Cancel Culture: Social Justice or Censorship?


‘How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?’ – Bell Hooks

picture with two hands imitate guns and two phrases "you're canceled!"

From Ancient Greece’s ostracism to the 19th-century stocks and pillory, public shaming has always been an instrument to assert power and authority and make individuals abide by the social and moral standards. 

Today’s liberal and democratic countries take pride in having removed such practices as a legitimate social justice tool. However, that’s a far cry from reality: a new way of public humiliation has settled: the cancel culture.

What is cancel culture?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, cancel culture is ‘the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling to express disapproval and exert social pressure’. In a nutshell, it consists of adopting a position with regard to a person with a reprehensible behaviour and, thus, ceasing any type of support, particularly on social media.

This ‘new’ enact of justice generally affects brands and celebrities, given that they have much more extensive exposure. J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, it’s one of the most recent and better-known cases of cancellation: fans called her out after she voiced her opinions on transgender rights in a series of tweets. From that point, the public tagged her as transphobic and boycotted her productions.

A Harry Potter fan showing disapproval of J.K. Rowling
A Harry Potter fan showing disapproval of J.K. Rowling

Nevertheless, no one is immune to a public backlash reaction, given the power of social media to get anyone’s message across the entire world. A bad joke, a controversial statement or inappropriate behaviour and you could receive a social ‘condemn’.

This situation poses a massive debate over the necessity and honest intentions of publicly scolding people. Is it a way to hold people accountable for their behaviour or a strategy to censor and punish those whose ideas don’t go in line with the current?

Why do we perpetuate the cancel culture?

Author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown considers cancel culture is the outcome of our societies’ foundation upon the basis of the binary good and evil, along with the desire to mete out punishment to protect society’s freedom. It’s often a natural response, a collective knee-jerk reaction that we seem to enjoy. So, why do we find such pleasure in degrading other people and commit to it?

There are a number of reasons why public shaming is permanent in our culture. For Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it all comes down to the way our psyche functions: we tend to feel morally superior to the rest, and we rely on social affirmation and the feeling of belonging.

Cover of So You've Been Publicly Shamed, A journey through the world of public scorn
Cover of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, A journey through the world of public scorn

Cancel culture provides individuals with a highly gratifying sense of authority. ‘Protecting’ society from misconduct feels productive since, in theory, we are doing a good deed. In this way, we feel good about ourselves, and society pats us on the back.

However, there might be other reasons we like the police role so much: fear of missing out, the need not to feel left behind, and inclusion. This explains why cancel culture is so popular on social media, to the point of even being a modern pastime.

The impact of cancel culture

Whatever the reasons are to expose and publicly humiliate someone, we cannot deny cancel culture does carry consequences for those who have to deal with the subjugation to the ‘social’ world.

Cancelling is much more than just a momentary humiliation. It does mean, in many cases, the social death of a person. It can lead to the loss of credibility and reputation and even the loss of a job or access to resources in severe cases. Johnny Depp is a good illustration of it; after accusations of spousal abuse, he lost his contracts with Disney and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Nonetheless, the outcome of publicly bashing and hatred can be dreadful. Cancelling holds a strong bond with bullying, particularly on social media, and its unidirectionality tends to leave the cancelled person without a chance to give an explanation or apology. Consequently, the feeling of loneliness and the mental health impact can lead to a tragic ending in some extreme cases. Caroline Flack’s case perfectly depicts it: the British tv presenter committed suicide after undergoing public scrutiny.

Is cancel culture really serving justice?

Some people believe cancel culture is a necessary evil since this enactment of retributive justice can help combat wrongdoing. It shows people’s will not accept behaviours deemed detrimental in today’s society and raises awareness to empower people in addressing inequalities. As a result, it can make people think twice about their words and actions, particularly those given in the public sphere. 

Back in 2015, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite appeared to change the Oscars; through it, people condemned the gala for its lack of diversity. In 2016, social media revived it again asserting the necessity of a more inclusive event. In 2020, the organization reported that its board of members had changed from a blatant majority of white men to ‘45% women, 36% underrepresented ethnic/racial communities, and 49% international from 68 countries.’

The famous TV host Jimmy Fallon admitted being called out publicly helped him better understand his actions
The famous TV host Jimmy Fallon admitted being called out publicly helped him better understand his actions

For others, cancelling is just a stigmatization tool that is not coming out with a solution to natural behaviours. Public figures state that cancel culture has demeaned them and robbed them of the opportunity to express themselves and argue their points. Cancel culture has come at the cost of freedom of speech, and it does not provide the opportunity to grow from mistakes to become a better person.

So, when we cancel someone out, are we censoring different opinions or just serving justice?

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