In October 2019 at an Obama Foundation event, former president Barack Obama criticized the increasingly prominent ‘cancel culture’ which dominates the news cycle and Twitter feeds. He described how the tendency to focus on judgement as much as possible is not activism nor is it conducive to change. But how exactly has cancel culture transformed from holding celebrities accountable for their actions into the phenomenon of harsh judgement which merits criticism by Obama?
Cancel culture can trace its roots to the 2017 article in The New Yorker which exposed Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood movie executive, for his “ongoing predatory behavior towards women throughout his career.” The response to the article, in conjunction with additional reporting by The New York Times, launched the #MeToo movement and resulted in the cancellation of other public figures for similar sex crimes. When these public figures are “canceled”, it is a cooperative effort by the public to take their fame and high status away. The media is a tool of cancel culture, as the intense scrutiny exposes corruption and has popularized the idea of “cancelling” a public figure. Weinstein’s downfall was the beginning of a reckoning, and deservedly so; however, cancel culture has come to target others who haven’t committed serious offenses.
Cancel culture has been defined as the public and cultural boycott of a public figure especially, although companies, concepts and brands have all been recent targets of cancel culture. Cancel culture originally had honorable intentions. It was a method of accountability for public figures using the only weapon the general public has: taking away the public figure’s power and celebrity status. However, this accountability soon extended to the political realm with mixed consequences.
Cancel culture was a hot topic at the recent Republican National Convention, where speakers like Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle criticized extreme political correctness and the toxicity of cancel culture. Trump Jr. argued that the “Left is trying to cancel all of the Founding Fathers” — an apparent reference to the efforts by activists to remove statues and monuments of the Founding Fathers from locations nationwide. Additionally, Nicholas Sandmann, a Kentucky highschooler who was ‘canceled’ last year over a viral video controversy—where he appeared to taunt indigenous activists at the Lincoln Memorial, spoke out against the toxicity of cancel culture and the unfair media treatment he claims he received. Sandmann cited several lawsuits with settlements from the Washington Post and CNN as evidence for how the media promotes cancel culture. While Trump Jr. hyperbolizes the dangers of cancel culture, it is important to distinguish the problem of historicizing public figures from holding current public figures accountable when they commit serious offenses.
Although these two instances of cancel culture deal with vastly different topics, the fixation on cancel culture emphasizes how it has become a political as well as social issue. Clearly, cancel culture has become a hot button issue for both sides of the political spectrum. To that end, it is a phenomenon worth debating because it spans across so many social issues and political ideologies.
The Influence of Social Media
Twitter and other social media platforms are often how different public figures get cancelled. However, there are some issues with enacting this public boycott of certain figures. One of these problems, identified by Obama, is the issue of what to do once a public figure is canceled or dealing with the idea of redemption. What happens next for a canceled public figure? Do they deserve the opportunity to move on from past mistakes if they are truly remorseful, or are they deemed culturally exiled forever? What is the line between promoting change and activism to casting permanent judgement on past actions? Compared to the formal due process and procedures of the criminal justice system, the court of cancel culture does not have to follow these rules in order to condemn public figures. In an obvious sense, there are benefits to not being limited by the long and arduous legal process; it also presents a lack of real consequences for these public figures since they often do not face criminal justice for their crimes. These questions of judgement and consequences cannot have a definitive answer because each case is so distinct. However, the harshness of cancel culture has created an environment that does not allow such nuances to be considered. Because social media operates on a rapid news cycle, it can be hard for uninformed users to hear all sides of a story or know the details of why a person has been canceled.
No one has been more affected by cancel culture than Hollywood celebrities. The #MeToo movement caused a great upheaval in the power dynamics and gender issues rooted in the celebrity and acting world. Even before the #MeToo movement gained traction, cancel culture and celebrity life were intertwined in the form of the Tumblr account your fave is problematic. The account was created in 2013, predating the popularity of cancel culture, and posted compilations of “problematic” quotes and actions by celebrities in order to expose them as problematic. The account gained prominence for sparking conversations around issues like gender pronouns, cultural appropriation, mental health stigma and holding celebrities accountable, which had not gained social prevalence at the time. The Tumblr account was ahead of its time as these issues are all part of typical discourse in 2021.
The recent social movement surrounding Black Lives Matter has further exposed the tenuous relationship between cancel culture and activism. Celebrities are facing criticism for their social media posts regarding BLM or other racial injustice issues. The Blackout Tuesday movement was a social media effort to draw awareness to the Black victims of police brutality by posting a black square as a sign of solidarity. For example, Emma Watson, the Harry Potter actress and UN Ambassador, posted three plain black squares to her Instagram account in solidarity with the Blackout Tuesday movement. However, Watson faced criticism from fans and others who accused the actress of engaging in “performative” activism and editing the photos by adding a white border to the squares to fit her Instagram aesthetic. The critics also noted that she did not add any links to donation sites or offer more resources. Therefore, even when celebrities attempt social activism, they are criticized for not posting certain links or accused of harboring apathetic intentions toward the social movement. This criticism is indicative of a larger trend within pop culture in demanding that public figures and celebrities comment on social and political issues, which has not been an expectation previously. More than ever before, there is an expectation of ideological purity and increased social awareness for all people, which manifests clear benefits and disadvantages in society. The most pressing danger of this ideological purity is its divisiveness. It can be difficult for people to learn more about social issues or ask questions if there is an expectation of expert level knowledge already.
At the Obama Foundation event, the former president censured the ideological purity which has dominated cancel culture, saying, “The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids.” These words offer a glimpse into the tensions which govern cancel culture: the urge to hold powerful people accountable and the process of allowing people to change and grow from their mistakes. The question which results from these tensions is whether they can be resolved, or whether the demand for ideological purity will force advocates of cancel culture into judging even the smallest of mistakes. The origin of cancel culture with the #MeToo movement was intended to hold powerful people accountable, however social media and ideological purity has changed cancel culture over time. With the increasing partisanship across the nation, it is not likely that proponents of cancel culture will become more accepting, but only time will tell.
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