Shame isn’t a new political tactic, but social media has created a supercharged cycle of outrage, boycott and backlash with its own name: “cancel culture.”
The impulse to “cancel” an individual, publicly and collectively labeling them as a pariah in response to perceived bad behavior, raises deep questions about how we hold others—especially those with broad platforms—accountable, but also challenges us to think about how one might seek forgiveness after transgressing communal decorum.
“Cancelling” can come in many forms: calling out, deplatforming, boycotting. It has happened to celebrities like comedian Louis C.K., who was pilloried and lost lucrative contracts after being exposed for sexual misconduct, and political figures like conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, who had a university speaking engagement literally canceled over her views on immigration—plus many, many other individuals who are seen to have acted immorally or unjustly.
Although cancel culture is frequently seen as endemic to the political left, the transgressions that lead to calls for cancellation take many forms:Conservative activists cancel their Netflix subscriptions for perceived liberal bias on the streaming service.
Students at Harvard reject the Harvard Crimson after student journalists ask U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to comment on an immigration-related event on campus. YouTube personalities cancel each other for personal slights, and teenagers use the term colloquially to single out social behavior they think is unacceptable.
Former President Barack Obama was one of many voices pushing back against the culture of calling people out online. “The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he said at an Obama Foundation event in October. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
Every day we create a lasting record of our lives thanks to the proliferation of connected devices and the often indelible nature of online data and content.
As people evolve, those records will memorialize their choices, messages, and frustrations—including those that are glaringly out of sync with current society. Not only will it be easier to find past actions of individuals that transgress contemporary social norms, but there will inevitably continue to be individuals who actively breach our trust in the present day with unacceptable, illegal or repulsive behavior.
As a society, the question is whether cancel culture will leave any room for redemption. Will we have a mechanism for those who transgress to learn from their mistakes? What can someone do to repent for their actions? And who gets to decide when that repentance is complete—the transgressor, or the person or community who feels they were violated?
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