In 2020, everything is being cancelled due to COVID-19, but this isn’t the first time that we have seen bursts of cancellations. Cancel culture has been prevalent for the last few years, as people have been using their voices to criticize others (particularly celebrities) based on when they come across actions/statements that they view as incorrect, immoral, or wrongful. Those who engage in cancel culture and call for celebrities to be cancelled for their actions and views often see themselves as activists making a positive difference; they see something wrong and they are doing something about it. However, this may not be the case when we take a step back and call cancel culture what it is – a modern form of ostracism.
The term “ostracism” is defined by Oxford Languages as simply “exclusion from a society or group”. In Ancient Greece, ostracism was a procedure in which a citizen was expelled from Athens for ten years. Today, ostracism is most notably seen in workplaces, with certain employees being intentionally excluded and alienated, but cancel culture essentially accomplishes the same results, socially alienating those who do not meet the criteria of the public’s values.
I don’t think that celebrities should get a “free pass” to go wild, consistently exhibit poor behaviour, disregard laws and morals, and set a bad example for people who look up to them, but at the same time we need to understand that they are people, not Gods. They are prone to making mistakes, and while intent does not erase impact, intent and effort are important. We need to see the humanity in everyone, whether they have 20 followers or 20 million. It is one thing to urge a person to improve their harmful behaviour, but is another to attempt to end their careers and livelihood for a mistake that they have/will learn from. The way that we deal with our response to scandals and incidents should be appropriate to the event; in other words, ‘the punishment should fit the crime’. For me, the two factors to consider are the severity and frequency of the action. If someone makes an insensitive comment once or twice, but then displays genuine remorse, then attempts to learn from and correct their mistakes, they should be accepted and their growth should be remembered. However, if someone continually makes hurtful statements that offend, alienate, and harm others, they may not deserve the attention they are getting. I don’t think “cancelling” is the right word, but I would likely refrain from supporting this kind of person. Similarly, if someone is proven to have committed an awful act, then they would not deserve support and attention either. For instance, I can’t find myself capable of listening to R. Kelly’s music, and I will not support him, but I don’t have this approach for just anybody. One of the issues with cancel culture though is that the public looks to apply the same ‘punishment’ for everyone that steps out of line of what is expected of them, not allowing any mistakes or lapses in judgement.
We as a society are so quick to judge and cling to our narrow perspectives, that sometimes people try to cancel someone without even understanding the situation. For example, people were recently trying to cancel Ice Cube for working with Donald Trump. He had not even endorsed Trump, and was simply trying to work with the President (regardless of party affiliations) to help meet the needs of the Black community, as Black rights is a bipartisan issue. However, for nothing more than being associated with Trump, he faced tons of backlash. As such, it is important to actually thoroughly understand the issue before coming at someone, looking to punish them – otherwise you would be no different from someone you think deserves to be cancelled.
If you are trying to be an activist, it takes more than pointing fingers.
Barack Obama spoke on this last year, saying, “there is this sense sometimes [that] the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right […] then I can sit back and feel good about myself. Because man did you see how woke I was? I called you out.” He then more seriously stated, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”
To create actual change, we have to focus on ourselves rather than others. We can learn from other people’s mistakes to become more considerate, thoughtful people, but celebrities are not idols for us to worship, they are people with flaws just like us. Since this is the case, perhaps they should not be canceled, but held accountable when they do cause harm; it’s fair to voice criticism, but it is important to recognize when people deserve second chances.
If we can see the humanity in everyone and focus on changing ourselves for the better, we can unlearn our culture of cancelling others, and create a culture of learning from one another.