by Melissa Paz-Flores (’22) | May 10, 2021
Trisha Paytas. James Charles. Azealia Banks. What do these people have in common? They have all been “canceled” multiple times. To “cancel” someone is to withdraw support for or boycott celebrities and companies after they have done something controversial or derogatory. Cancel culture can generally be found in social media where groups of people (or fanbases) perform group shaming. For instance, the TikTok community has a love-hate relationship with public figure Trisha Paytas. Her career as a YouTube sensationalist has been tainted with scandals, such as cultural appropriation or feuding with content creators like Charli D’Amelio. But as much as social media puts pressure and shames these “canceled” stars, let’s take a look at why cancel culture is inherently toxic and where the whole concept of “canceling” began.
The term first surfaced on a 2014 episode of the reality show Love and Hip Hop. In regards to public shaming, the term was coined in 2018 during the #MeToo movement. The movement’s use of cancel culture empowered socially aware individuals to financially support companies that were transparent and socially responsible in moving towards equity and inclusion. These financial contributions offered an accessible way for people to support or oppose individuals, organizations, or policies depending on their interests. However, as the movement spread on social media, the concept of cancel culture shifted. Instead of financial boycotting, cancel culture became a method of demanding consequences for public figures who were regarded as controversial, such as those who had disrespected marginalized communities.
This whole idea of canceling is complex. It opposes systems of power while also favoring them at the same time. And this flip-flop of opposition and support results in mass shaming and endorsement withdrawals. Take Youtube star Shane Dawson—having made several videos with racial slurs and blackface about a decade ago, the streaming platform finally took action last year by demonetizing his account. Some on social media argue that cancel culture paints the person today as the same person who committed the scandal. In this case, supporters of cancel culture argue that Dawson’s actions made ten years ago still reflect on who he is now. They say that canceling someone is perfectly fine, as it calls the person out.
Personally, I’m on the other side: while it urges the person who committed the incident to reflect on their controversial actions, cancel culture just isn’t beneficial. While canceling surely raises mass awareness, it does not necessarily end harmful behaviors or toxic norms. In fact, cancel culture may just bury the harm and hatred in such a way it cannot be addressed or changed—all influencers can do is put up a superficial apology video. This is truly an issue of changing mindsets as well as systems of power.
But why is the notion of “canceling” someone arguably more toxic for ordinary people? Take J.K. Rowling, for example—she tweeted a series of transphobic remarks and was canceled for her tone-deaf comments. Most “canceled” celebrities, like Rowling, have stable sources of income; their reputation takes a hit when they are “canceled.” Conversely, everyday individuals who are canceled by those close to them can be threatened with public shaming by their communities or even the loss of their jobs. In Rowling’s case, she had a larger following and although she might have been “canceled,” she still had loyal supporters. Nevertheless, the average person risks losing their support system if they voice controversial beliefs.
Now, let’s tackle the ways to unlearn and dismantle this way of thinking. What if your own thoughts were recorded and broadcasted to the public? Everyone would be canceled. To create tangible and long-lasting change, we must focus on ourselves rather than others. Celebrities and public figures are not meant to be worshipped; they have flaws just like anyone else. So the next time you see a famous figure behave controversially, hold that person accountable if their actions harm others. But it’s important to note that this should not be done by simple criticism, but rather by education and allowing them to start over. By doing so, we can detach ourselves from the nature of canceling others and instead learn from one another.