The limitations of cancel culture

#CardiBIsOverParty, #JKRowlingIsOverParty, #JimmyFallonIsOverParty, and #EllenIsOverParty are only a few of the hashtags that have been trending on Twitter in 2020. Despite the masses taking to social media to express disaffection and attempting to shun or “cancel” these individuals, Cardi B has gained another number-one single, JK Rowling has a new book coming out, Fallon still hosts “The Tonight Show” and Ellen is set to return on the air. 

Even after social media users declared various people “canceled,” many high-profile individuals have continued with their careers and come back out on top with only minor scrapes and bruises. This leads to the question of whether or not “cancel culture” actually accomplishes anything. 

What is the goal of canceling someone anyway? Professor Paul Booth, who teaches in DePaul’s College of Communication, believes that there seems to be more than aim. At its surface, canceling someone is the reigning method of holding others accountable or seeking retribution online. Add an audience of millions and offensive acts that occur frequently enough, and the issue of Cancel Culture becomes more complex.

“First, it’s to bring attention to a particular issue such as racism, sexism, etc. in our society via pointing to people that practice that issue,” he explained. “Second, it’s to show solidarity with other people who feel similarly. Hence, the culture. Third, it’s to ‘shut up’ those who demonstrated offensive words, deeds, or actions.” 

For some, the first thing that comes to mind when the name “Jimmy Fallon” is uttered is not his use of blackface during an SNL skit, which was the grounds for his canceling (Fallon has since apologized for his actions). DePaul alum Jorge Iniguez, who has had his own experiences with being outspoken about issues on social media, believes that “cancel culture” might not be effective with even putting names or faces to various offenses. 

2020 has not been the only year in which many celebrities have gotten canceled. Johnny Depp, Taylor Swift, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Kayne West were only some of the high profile people who were chastised on social media going as far back as 2016, for example.  

“Canceling someone, at best, keeps their name in the minds of hundreds of thousands to millions of people, but I can’t even remember what I ate yesterday,” he said. “How am I supposed to internalize a list of names and faces and know for the rest of my life what they did? You just can’t.” 

Many participants have used a move to cancel someone as a way to hold  them accountable for an alleged or perceived wrongdoing. “At the beginning,” DePaul freshman Lily Baird said, “cancel culture was a way to hold people accountable for past actions that have been swept under the rug and not discussed in the public eye, but more recently I think it has gone too far.” 

Iniguez does not necessarily agree that cancelation can be a form of accountability. “In terms of holding people accountable and canceling them, I think it’s different,” he said. To Iniguez, the difference lies in the number of decrying people and the gravity of an offense. “Being canceled is a very public thing, by definition, it has to be. It’s a ‘culture.’ I can hold my boy accountable for running a red, but I’m not gonna cancel him for it… it’s more like ‘Hey, maybe rethink that one again bro.’” 

As for creating solidarity with those who feel similarly, Booth mentioned that the ability of social media interactions and attention to “reach millions of people very quickly” has the potential to “build a community” among those who feel the same about the issue at large. “But,” he continued, “[cancelation] also can alienate people who don’t feel the same way.” 

Even after social media users declared their disapproval and vowed disengagement, it is very obvious that Cardi B and JK Rowling have not been totally “shut up” either; both the rapper and the writer continue to put out new work and achieve success. After being canceled, many celebrities have had the luck of getting a reboot, in a sense. “There will be some things that people are more likely to forgive than others,” Booth said. “Partly, I think it depends on the severity of the perceived offense.” 

Despite not being completely effective in its efforts, “cancel culture” still has many willing participants. “I think as long as there are people who feel strongly about social justice issues and equality in culture, there will be some form of cancel culture,” Booth said. 

Perhaps some of the power driving the movement to cancel someone is derived from the protection offered by a screen. “As long as kids have that anonymity online and others are still ignorant online, people are still going to get canceled and people will still be called out,” Iniguez said. “It’s the nature of having a voice, but no face to point at. I can accuse almost anyone on earth online and have close to zero consequences on myself.”

Is there another way to effectively achieve some sort of accountability without resorting to “cancel culture”? Baird thinks that another path lies in getting people to thoroughly understand the errors in their ways instead of simply expressing anger and giving a cold shoulder.

“People should always have second chances to do good in the world and ‘canceling’ them wouldn’t allow that to happen,” she said. She also suggested that “having discussions with them, whether it be allowing them to issue apologies or in having conversations in comments sections” could potentially change problematic behavior. 

Iniguez doubts that the experience of being canceled can actually reform a person’s problematic behavior, which brings into question the legitimacy of the average user’s authority to cancel. “People do something terrible and a lot of people’s first thought is ‘let me post about it’ like that would incite change,” he said. “Go to someone that can actually incite that change, spend your energy there, not just on internet points.” 

Evidently, “cancel culture” is not always effective in accomplishing its goals, at least when celebrities are involved. Issues and the people who perpetrate them might continue to be overlooked. Everyone might not feel the same way about canceling someone. Those that have been ostracized online might undeservingly find their way back into the public eye. 

Whether or not society can find a better way of holding others accountable for recurring offenses, specifically on social media, is yet to be discerned. “As long as artists do or say dumb things, people will continue to cancel,” Booth said.