By Emily Erickson
So-called “cancel culture” is a term that has entered the mainstream conversation with increasing frequency over the years, as people and organizations have been called out for their current or former undesirable opinions or actions, and reprimanded through public attacks on their character and employment.
Highly publicized examples of “canceling” include film producer Harvey Weinstein, who, following a wave of allegations was fired, blacklisted and convicted for sexual assault charges; author JK Rowling, shamed and boycotted by fans and not renewed by her publisher for transphobic views; and non-celebrity New York dog owner Amy Cooper, who was exposed, shamed and fired following release of a video that captured her racist diatribe toward a Black man who was bird-watching in Central Park.
This phenomenon is widely contemplated in the public realm, by prominent figures and in prestigious publications — examined for its nuances, for its breadth of severity and its effect on our society.
Although not explicitly referred to as such, former President Barack Obama alluded to “cancel culture” at the Obama Foundation Summit in 2019, when he warned of the sweeping harshness of canceling people for their former beliefs and actions.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly,” he said. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
More directly, in a 2019 Time magazine article, “Cancel Culture is Not Real — At Least Not in the Way People Think,” writer Sarah Hagi described cancel culture as a great equalizer for the marginalized, explaining, “racist, sexist, and bigoted behavior or remarks don’t fly like they used to. This applies to not only wealthy people or industry leaders but anyone whose privilege has historically shielded them from public scrutiny.”
Most recently, President Donald Trump brought cancel culture to the mainstage at his 2020 Independence Day speech, claiming, “One of [the left’s] political weapons is ‘cancel culture,’ driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. … This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values.”
Beyond the notions of cancel culture as the great social corrector or the end of American life as we know it, we don’t often talk about the inner psycho-social workings of “canceling,” and the role they play in society as a whole.
I think about it as a collective call to action, prompted by a person or group’s harmful beliefs or actions. When someone does something we deem socially unacceptable, or behaves in a way that is counterproductive to our ability to live and function within a group, we “cancel” them in an attempt to incite the powerful force of shame.
Shame, or the feeling of humiliation or distress caused by wrongdoing, has played an important role in our development as a social species, with its administration being a way to establish social norms and expectations for the entire group.
When an individual is shamed for a harmful act or opinion, we make an example of them — adding another line item to our list of unwritten rules necessary for group membership. By canceling someone for sexual assault or hate speech, or publicly advocating consequences for their actions, we are collectively deciding those behaviors are unacceptable in our society.
But an important, and often overlooked, aspect of the role of shame in society is that it’s a multifaceted tool. It can be applied to a person or organization with undesirable behavior simply to evoke powerful feelings of humiliation and discomfort about their actions. Additionally, it can be used to set a standard of acceptable behaviors for other members of the group, allowing us to learn from the mistakes and missteps of others. Finally, it can be used as an incentive for people at the receiving end of its wrath to do better in the future, correcting their course and making reparations for their actions — all so they never have to feel that way again.
Like shame, we need to create space in our society for “cancel culture” in order for the phenomenon to act as the multifaceted tool that it is, with some cases calling for sweeping, irreparable social damage to individuals and organizations, and others, allowing for course correction and personal growth.
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