals would prefer to frame the discussion in ways which disregard certain recurring social practices which are not immediately advantageous to their argument.

Whether effective or not, there have been various attempts to “cancel” individuals for a myriad of reasons. It is these attempted cancellations that are the primary drivers of this debate. Most of these attempts are relatively unsuccessful, on the whole. Yet they still affect some people’s views of society, nonetheless. For example, it has even considerably altered how some prominent comedians present their comedy. This reveals that the concept of “cancel culture” has direct and indirect implications on people’s thinking. Since some of these comedians have substantial audiences, this creates secondary ripple effects.

In other cases, the general concept of cancel culture has been weaponized in profoundly harmful ways. I would argue that when members of the QAnon community target a business or a celebrity with unfounded allegations of child trafficking or pedophilia, this is a dangerous variant of cancel culture. It has the potential to result in direct harm to the targeted individuals.

I would also argue that when a child takes their own life due to online bullying, this might be a variant of the cancel culture concept. I certainly think that it is worth considering how adults engaging in certain behaviors online might influence younger generations, as social media is not exclusive to only adults.

Moreover, I believe these discussions should not exclude cases where the wrong person was subjected to attempted cancellation. In June, a man was falsely accused of assaulting a child. This man had gone for a bike ride the day after another man was filmed assaulting a child on a bike trail and online ‘detectives’ mistakenly identified him as the perpetrator. His address was posted online and he was subjected to threats to his person and his job. He was not the only individual subjected to this allegation.

This is far from the first time that the wrong person has been subjected to harassment due to faulty online investigations. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, multiple individuals were falsely accused of being the perpetrators of that tragedy.

While it would be unreasonable to define “cancel culture” based solely on these cases, it would equally be unwise to exclude these instances from these discussions. It would also be unwise to exclude from consideration the cases where the correct individual was identified and was held accountable for their harmful behavior.

In my observations of these discussions, I have noticed that some individuals would prefer to focus on problematic individuals who push back against the concept of “cancel culture.” Perhaps this is a subconscious reflex and is not done intentionally. Yet, the conversation is still sidetracked when it is presented as though only problematic individuals have concerns. Worse still, there have been instances where those who push back are painted as though they are no different than those problematic individuals.

Considering that this concept is often presented as a form of justice, I’d like to offer an analogy here. Those who push back might best be viewed as defense attorneys. Are there some corrupt defense attorneys who are merely defending their powerful clients from potential consequences for their actions? Absolutely. Yet there are others who see innocent and often powerless people being unjustly smeared online. This is not as clear-cut as some would prefer it to be.

Returning to the discussion of QAnon, Twitter recently unveiled updated rules to address that behavior. Within the announcement, Twitter disclosed that some QAnon users operated multiple accounts simultaneously while harassing their targets. Some of that harassment included fabricated evidence, such as forged tweets that QAnon accounts asserted had been published by their targets. This behavior is not exclusive to some QAnon supporters. This deserves to be part of the cancel culture discussion, in my estimation.

It is my belief that all facets of cancel culture should be considered and that at the very least, the more harmful aspects of this concept should be pushed back against. In order for this to occur, the entire scope of cancel culture should be discussed in good faith. Is this a challenging discussion to have? Yes. But it is still happening, regardless of my particular views on the matter.