OPINION: What are we trying to accomplish with cancel culture?
Recently, actress Gina Rodriguez posted a video via her Instagram story singing along to the song “Ready or Not” by the Fugees, in which she said the n-word without hesitation. In disgust, I showed the video to my friend and explained her history of anti-blackness, to which he replied: “Why do we expend so much energy into some nobody when people are literally in cages?”
My counter was that everybody likes to partake in celebrity gossip and that celebrities should be more responsible with how they use their platforms.
As a response, he offered this hypothetical: “Imagine if every second we spent getting upset because some celebrity was problematic [we instead] spent time calling our state representatives, etc. instead of convincing ourselves [that this is] doing the right thing?”
Although I do respect his argument and recognize that there is a lot of misplaced energy put into certain instances of “canceling,” I do think that there’s a particular level of accountability that those who contribute to “cancellation” are rightfully aiming to accomplish. You can’t call your state representatives to tattle on famous people, even when they’re perpetuating negative stigmas or acting inappropriately. However, when individuals make personal stands against public ill will, it sets a precedent for social decorum that extends into the political sphere. Pop culture and politics are in correlation with one another — social issues are political issues and vice versa.
“Canceling” can be described as personal boycotting, generally until change (usually in the form of a genuine apology and/or redeeming post-cancel behavior) happens. Otherwise, problematic behavior can lead to a complete lack of acknowledgement to anything said celebrity may do from that point on. The sum of every individual also carrying out a personal protest equates to a mass of non-supporters, resulting in a negative impact to said famous person’s career and reputation.
Some argue that a single/minimal number of mistakes should not compromise someone’s career or image. But when those whose careers are almost entirely dependent on the size of their platform and ubiquity of their name, why is it too much to ask for them to also be decent human beings? Being a celebrity is an integral facet to the careers of mainstream creators, and with it comes a level of responsibility they are nowadays expected to abide by.
Arguments against cancel culture are rooted in a few central concepts. One of these is the theory that since humans are a fundamentally flawed species and everyone has their own tally of toxicities, then eventually everyone would get “canceled”. Also, the question of a cancel-cutoff comes into play. How can we properly determine what is a redeemable mistake and what is a blatant display of discrimination and/or disregard?
Here’s the thing: Marginalized communities are constantly being put on blast for aspects of their existence. When celebrities use their platform to perpetuate that demonization, they can’t be surprised when said communities call them out and demand accountability.
Cancellation has inherited complexities, making it a hard thing to wholly believe and participate in. It is true that not every cancellation is completely justified. There is a holier-than-thou aspect to this phenomenon that ruins it for those that are truly trying to make a change in the way we interact with one another. Condemning people for things like racism, homophobia, assault, etc. is just common decency, not a result of the theorized collapse of Western humor.
The distinction between petty and justified cancellation can be boiled down to mendability. For example, some have tried to cancel Rihanna for openly forgiving her abuser, Chris Brown, during her interview with Oprah in 2012. Arguments against the mogul questioned her tolerance for abuse and support of victimizers, but you cannot condemn someone for forgiving another after wronging them. However, you can and should stop supporting someone who has openly displayed objectively offensive and harmful behavior. I understand the push and pull that comes along with enjoying someone’s art but not approving of who they are as a person, but Brown’s music alone does not make up for his longstanding history of problematic actions.
Circling back to the relationship between political and social matters, the Time’s Up movement was one that began as an open letter of solidarity that then flourished into the viral development #TimesUp. Written by Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and published by TIME in late 2017, the open addressment of the Weinstein scandal and connection it made to those who are not of star status created unanimity among all survivors of sexual violence. Boiling it down to layman’s slang, this public message, leading to cyber collection, initiated the cancellation of accused rapist Harvey Weinstein.
Without this publicized callout and demand for accountability, the change that followed would not have occurred when it had. What he did not only tanked his public reputation but also served as an example as to what collective rallying can do, even if only acknowledged in hashtag form.
The Time’s Up movement, along with others like it (i.e. “#Me Too”), expanded into the political sphere. Group persistence, both online and with boots-on-the-ground efforts, catalyzed resignations from abusive political figures, called for laws surrounding harassment and sex discrimination to better support victims and prompted revealing court cases against powerful abusers (i.e. Ford v. Kavanaugh).
Courageous activists and organizers called for the assembly of those who understood, empathized, and even shared their experiences in order to ignite change. Sometimes you can’t wait for government officials to make changes for you, especially when the issues at hand are in cahoots with those hindering advancement. Organization in any form has the possibility to be powerful.
So, is cancel culture simply a defective attempt at inciting universal moral standards? Why is it so wrong for the public to demand a foundational level of respect to allow for a more seamless coexistence between communities? This phenomenon, occupying its own nuances and magnitudes, is at its best a call for public-spirited progress.
Selena Kuikahi is a junior majoring in film and law