By Sian Hopkins | Comment Editor
In a society filled with constant use of social media, tabloids and influencers, it is not surprising that everyone believes they have a say on how others live their lives. Fame appears to be desired by many, but with the supposed rewards that come from being in the public eye, with that comes its downfalls.
Generation Z are said to be the most accepting generation, with thanks to social media and the easy access to constant information, a lot of young people and adults use their opinions online to take a stand against views that are unacceptable or discriminatory.
There is, of course, the issue of those spreading prejudice views gaining as much public access as those who are protesting against them, however there is now a term to silence particular people, mainly celebrities and those of influence, who do make controversial points or actions. They are ‘cancelled.’
Cancelling someone, in the simplest terms, means to stop showing support for someone after they do something that you may find upsetting or unacceptable behaviour. According to Merriam-Webster, ‘the act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works.’
There is no particular definition or reason behind cancelling someone, but it’s usually as a result of a questionable objective opinion being shared, or acting in a way that to continue following or patronizing that person’s work would be to endorse those actions as ok.
Jonah Engel Bromwich, from the New York Times, explains how being cancelled ‘refers to total disinvestment in something (anything), and this usage can be traced back several years.’ However it is only more recently this year that the term has been used the most.
The most popular definition of the concept on Urban Dictionary was posted in March and four of the nine definitions listed were added in just the last two years.
So why does cancel culture ultimately exist? Experts like Meredith Clark, a professor on media studies at the University of Virginia, suggests that ‘it’s ultimately an expression of agency.’ This means that to an extent, people feel they gain back a sort of power by disconnecting or ‘breaking up’ with those who express something they can no longer tolerate.
To be cancelled does not have to be as extreme as the phrase suggests. Many tweets and social media posts that suggest a celebrity has been cancelled or even the year 2020 or the concept of love; this does not rule out supporting it altogether. Lisa Nakamura, a professor of digital media and race, gender and sexuality at the University of Michigan, calls ‘cancelling’ a ‘cultural boycott.’ She explains,
“Changing culture meaningfully means approaching folks from the standpoint of ‘these harmful ideas you are perpetuating need to go,’” she said. “We’re not going to accept this anymore. But the people themselves can be recovered.”
Ultimately, what this means is that ‘cancel culture’ should primarily focus around ‘cancelling’ the negative or harmful views and ideas that are expressed, rather than the person themselves. If that person can change and redeem themselves from the harmful expressions they may have previously stated, it is possible for them to be ‘uncancelled.’ Celebrities like James Charles and Demi Lovato are amongst a few of those who have been cancelled for previous behaviour and then considered acceptable to follow once again. Many people may argue that this is not how cancel culture should work, as certain harmful opinions and expressions that may be discriminatory or prejudiced should not be forgiven, especially when those with power and influence can afford for a good publicist to explain their mistakes away.
There is however, a toxic side to the creation and popular use of cancel culture, which often involves the media or continual bullying of someone who is considered cancelled. Whilst originally, the existence of cancel culture was seen as a positive way of holding people accountable for their actions and not accepting outrageous and offensive actions by people with influence, it has become increasingly common for any scandal to permit the opinion that that person should be cancelled. Only recently, widely circled news articles, described actress Lily James kissing the slightly older and married actor Dominic West, with many over social media agreeing with the scandalised articles, she should be cancelled. Lily James was described as ‘hiding at home’ after the incident, whereas not much was said about Dominic Williams, except that he and his wife are not separating. Lily James, according to the media, is now just the other woman.
This appears to be a trend within cancel culture, as often women are cancelled faster than men, for similar actions and behaviour. The unexpected passing of Caroline Flack in February of this year, arguably was partly a result of her experience with cancel culture, after she was arrested for assault against her boyfriend. Despite there being much speculation and uncertainty around news stories, Caroline Flack was bombarded over social media by trolls and hate comments, picking apart her personal life and dating history, as ‘evidence’ for her needing to be cancelled. As Richard Seymour in The Guardian wrote,
‘Flack was about to be prosecuted over allegations of assaulting her partner, despite him withdrawing his complaint. Most of us know next to nothing about what really happened. However, the press that had happily built her up as a star also delighted in taking her down, cackling about Caroline “Whack”.’
Within the means of cancel culture, Caroline’s death would be seen as a mere fatality of people’s opinions and withdrawal of support, but the sheer invasion into her life and hate that was received no longer suggests a cultural boycott but a lynching.
Cancel culture can be seen therefore, as a powerful tool for those who in society are seen as a minority, and gives them the option to speak out and boycott those with power for harmful and offensive behaviour.
Jameela Jamil comments that ‘a lot of complaints regarding cancellation are coming from very powerful people’ suggesting ‘you can’t really cancel a white billionaire.’ There is however, a danger with cancel culture, that results in the criticism and boycotting of a person becoming as hateful and destructive as their own behaviour. Misinformation and even fake news that circulate social media can result in tragic outcomes, like with Caroline Flack, with cancelling becoming a result of hate rather than justification.