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Trials by Media: The Ethics and Efficacy of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture is a social phenomenon that sees the cancellation or discrediting of someone for an act of wrongdoing. A "cancellation" indicates a loss of social currency, an incapacity for improvement, and the denial of the opportunity for apology. The cancelled are silenced. In response to her seemingly transphobic tweet, J.K. Rowling experienced cancellation and a subsequent boycott against her brand. When Professor Greg Patton at the University of Southern California repeated the Chinese word for “that” – a similar sound to the N-word – in a recorded lecture, he received severe, international censure that forced his decision to step down.

The capacity of cancel culture, in context and impact, makes a clear distinction between guilt and shame: guilt is a feeling of misconduct, shame is a badge of it, and cancel culture clearly elicits the latter. In ”How to Build a Healthy Brain”, Kimberley Wilson writes that “social media has democratised cancel culture”, alluding to both the old age of the phenomenon and the newfound, extensive opportunity to jump on its bandwagon of censorship. As social media grows, cancel culture grows with it and becomes further embedded in a global understanding of right from wrong. Extensive debate surrounds the ethics and efficacy of such a stringent measure of morality.

Advocates of cancel culture commend how it regulates behaviour, normalises taking accountability, and protects and mobilises underprivileged groups. Working in a similar way to the law, the reprimand of cancellation incentivises acting in the "right" and instils a fear of "wrong" behaviour. In a piece for VICE Magazine, Shamira Ibrahim emphasises how cancel culture enables marginalised voices to police the media, large corporations, and those in positions of power. She references celebrity cancellations and acknowledges that “redemption will happen for the cancelled”, but adds that “in that space before the comeback, the best tool remains for the court of public opinion to demand apologies and utilise social media for accountability to set a rubric for engagement”. In this way, Ibrahim recognises cancel culture as a precedent compulsory for the protection of and support for the marginalised.

Yet, arguably the true victims of cancel culture are ordinary people – like Professor Patton, who lack the resources necessary to escape cancellation. The anti-cancel culture argument fixates on the impact of this caveat of cancellation, one that can result in job loss and upended livelihood, reputation, and mental health. In these ordinary cases, when everything is on the line, is it fair to cancel? Is it fair to approach morality on a black-and-white basis, refuting the potential for ambiguity? Critics of cancel culture ask these questions, and even challenge whether it surrounds an idea of "morality" at all. Kimberley Wilson writes that, instead, cancel culture is about dominance and rather than teaching right from wrong and anticipating growth, cancel culture dismisses. She holds that proponents of the culture only aim to control those they cancel.

Writing for The New York Times, Ligaya Mishan critiques the "benefits" of cancel culture. She reinforces Ibrahim’s point that when individuals in privileged positions are cancelled, they have the resources to eventually redeem themselves. However, she asserts that as a result, cancel culture “hasn’t succeeded in toppling any major figures – high-level politicians, corporate titans – let alone institutions”. She argues that the ability for the privileged to retaliate defeats the overall purpose of cancel culture. This can be seen in the case of J.K. Rowling’s cancellation, one in which her power and prestige afforded her the opportunity to release a public statement and did not have much of an effect on her cherished brand.

Mishan continues by suggesting that cancel culture actually fuels large corporations and capitalism – those same structures that maintain the injustice and marginalisation that cancel culture is designed to mitigate. As people engage with the media, she says they "do the free labor of making the platform more valuable". And, with increased stigma surrounding the term "cancel culture", those in power use it to their benefit as a crutch to delegitimise public censure.

Perhaps cancel culture is a class, not a social issue, with the privileged immune to and benefitting from its effects while it even supports the injustice it supposedly seeks to undo. Though cancel culture assumes guilty-until-proven-innocent, the opposite of traditional legal principles, in a sense it may be conflated with the law; a system often escapable by the privileged and one that leaves a permanent record. Thus, one question remains unanswered: is any measurement of morality truly just?


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