Cancel Culture: Why Does It Not Work?
Words by Sukhnnidh Kaur
September 13, 2020
Illustration by Aarman Roy
I like to think that the parallel universe we call the internet is not just a reflection of our physical realities, but an extension rife with experimentation and performance. The sixth edition of Akademi Mag's Love, Pavemented tries to explore one of the many elements that make up this space by exploring cancel culture - a practice that is unique because it perpetuates the internet's algorithm-driven black and white rhetoric, yet catalyses much-needed conversations about nuance.
There are two truths to contend with before we begin. One, cancelling is about reclaiming power. The court of public accountability has allowed silenced communities to subvert the status quo of answerability. Two, cancelling is about fixing broken systems. The thing about such systems is that there are no perfect solutions - that is a function of their brokenness.
Given this, cancel culture should work in theory. However, when I asked 200 readers what they felt about it last week, 74% said that it has a negative impact on society, 13.5% said it has a positive impact, and 12.5% said it has no impact.
Below is a summary of readers' anonymous submissions on the topic, as well as some things I have felt about cancel culture over the years (through cancelling, being cancelled, and witnessing cancellation), via questions that will help us reflect on this practice. Here, I try to look at cancelling through the lens of its equation with justice and reform pertaining to everyday internet user interactions (not people with uncontested power who engage in purposeful misdeeds). Note that this is an exploration of public thought, and hence there are no concrete or absolute conclusions.
1. Many feel that we attribute disproportionate responsibility to individuals functioning in accordance with broken systems that existed long before they did. One reader puts this succinctly: "I like to think of how systems have failed individuals rather than how individuals are failing themselves." When these distinctions are blurred, we risk losing sight of the structural nature of inequalities, as well as our own role in upholding them.
This does not mean that we don't hold each other accountable but it leads us to question: Is cancelling an effective practice of the kind of accountability that acknowledges the complexity required for long-term reform?
2. One assumption of cancel culture is that those who are subject to it are unwilling to change. Punishment, then, may include boycotting, revoking resources and opportunities, and publicly stigmatizing association. Often, this may not be true - there are few excuses for ignorance when we have access to education, but ignorance still exists.
So, a point of reflection: is punishment our chosen response to ignorance? At the same time, a counter-argument: do people necessarily owe allyship or patience to those who engage in microaggressions that dehumanize them?
3. Systemic change, according to one reader, requires robust engagement with the issues we care about. Cancellation is reactionary, and not robust - it often assumes change via the fear of being called out, which may lead to the performance of political correctness before the internalization of the need for social consciousness. One reader said that when being right becomes a 'competition', growth is inhibited. Another said cancelling doesn't address the root of the issue as much as it does the optics of it. The question here is: is cancellation an act of justice unto itself, or does justice encompass what happens after catharsis, through restoration and amends?
4. I read, recently, that 'cancel culture', when constructed by the public as 'mob-mindedness' is not a new phenomenon - it's the subversion of an old one. Historically, women and marginalized communities have been oppressed by those in power. It is only now when the powerful are publicly being held to account that the practice is being contested and debated.
Given this, it is imperative for us to understand that we are not equipped to make all-encompassing judgements on the effectiveness of a practice that allows for the reclamation of power and space by historically silenced communities that continue to experience inequality and oppression.
5. Conservative ideology is polarizing, and almost always based on simple binaries. On the other side of the spectrum is the delicate and tedious process of encapsulating a variety of lived experiences and histories.
Can we do the latter when cancel culture allows us to pedestalize some ideas according to our own conceptualizations of justice, and penalize the rest? A follow up to that: can people who are invested in the division of the progressive sphere weaponize cancel culture against it?
6. This point has been challenging to articulate but brought up by many in confidence: The fear of being cancelled, or 'absolute dismissal', can lead to resentment, anxiety, defensiveness, and hesitation in participating in future discourse. These are real, valid feelings, but unacceptable public responses. We are currently intolerant of this line of thought (and this intolerance may have merit because discomfort is sometimes necessary.)
At the same time, a question that arises is: does productive discourse necessarily entail 'backlash', and what one reader calls 'subtle forms of violence and vilification'?
7. These three thoughts on the role of the internet were brought up in the submissions:
One: The thing about one's belief and morality on the internet is that its trajectory is archived over old tweets, blog posts, and articles. Even if we grow to be better people, we exist on the internet immortally, stuck in time and screenshots. Cancel culture in its most reactionary form makes it difficult to account for growth and learning.
Two: Many who were once 'cancelled', even for the gravest of misdeeds, have gone back to regular functioning. I think this is because our courts of accountability look different, curated according to our beliefs and construed within our unique algorithmic realities. That is to say - they will sometimes find their way to people who accept them regardless of their actions, with little to no change in their intentions, because the gratification of cancel culture does not always allow space for reform.
Three: does the anonymity, or even the lack of proximity offered by the internet enable the most unforgiving parts of us, or does it empower us to speak the truth in ways that were always needed, but not physically possible?
8. Vox quotes Loretta Rose, a black feminist activist, saying: “people attempt to expunge anyone with whom they do not perfectly agree, rather than remain focused on those who profit from discrimination and injustice.” An expert in Black vernacular, Professor Charity Hudley counters: "For those who are doing the calling out or the cancelling, the odds are still stacked against them. They’re still the ones without the social, political, or professional power to compel someone into meaningful atonement, to do much more than organize a collective boycott".
My personal equation with cancel culture has been rocky, because it is intertwined with my journey through self-doubt, insecurity, confidence, learning, and unlearning. Over time, I've found it difficult to 'cancel' fellow everyday internet users because I fail to have a clear picture of their intentions, impact, and lived reality. I also take a second to wonder if I would like to be shown grace for my own mistakes, and that makes denying it to others harder, too.
I like to think I am open to (and actively seek) accountability and learning - so I don't want to assume moral superiority by predetermining that others may not be. Most importantly, though, I know 'little' (in the larger scheme of things) about the things I care about. There are books to be read, ideas to be explored, and experiences to be had. This means that conclusively upholding any one stance, without making space for nuance, hinders my own process of learning.
At the same time, leveraging public accountability is not a matter of survival for me - but it is for many who have previously been silenced and ignored. It is easy to denounce a tool of survival when you're not the one who is compelled to use it. Calling-out and calling-in are both impactful practices that have shaped public discourse around internet culture, legitimized people's experiences, histories, and beliefs, and changed the way we understand solidarity and truth.
Most of the things we think about - on the internet and beyond - can be stripped down to the brass tacks of morality, power, and a desire to change (systems, people, and ourselves.) This change has sustained, for a long time, on the idea that there are many ways of making it happen.
Thank you for taking the time to read this edition of Love, Pavemented and for sending us your thoughts on cancel culture. Read some of the anonymous submissions that were sent our way.
Message to the Reader
For many transformative justice advocates, cancel culture threatens to reflect the practices of broken justice systems that advocate for punitive instead of restorative justice, despite the latter being more humane and productive. I reached out to Deepika Bhardwaj, founder of Alternative Justice, to understand this idea better. She said,
"Carceral systems don’t end at the boundaries of prisons but their logic extends to our minds and bodies, in the ways we think and respond to harm and conflict in interpersonal relationships or elsewhere. And so, ‘cancelling’ on social media can be seen as a direct product of a punitive culture that conflates accountability with punishment and weaponizes shame and exclusion as a false bid for justice.
This also blurs the boundaries between calling for public accountability to transform behaviour and imitating carceral processes of navigating justice. Which is why, I’d be careful what I include in ‘cancel culture’ - something Transformative Justice practitioners have been cautioning us against.
For instance, calls for de-platforming abusers might be seen as perpetuating a carceral or retributive framework (but is not). We also live in a culture of silence, where often those who call for accountability are the ones who end up getting silenced and discarded."
Deepika Bhardwaj is a writer, transformative justice advocate, and founder of Alternative Justice, which looks at reconceptualizing justice as restorative by critically looking at the carceral responses to sexual violence by the criminal justice system. You can follow Alternative Justice on Instagram.