A philosophical case for why you should be angry.
Think twice before you share another post dragging current public enemy of the week.
“Cancel culture” is a term used to describe a phenomenon where someone—it could be a celebrity or a random individual—is ostracised from social media platforms because of a public perception that they’ve committed a wrongdoing.
It’s a modern phenomenon that has garnered a lot of criticism, but that doesn’t stop people from engaging in it without even pausing to think. Despite the growing pool of pushback against this unprecedented power, cancel culture is as strong as ever. Some commentators even go as far as to support these mass cancellations, putting forward the argument that they hold people accountable. For example, Nesrine Malik from The Guardian writes that what cancel culture is really about is “old elites losing power”. With that being said, let’s deconstruct and examine the philosophical premise of cancel culture.
Cancel culture ideally needs to be two things: firstly, it need to be effective in holding people accountable and catalysing social change. It does this by sending a clear message to people that they shouldn’t do certain things, because then they’ll face social consequences they don’t want. And secondly, cancel culture needs to be fair, so that people aren’t wrongfully punished.
Cancel culture is theoretically effective in holding people to account. There’s no way to miss it when several thousand people quote tweet you on your moral failure, and there’s also no denying the fact that the behaviours of people have been impacted since the rise of shaming on social media, or at least in public. Not everyone has reacted in this way, but for the most part, people have been more careful about what they output to social media or in front large groups of people.
But for cancel culture to be fair, it needs to be able to accurately pinpoint who is, in fact, deserving of this punishment. Cancel culture inherently relies on mob justice, and the mob isn’t always going to be right about what’s right and what’s wrong. We should all be skeptical of the assumption that society’s current moral code is infallible—especially when on a large scale, a flawed understanding of right and wrong mixed with such a potent tool as cancel culture will inevitably result in unjustified outrage. This is especially dangerous when coupled with the fact that we, as members of the social discourse, have an incentive to label the actions of faraway celebrities as “wrong” even if they aren’t, if only for the drama of it. Turns out humans are selfish, and enjoy gossiping about others. Four and a half billon of those bored and careless people on the Internet? Not the best for accurate and fair judgements.
Members of the public aren’t just bad at deciding what actions are right and wrong, but also who actually is guilty of them. There are also examples of people being cancelled over something they didn’t even do in the first place. Enter James Charles, a beauty guru who went from being a Met Gala star to public enemy number one in less than a week, all over allegations that are now largely considered to be false. James Charles was lucky, in the sense that he was proven innocent after his accuser withdrew her claims that he was predatory around straight men in a viral public apology. But most cancelled individuals don’t have this privilege. Most false accusers, exaggerators and liars—in other words, crap people—won’t ever coming forward to admit they lied. Because they’re crap people.
Cancel culture is, to say the least, unimpressive when it comes to determining who deserves a social punishment. This is exacerbated even further by the fact that we live in political echo chambers, where wrongdoing becomes intrinsically politicised, and the politicised becomes more extreme online. We should all speak out against incentives and echo chambers that allow the masses to casually screw over whoever has done something bad ‘in their opinion’; unless we want more situations like what happened with James Charles.
But if you think that that’s the only way in which cancel culture is unfair, you’re wrong. Cancel culture isn’t just bad at judging who should get punished. It’s also the ultimate perversion of the golden rule of retribution: that punishment must be proportional to the crime. This rule is upheld everywhere in our legal system, and universally acknowledged within crime and forgiveness everywhere. If you tease someone at school, you won’t go to prison. If you steal a ten-dollar bill, you won’t be given a life sentence. If you attempt to rob a bank, you might be imprisoned for a decade, but you won’t get the death penalty.
From then on, all you have to do is recognise the ridiculous premise of claims that try to equate sending a dumb tweet or holding a controversial view with being deserving of a punishment as extensive as the whole world deciding that you’re ‘unworthy’. Ethically speaking, the two are in different universes.
The power of social media is immense. The entire world is now able to take one random person and unleash the full force of a gravitational tide on just that one individual. Imagine the impact that that has on the victims of cancel culture: the eyes of the whole world cast down upon you, with millions turning against you and judging you, having known you at your worst. The social and mental ramifications of that can be huge. You may never be asked to speak at an institution again, because every one of them is going to be fully aware of what you did and withdraw all your privileges. You may have all your career opportunities taken away from you by fellow humans who have judged you as undeserving. You won’t be employable for an unknown period of time. You won’t be able to date anyone, since in 2020, we all google who we date. Some of your friends will turn against you; your family might turn against you as well, since you’ve brought shame to them; your most trusted loved ones may decide that you’re no longer fit for them anymore. Any social media or email that you create will be filled with death threats and affirmations that people hate you. Every time you don’t get a party invitation that another friend does receive, you’ll have a sick feeling that you know why. Your social life will never be the same again. With every connection to another person that you manage to sustain, you will always have that painful memory, and that feeling of being in the lower position, and with every new relationship you form, they know your biggest shame before they’ve even met you properly, putting them at an advantage over you. With all of that, it’s almost inevitable to fall into either extreme anxiety, depression or PTSD, along with every other hardship now being thrown at you from absolutely everywhere. Being cancelled is unforgettable. You might die remembering the fact that you were cancelled and the whole world hated you.
Unleashing a punishment of that size on one person has such an unbelievably catastrophic impact that it breaches every rule about the proportionality of punishment. A stupid or even outrageous tweet, gesture or statement can never merit such complete destruction of somebody’s life. You might protest that it holds people to account. Yes, noted. It’s the extent that’s sort of the problem.
Unfortunately social media only ever acknowledges two types of people: noble warriors of unwavering virtue, and depraved, evil villains. The day someone gets cancelled, they’re one of the bad guys—so on social media, a world devoid of nuance, they become the monster. Twitter warriors are too dense to acknowledge that two things can be true at once. Firstly, that what someone might have done could in fact have been morally wrong. Secondly, that even if that’s true, it isn’t enough to condemn their moral character as a whole. Take an offensive joke posted online, for example, like Justine Sacco’s infamous “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS” moment, which saw her destroyed and racked by PTSD afterward. Rationally speaking, no-one can deny that it was a momentary three-second decision where the consequences of her action weren’t thought through, on a social media profile with a small and inconsequential following, where it was almost guaranteed that only a handful of people would see it.
I know for a fact that you’ve made split-second decisions where you’ve said something that was insensitive, because these lapses in moral judgements are present in everyday life. While not necessarily about race, nobody has lived an existence totally free from spur-of-the-moment jokes or comments that could be offensive. The difference is, you were lucky because you probably didn’t miss Internet conduct day at school, where they teach you one golden rule: to double and triple check everything that you put on the Internet. Like everyone, you’ve made some hasty and bad decisions in your life. But they didn’t follow you around forever. In that respect, you’re part of the lucky majority.
Those who defend cancel culture, if they want to be consistent, should be happy for their necks to be on the line for all the times they’ve ever made a mistake like that. Regardless of intentions, they should be entirely meek if something they did happened to snowball into a massive impact by pure random chance; and if they were to wake up tomorrow and find that that had happened, then they should be happy to be held personally accountable for that random misfortune—with a punishment as great as Justine Sacco's. Funnily enough, I think most of them would object.
But what about someone who has done something so despicable that it does merit their own life being ruined? What about a serial killer, or a police officer who murders an unarmed person? In that case, cancel culture’s gigantic punishment is justified. The scale of the punishment fits the scale of the crime. But even assuming that the general public is right about who’s committed a crime of that level, cancel culture isn’t the perfect solution for what should happen to that person. Murder and other astronomical wrongdoings are already illegal, and people who engage in those acts normally go to prison. In this case, the solution is incarceration. The discussion shifts away from a social perspective and onto a legal one about what the state should do to deal with that person.
Unfortunately, the ideal solution of person isn’t always possible without a change in the system. In cases where criminal justice will likely not be achieved—like in cases of police brutality—cancel culture may be the next best solution. A 1982 law called qualified immunity makes it effectively impossible for a police officer to serve legal justice for violating somebody’s rights while on the job. 99% of killings from police officers from 2013 to 2019 haven’t resulted in the officer even being charged, much less found guilty. Americans, particularly Black Americans, have had to face the sobering reality that if an officer were to decide to hurt them unjustifiably, they wouldn’t face any legal consequence. In these cases where the state has failed, only then should the masses take matters into their own hands by implementing this social punishment, given that a legal one is impossible. Because here, you have a punishment that actually fits the crime.
There’s another example of when cancel culture can be a good thing: holding companies to account. Corporations are slime balls, and they mostly only care about one thing: pocketing your money. And that means they’re happy to dump gallons of pollution into the atmosphere from factories operating on exploited workers—all for that sweet, sweet cash. Unethical companies are the exact ideal target for cancel culture—it’s fair to rip their reputation apart since not only are some of their crimes unimaginable, but the impact will be dropped onto an entity, not a person, diluting the effect amongst all the people in the company. And you can bet that this would be effective—if people actually used cancel culture against companies. Which by-and-large, they don’t. There have been efforts to stop people from buying brands like Nestlé’s until they stop using child labour in Africa, but those efforts have gone largely unheard. The truth is, it’s just not as fun to bring up slave farms, underpaid workers and environmental damage compared to a problematic thing that someone has said. Humans cancels because it’s trendy to cancel—hence why they only cancel things when it’s fun, at the expense of justice. I guess maybe some of them just aren’t as noble as they tell themselves they are.