Cancel Culture: The Judge and Jury of Modern Society

In recent years a popular phenomenon has emerged in response to the perceived injustices present in modern society: cancel culture, the prolific practice of “cancelling” celebrities, politicians, or any prominent figures in society in an attempt to exact justice for their mistakes and/or wrongdoings. Is this new trend truly for the betterment of our society, or simply misplaced good intentions?

What?

Before discussing its benefits and downsides, we should clarify the meaning of cancel culture. For the purposes of this article we will be using the following definition of cancel culture:

“Cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support (canceling) for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. Cancel culture is generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming”

-According to Dicitionary.com (cancel culture, n.d.)
Why?

While we cannot give a definitive answer as to what exactly are the psychological mechanisms that gave rise to cancel culture, there are several theories and phenomena that have been considered in the past. 

Crowd Psychology (A.K.A. Mob Mentality)

Since it has become “trendy” to participate in cancelling celebrities, and other prominent individuals via social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, the possibility of crowd psychology (A.K.A. mob psychology) being a large factor in why cancelling occurs in the first place. 

In crowd psychology, some of our beliefs are strengthened as we are surrounded by more people who share these beliefs. What may start as simple disagreement with one celebrity’s past action can grow into believing that the celebrity should be cancelled for their transgressions.

Negative Bias

Negative bias refers to how people are more inclined to negative information than positive information. This may explain why the positive actions of an individual are often overshadowed by their offensive transgressions in cancel culture.

Another aspect that could contribute to the development of cancel culture is the moral outrage commonly associated with it. In an article by Psychology Today, they found that moral outrage can alleviate guilt and act as a defensive response to threats to our moral identity.

Pros

At its core, cancel culture can be viewed as a genuine attempt by the masses to bring to light the transgressions they see going unpunished. It can be seen as a different form of protest that can be carried out by most people who have access to the internet, giving a voice to many people that may not have had it before. Its rise in popularity can also be interpreted as society’s growing sensitivity towards identity politics, sexism, racism, and other social issues that do not have concrete laws to protect people from it.

While it is debatable whether or not the method of cancelling people who have committed these transgressions is the right way to go about acting upon those ideals, we can see that it has left its mark in mainstream society. With larger news outlets such as CNN and The New York Times covering the topic, there is a larger spotlight cast on issues of sexism, racism, and identity politics.

Cons

A common criticism of cancel culture is the cancelling of individuals for offensive things that they have said in the past that are not necessarily relevant to how the person behaves, thinks, or what they believe today. These critics may ask the public to look back to when they were younger. How many times have you used an offensive term or done something that would be considered offensive in 2021 because you simply didn’t know any better at the time? Now imagine millions of people yelling at you and calling you all sorts of degrading names for that mistake you made years ago. Of course, in some situations other people may think that it may be well deserved, but how reliable is information these days? 

One relatively alarming result from a study by Brandon Nguyen(2020) suggests that the credibility of the source of a post does not have a significant effect on how likely a post will be shared. If this is true then we have to think about how much of the news we receive is even true. How many people have been cancelled on false claims?

Another criticism lies in the effectiveness of cancel culture in bringing down those individuals that it claims to have done unforgivable things. There have been several celebrities and politicians that are still influential even though they have been cancelled. In some instances such as with Jordan Peterson, the media attention brought by his being cancelled may have made him even more widely known. Another popular case was the attempt to cancel Amber Heard. A large number of people were clamoring for Heard’s removal from several acting roles she was set to play, most notably that of Mira from Aquaman 2. Despite these efforts, the actress is still set to play in several of these roles.

Conclusion

Cancel culture has been growing in popularity as of late, and it looks like it’s going to stay for the foreseeable future. How we react to it as a society is still divided, with controversies involving it sprouting left, right, and center. I would like to clarify that I am not here to tell you that cancel culture is inherently right or wrong. At the end of the day each instance of it is different. It is my humble opinion that it is our responsibility as a society to make sure that we are as informed as we can be before making the decision to support or potentially ruin someone’s livelihood.

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

Sources:

Cancel Culture. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com.
https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/

Henderson, R. (2017, May 24). The Science Behind Why People Follow the Crowd. Psychology
Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/after-service/201705/the-science-behind-why-people-follow-the-crowd

Ligaya, M. (2020, December 3). The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture. T Magazine.
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/t-magazine/cancel-culture-history.html

Merriam-Webster. (2021). What It Means to Get ‘Canceled’.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching

Nanay, B. (2020, February 11). The Psychology of Moral Outrage. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psychology-tomorrow/202002/the-psychology-moral-outrage

Nguyen, B. (2020). Cancel Culture on Twitter: The Effects of Information Source and Messaging
on Post Shareability and Perceptions of Corporate Greenwashing
. [Thesis or
dissertation, University of Pennsylvania]. Penn Libraries.
https://repository.upenn.edu/wharton_research_scholars/197/

Sarkisian, J. (2020, November 28). The petition to remove Amber Heard from Aquaman 2 now
has over 1.5 million signatures
. Business Insider.
https://www.businessinsider.in/entertainment/news/the-petition-to-remove-amber-heard-from-aquaman-2-now-has-over-1-5-million-signatures/articleshow/79463103.cms

Slater, T. (2020, November 26).  The pathetic attempt to cancel Jordan Peterson. The Spectator. 
https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-pathetic-attempt-to-cancel-jordan-peterson

Tensley, B. (2020, July 10). Cancel culture is about power — who has it and who wants to be heard. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/10/politics/cancel-culture-power/index.html

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The
negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3),
383–403. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383

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