About the Author: Sara Davis is a high school senior from Colorado and on the Cultures Advisory Board. This article was written with the contribution of the Cultures of Dignity Editorial Advisory Board.
Catching Up to Cancel Culture
By Sara Davis
Cancel culture arrived in my life when I was fifteen. It was 2017 and I was in 9th grade. I remember debating what it meant in my environmental club meeting. We agreed that it involved pulling financial support from the person being canceled; we disagreed on when and where it was okay to post something on social media against that person. Our conversations about who to cancel were about artists. As in, should we keep listening to R. Kelly, or seeing Harvey Weinstein movies, or buy a copy of Ender’s Game ? We agreed that after the #MeToo movement, a good line to draw was not to financially support someone who sexually assaulted another person, or abused their power to hurt another person. But we didn’t know where it stopped.
Social media trends move quickly, and so do young people. By 2018, many young people realized that canceling someone every time they made a mistake was toxic. We realized that it’s always hard to know the whole story. At the same time, many young people also learned that you have to take ownership of your previous actions, but also respect a person’s capacity to grow, change, and learn from their mistakes.
As a high school senior about to graduate I have witnessed how cancel culture has changed for the worse in the last year. I wondered if I was alone so I asked my fellow Cultures of Dignity Editorial Advisors to provide insight into what cancel culture looks like to them. A lot of them disagreed with me, but the reason I wrote this article is because I thought it was important to share how everyone’s perspective on cancel culture is different, and how everyone can learn from those unique perspectives, especially me.
I often think cancel culture and consequences for actions get mixed up. I think of cancel culture as more to do with more trivial offenses such as getting a reputation for being rude or something, whereas consequences for action consist of more major offenses such as the #MeToo movement. I also think this brings up the question of when a person or company deserves to be “canceled” or not.
– Anne Ellis, 16
In 2016, cancel culture or the act of canceling another person was a decision made by a large group of people who all understood just how terrible that person’s actions were. These days one single person can cancel another purely based on his or her beliefs and completely change the story for their benefit…These actions are incomparable to the actions of the #MeToo movement which comprised thousands of people all coming to a consensus about the wrongdoing of a person, thus canceling said person.
– Joshua, 13
What separates a mistake from an unforgivable choice? If it comes out that someone used to tweet racist things, even if it was while they were an adult, does that mean their careers should end? Is it a mistake or a choice? When tweets of celebs resurface 10 years later, does that still define who a person is?
– Subira, 13
While cancel culture was always complicated, it has morphed into a way to demonstrate your rejection of those person’s actions based on ethics and how you should treat others to something far more damaging. Now, people in positions of power manipulate cancel culture by complaining about it curtailing their freedom of speech so they can garner more support, political power, and financial gain. In the process, they are undermining the dignity of the people that they don’t agree with or are refusing to acknowledge the dignity of the people they are dehumanizing.
Oftentimes the worse consequences of cancel culture only apply to people with less power. Actually rich or famous (or usually both) people usually don’t have very big consequences. But is it even cancel culture when it’s on such a small scale, or is it just consequences for someone’s actions?
– Subira, 13
Recently I’ve noticed that people who were given second chances tended to be adults or people that have been famous for a long time or have a following from a much broader age range in the audience….Ellen Degeneres, was “cancelled” last year and apologized and her show is still on air. Also some people may have even forgotten about it. Then there are other celebrities like YouTubers who have a generally younger audience and tend to be forgiven less than certain older celebrities. I think this is because younger people are better at using social media platforms to express their feelings on someone or something than older people.
– Gus, 16
Cancel Culture And Attention
In a world where attention is a commodity, cancel culture also can appear to be a strategy to deny attention to someone. But this assumes that in the marketplace of ideas everyone has the same size microphone. People don’t have equal capacity to be heard, and now when a person already enjoys a high level of privilege and power, crying that you have been “canceled” ironically elevates that person’s platform.
Now, we have journalists and politicians who have weaponized cancel culture to defend their right to free speech without consideration for treating others with dignity. Men like Matthew Yglesias, who left Vox in November complaining about cancel culture making it too difficult for him to work or Senator Hawley from Missouri using cancel culture to deflect attention from his support of the insurrection on January 6th by claiming that the real crime was his publisher canceling his book contract. Senator Hawley doesn’t have a constitutional right to publish a book. He made a deal with a private company to publish his book and as such they have a right to decide not to publish his book. Rather than being censored as he claimed, it’s actually the consequences of our economic system. And, as our system does, another publisher picked up his book deal.
One of the worst consequences of cancel culture is how it has become an indicator of which side you’re taking on any issue and stops us from having productive conversations with each other.
With Tiktok gaining popularity among young people, cancel culture has also become a bigger problem. I see lots of people cancelling others on TikTok just because they can, and I mostly see this in younger users of the app while I read the comments. I think that younger people are more prone to join in with the group that is doing the cancelling.
– Lilly , 16
I think it is also because younger people are growing up with technology and feel that they have more to say without actually suffering the consequences. I also agree that younger people are more prone to join the comments and back up a comment made by another stranger that fits their opinion or thinking.
How to Make it Better
If you’re upset about cancel culture and what you’re reading on social media about people being canceled, educate yourself about it beyond the headlines. People are using cancel culture as a way to divert attention from what should be focusing on; the standards of how we treat each other in this developing age of social media and how we hold people accountable for unethical behavior.
Cancel culture can be a path to make the person who has made a mistake to understand what they have done that has hurt others. From what I’ve observed, when something on social media has real life consequences it’s usually because:
- The person was told their behavior was harmful.
- The person did not stop their behavior.
- The person did not apologize for their actions. Or the apology was not given in good faith.
This is what we learned as children. If you make a mistake, apologize and fix it. If not, there’s going to be a problem.
Using Cancel Culture For Good
We can use cancel culture for good when someone has made a mistake and we can hold that person accountable without shaming them. Cancel culture done right gives us the opportunity to get our intentions in alignment with the impact of our actions on others. This generation of young people doesn’t want to tolerate the hypocrisy of people in positions of power. When we see it we are going to call it out.
Apologizing is how we can maintain the dignity of both the person being harmed and the person they are apologizing to. Apologizing isn’t usually easy and that sometimes we have to look past our differences and accept the other side. Apologizing can get us a long way so people aren’t constantly fighting on social media. Treating people who have made mistakes with dignity while still holding them accountable is the essential lesson of cancel culture. And it’s why we do what we do.