Cancel culture: use responsibly


Spotify allows users to mute artists at their discretion.| Photo by: Spotify

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

Social media has revolutionized the way we communicate. In 2019, we are able to share our thoughts and opinions from the intimacy of our own homes while hiding behind the veil of anonymity.

At the same time, social media has also become a hub to disseminate information. When a newsworthy event occurs, people from around the globe can react in real time. Subsequently, when an individual or organization expresses a belief that others disagree with, the backlash is swift and thorough.

Cancel culture is the phenomenon of responding to beliefs that contradict your own by boycotting the source. From celebrities to fast food chains, no person or establishment is immune to the swift hammer of cancel culture.

However, some may argue that embracing cancel culture is an indirect form of censorship. They may reference the First Amendment, which guarantees our right to freedom of speech, even going so far as to accept hate speech masquerading as free speech.

A couple weeks ago, Saturday Night Live hired Shane Gillis as a cast member. Shortly after Gillis was announced as one of the newest SNL recruits, a video emerged of him making derogatory comments about the LGBTQ+ and Asian American communities.

Gillis’s supporters rallied to his defense, defending the sanctity of comedy and freedom of speech. Others contended that racial epithets are harmful, unproductive and have no place in modern society. I believe there is a middle ground that needs to be explored.

The U.S. is a nation that was built on hate and intolerance. We have progressed, for lack of a better term, from overt slavery to convict leasing and Jim Crow. From Jim Crow came segregation. From segregation came the War on Drugs, which was an attempt to target and dismantle Black leadership and fragment Black communities.

The idea that words may have long-term consequences can help us move beyond the baseless application of stereotypes and the use of racial epithets that belittle minority demographics. Social media, and by extension, cancel culture, has provided us with an instrument to call out hate when it is readily visible.

While freedom of speech protects us against legal ramifications for unpopular opinions, it does not insulate us against social and financial consequences. Consumers are not obligated to purchase a product or support a brand.

At the same time, values and opinions are subjective. With a few exceptions, one person’s opinion cannot be considered superior to another’s. Oftentimes, a person’s values change as they mature. Canceling someone without offering them a chance to redeem themselves is counterproductive to actual dialogue. We need differences in opinion to iron out the flaws in our culture.

If one side dominates an argument, we fail to consider our own toxicity. We fall into a cycle of reinforcing our own beliefs and preconceived notions through confirmation bias, a pattern that manifests itself when we exclusively entertain arguments that reaffirm our own beliefs and reject any idea that challenges our stance.

Cancel culture can be beneficial when used sparingly and responsibly. The fear of social consequence serves as a deterrent against sharing hurtful thoughts. On the other hand, we shouldn’t reflexively threaten to cancel anyone whose opinions differ from our own.

For example, artists who violate our cultural standards, such as R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, have had their catalogues temporarily removed from Spotify. Spotify later reversed its decision, concluding that consumers are intellectually capable enough to decide how they would like to balance the indiscretions of Kelly and XXXTtentacion against their artistic contributions. In other words, it is up to the general public to determine whether or not R. Kelly deserves a chance at reforming himself or whether his crimes render him irredeemable.

Our collective response to R. Kelly and his crimes has twice set a precedent as to what future offenders should expect. For years, we allowed R. Kelly’s musical prowess to insulate him the legal consequences of pedophilia. This set a standard that afforded other celebrities a sense of security when committing similar crimes.

However, now that the narrative has shifted, resulting in R. Kelly essentially being ostracized from society, cancel culture -when used pointedly- has effectively set a new standard that others will be forced to consider before engaging in unlawful affairs.

It is imperative that we also consider intent when determining whether someone deserves to be canceled. A clumsy joke for the sake of getting shock laughs usually isn’t uttered with malicious intent. Sure, it may offend some people, but unless it is an effort to mobilize a movement against a vulnerable demographic, a simple unfavorable response can send a loud message.

Differences in opinion, save for extreme violations of humanitarian values, should not result in an effort to cancel someone. If we overuse this tactic, it becomes an instrument of social control. If used irresponsibly, it may devolve into a method of bullying those who disagree with a stance into subservience. But if used correctly, it can serve as a deterrent against spreading counter cultural values.