let's talk cancel culture for the hundredth time
Here's where cancel culture gets spicy: does it actually even work? Welcome to my magnum opus.
BEFORE YOU CLICK AWAY – hear me out. I know this shit is tired; this discussion has been going on since Tumblr communities began canceling people in 2012 before cancel culture was even a thing. I saw that happen first hand. I had a mildly popular Tumblr account at age 13, and I'm pretty sure I got canceled at some point for talking about how I didn't want to doxx myself. Has that had an impact on me? Obviously not.
Fuck – I nearly got canceled at Ashoka in 2019 and I'm fine. Y'all know who you are.
No hard feelings. Anymore. We'll talk about this later.
I've had many thoughts about cancel culture, especially considering the various forms in which it attempts to manifest, and I'm going to finally break down exactly what I think of the phenomenon. This will be a long blog post, so if you want to skim through it, just read the section headings and the first two sentences following them, and maybe the last two sentences of the section. Y'all will kill my bounce rate and average reading time if you do this, but I can't stop you. At least I don't have ads, right?
Welcome to my magnum opus.
I. What is canceling?
This section is for all you boomers reading my blog – I'm pretty sure the title of this post would have confused the fuck out of you, so I'm going to very quickly recap perhaps one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the 21st century.
According to the cultural bible Urban Dictionary, "in pop culture, canceled means to make someone or something irrelevant due to current drama." In essence: an attempt to make a problematic person irrelevant by either deplatforming them or suppressing their content to the extent that people more or less forget about them.
A common misconception around canceling and cancel culture is that it began with the dawn of social media mainstream culture; this is untrue. It started as a tool to deplatform truly problematic people based on racist, sexist, or indecent behavior, but it originally began way earlier in industries to suppress people who spoke out against the establishment.
A great example is the group of Hollywood actresses who spoke out about the rampant misogyny in the industry and subsequently were nearly blacklisted from appearing on screen. Megan Fox, reborn Gen Z icon, was one of those people: after she repeatedly spoke about Michael Bay's behavior towards her on set, she stopped getting cast, and her 2009 film Jennifer's Body was slammed just because it was her leading it.
When you're "canceled," you're effectively de-platformed – it is an active attempt to remove any ounce of credibility you or your statements might have had or will ever have. An effective cancellation would lead to the person in question being so entirely publicly or professionally de-platformed that they cannot be in the public eye again; their words have no meaning, their presence has no sway. It is depriving someone of the power and influence they once had.
Not a very difficult concept, but you can see why there's a debate around it.
Here's where cancel culture gets spicy: does it actually even work?
II. Cancel Culture & #MeToo
The most significant accountability movement I can think of is the worldwide #MeToo movement. Now, I've personally written a lot about it and how it unfolds on a micro and macro scale, which is why I call it an "accountability" movement rather than "cancel culture." Here's why.
The crux of the #MeToo movement is that it was born out of institutional mechanisms for redressal of sexual harassment not fucking working. It was to combat the widespread stigma around coming out with your sexual assault story and create a community where people felt like they were being heard. Not every single person who spoke out in this movement wanted any kind of institutional or legal acknowledgment of what happened; instead, one by one, people came out to call out prominent abusers and harassers in their workplaces or industries so that everybody knows what they did.
After the stories come out, they are judged by the public. The public then decides what to do: should we acknowledge the story, provide support, and move on, or should we attempt to hold the abuser accountable? Had this been a case of cancel culture prevailing, there would not have been a dichotomy for choice; the person would have immediately been de-platformed in some way or the other, and it would have stayed that way.
When names began pouring out of the well-protected whisper networks during the multitudinous #MeToo movements that have happened worldwide, it took a lot to even try to deplatform the abusers. Harvey Weinstein was one of the very few named abusers who was actually held structurally accountable for his abuse, but that was after long legal battles, a lot of victim-blaming, and the support of countless women and news publications.
All this to say, accountability is hard when abusers are always the ones with more power. When you have more power, there's a lot more deplatforming that needs to take place. You need equal or more power to hold someone powerful accountable. And quite frankly, for all that the #MeToo movement did to bring forth widespread abuse and harassment in various industries to the fore, it just did not have enough power on a structural level. All that leaves is for people to be held accountable socially, but no multi-millionaire sexual harasser gives a fuck about what you're saying about them on Twitter.
III. Casteism, Racism, and Influencers
Very recently, there was a bit of a moment in the Indian standup scene when a bunch of stand-up comedians were called out for making casteist jokes in past sets despite mostly being upper-caste. The reason I bring this up is because this is one of the biggest arguments people have against "cancel culture" or accountability: if someone said it years ago, is it fair to deplatform them now? After all, hasn't society, over time, become more woke? Weren't these jokes acceptable for the time in which they were made?
Short answer: no. When an upper-caste comedian makes a joke about reservations in an Amazon Prime special in 2016, yes, he does not get called out for it by the upper caste community at the time. Why? Because back in 2016, many DBA people did not have platforms large enough to bring attention to this. Internet culture in 2016 was admittedly very different than it is now, at least in Indian circles. Most cancellations take place on Twitter, and there just wasn't a widespread influential presence for this community at the time on the platform, at least to the extent that their discourse penetrated mainstream discourse, which was dominated by the upper castes.
Now, however, things have changed. There are plenty DBA activists and influencers with large followings on social media platforms (Twitter and Instagram specifically), so now, when they call something out, it gains traction. Like I mentioned before, a huge aspect of cancel culture is power: does the canceller have enough power to actually do anything substantial? In 2016, for this scenario, no. Now, in 2021? They definitely have enough influence to prompt a public apology.
The validity of this apology is still to be determined. Most DBA people have not accepted it by virtue of the odd grief-related justification that doesn't particularly explain the origin of the joke. Fuck – the word "caste" isn't even in the apology. He only says "quota admissions", which doesn't actually explicitly imply caste. We literally do not know if he knows why the joke was in poor taste.
Apologies are a curious aspect of cancel culture. The PR script is simple:
- Get called out on something you did or said,
- Apologise for it on social media through a simple, lawyer-vetted statement,
- Disappear for a few months,
- Hope that once you're finally back, there still will be enough people to accept your presence.
This script works to a very large extent for influencers – I don't even know where to begin with how many people have side-stepped the deplatforming aspect of cancel culture through a half-assed apology and returned months later as if nothing even happened. Most recently, I think of David Dobrik and his return to YouTube after he was called out months ago for harboring a rapist in his squad, and attempting to cover things up. Dobrik posted an apology, said he would hold himself accountable, disappeared for a few months, and is now back.
I would say that the disappearance affected his viewership – his newest video took 3 days to reach 6 million views which is not the fastest for his channel – but 6 million views is still a lot. It has a very positive like-dislike ratio as well, indicating that these views aren't from hate-watching: people are genuinely glad he's back. His PR strategy worked exactly as intended.
We're yet to see how this manifests for the comedians and influencers who were called out for their casteist jokes or comments. It just hasn't been long enough yet to observe the fallout. I usually hesitate to make this comparison, but if I have my observations in order, it's going to go exactly the way most racism-related apologies went for influencers in the west. That is to say, the apology will be accepted by people it was not intended for, thus enabling a return to influence.
IV. Zooming In To the Interpersonal
Thus far, I've covered how cancel culture permeated celebrity and influencer culture. For the longest time, cancelling someone was reserved only for public figures. The public social media call-out campaign was intended to function for people with systemic power; if you can't report them through institutional measures, making people aware of their actions through public declarations was the only thing left.
Over the last couple of years, though, this has permeated much smaller influence circles as well.
While I don't think 15-year-olds getting cancelled is very widespread (yet), this phenomenon has easily permeated college campuses and smaller influence circles. The thing about this microcosm, however, is how do you determine whether someone actually has any power or influence for deplatforming to work? After all, holding a person publicly accountable for their actions requires a reaction – what's the reaction here? Can a student disappear from campus for a few months after a Notes app apology?
The obvious answer is no. Obviously not. They'll have to leave their dorm room at some point, so what happens then? Do you throw eggs and tomatoes at them and disturb the precarious collegiate social contract? If you're really angry, sure, you might do that. But most people wouldn't. They'd watch someone who's been "cancelled" walk around campus and go to classes and seethe internally, completely unable to actually do something. It's much worse when everything's online – how do you deplatform someone over Zoom?
Let's go back in time for a bit. Without getting into the details of anything (because that's a whooooole different blog post itself), I was publicly "called out" (up for dispute) in 2019 for, effectively, holding too much power on campus, which could lead to conflicts of interest.
If you know me personally, you can hear my disdain at the phrase "conflict of interest." Don't get me wrong – it's a real thing. But it's real in the real world– not on a college campus with 1,000 undergraduates where only 3% are actually interested in holding leadership or influential positions in collegiate bodies. Anyway. Back to the point at hand.
When this call-out happened, my first reaction was to be enraged. Then I was terrified. Why? I honestly don't know. I wasn't called out for anything like the aforementioned sections. It was quite... benign in comparison. So my fear didn't stem from being afraid to be considered a bigot. My primary fear was of delegitimization – that all my work and effort would be rendered illegitimate or useless because people thought my intentions weren't to be trusted.
The reason I'm bringing this up is to investigate how interpersonal cancellation works in smaller circles. After I was called out, I was legitimately terrified to be in public. I had an AUEC hearing that night after the call-out and I still remember people snickering at me during that. It was... not fun.
The tension lifted a few days later. The slate was wiped clean; most people didn't even remember, and if they did, they didn't give a fuck anymore. It was a swift recovery. I wasn't deplatformed, I don't think I was delegitimized – in the end, it was all fine. Yes, the call out wasn't high-stakes. Does that change the way the dynamics would work?
I don't think so.
There's no way to interpersonally deplatform someone. What can you do? Take away their personal social media accounts? Get people to unfollow them? Hardly a big deal; unless they're an influencer or content creator, taking away social media clout isn't going to do shit. Do you censor them? How? A public call-out isn't institutional, so you can't enforce anything on them. If the person called out has a shred of guilt, they'll issue a public apology. But it ends there. There's nothing else they can do, and there's nothing the people calling them out can do. Cancel culture effectively does not exist on an interpersonal level.
V. Can You Truly Cancel Someone?
When Tati Westbook put out a YouTube video in 2019 against James Charles, calling him out for his inappropriate behavior and grooming/harasser-tendencies, he immediately experienced a loss of nearly 2 million subscribers. That was cancel culture at its peak. However, after Charles' response video and Westbrook's 2020 take-back of allegations in her original video, things settled for Charles but not for Westbook. Instead, she hid away and lost a chunk of her influence. Then, when it came out that Charles did, in fact, often sexually message minors, proving everything Westbook had said in her first video, he lost some influence again, but it still took Tati months to get back to her platform. Both did return.
There are countless influencers who have been cancelled and have returned a year later to their platforms and barely experienced any real blowback from their irresponsibility, whether it be bigotry, harassment, or just terrible moral and ethical public practices. Not a single one of them was cancelled successfully. Some of them even got cancelled multiple times after their first cancellation, and they're still doing well.
Which brings me to my point: you cannot truly cancel someone. Now, do I think you should be able to? Should someone's followers have the ability to deplatform and completely change their life because of old tweets or videos? Tough question to answer.
The cynic in me wants to say yes. The optimist in me wants to say no. There are some things that warrant deplatforming, like abuse or rape or aggressive casteism or racism – those people shouldn't have the power to influence others – and there are other things that you can learn your way out of so that you emerge better informed (assuming you didn't have access to that knowledge or learning before, which... is suspect).
Unfortunately, there's just no way of knowing whether someone's actually going to take time off to educate themselves on why what they did was wrong or not. Is public face all we care about? As long as an influencer isn't a bigot in public, they're okay? What about all the people who are smart enough to not have problematic tweets or videos out there, because they know better than to say certain shit in public, but hold those opinions in private?
And how does this translate interpersonally? If someone calls out an abuser on social media, what should that result in? Tacit acknowledgement and then nothing? Institutional reform? I would say the latter, but no institution wants to be told that it's inefficient – how do you deal with that? Remove everyone from power? Then who stays and appoints? How do you reconfigure the system to work the next time? What if it doesn't? After all of this, what happens to the original question: what to do with this public call-out? Is it retrospectively dealt with?
Cancel culture is impossible to solve. It's also impossible to implement. No amount of discourse on this matter is going to change the fact that most people really just do not give a fuck. It's not possible to effectively cancel someone when they have the support of the establishment, or the establishment has no room for recourse.
Ultimately, it's a power struggle, and the party with the most power will win. On a macro-level, influencers and celebrities and CEOs will always have more power, whether monetary or social. On a micro-level, the establishment indirectly supports those who are being called out, simply because the person calling them out was unable to address their greivances through institutional means, which is a fault of the establishment.
I wish there was a more upbeat way in which I could end this post, but all I can hope for is that you, dear reader, even make it to the end. If you did, thank you for listening to me ramble about cancel culture for nearly 3000 words. I hope you don't get cancelled, but if you do, just wait a couple of months and you'll be back to normal.