I believe cancel culture has its place, and this is why we need it

Words by Tori Mathison

Cancelling cancel culture isn’t necessarily productive.

Maybe it’s just in my social circle and social media feed, but I feel like cancel culture is getting a bad rep lately. Increasingly, I’ve found myself in dinner-table debates or trawling through rants on Instagram stories feeling put out by the increasingly popular approach of condemning cancel culture.

The argument is often grounded in the idea that ‘cancelling’ is too harsh a response to people who have made a mistake, and that the pile-on effect of ‘cancelling’ rarely affords practical reform opportunities for the ‘cancelled’. But the part that bothers me isn’t the sympathy for perpetrators, it’s that cancel culture is so much more nuanced than that. And if we were to essentially ‘cancel’ cancel culture, it would do more harm than good.

What is cancel culture?

We mostly see the term cancel culture used in online media, usually centred around a celebrity who has said something controversial and has received mass backlash and a substantial blow to their cultural cachet.

A recent example is the response to Lana Del Rey’s controversial Instagram post voicing her frustration with the music industry and the need for space for women who look and act like her, all the while criticising and name-dropping female artists of colour. Or, more notably, the way a collective outcry about American comedian Kevin Hart’s tradition of making homophobic jokes throughout his career led to his withdrawal from hosting the 2019 Oscars.

Having earned itself an entry in Dictionary.com’s Pop Culture Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster’s column ‘Words We’re Watching’, the general consensus is that cancel culture is ‘…to stop giving support to a person. Usually due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable.’

To ‘stop giving support’ often looks like boycotting an actor’s films, or no longer reading a writer’s work. Essentially, ‘cancelling’ is an act of withdrawing support that consequently retracts revenue, credibility or privilege from the ‘cancelled’. 

Cancel culture isn’t just celebrity sabotage

Because we’ve begun to associate cancel culture with trigger-happy celebrity take-downs, or just a plain lack of compassion, we ignore the capacity that cancel culture has to help, which is a big part of why it came about, to begin with. By interpreting cancel culture as a way of demanding greater accountability, it can be used to address so many issues.

With its close ties to call-out culture, in 2020, anyone calling something out is essentially setting in motion the potential of that something being cancelled. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Call-out Instagrams we all know and love, like @celebface, @diet_prada, @beauty.false and @esteelaundry are all guilty of this.

By publicly outing big brands to the masses, essentially naming and shaming them in the court of public opinion, we’re all given the opportunity to withdraw our support where we see fit. And if a hefty portion of these accounts millions of followers takes the same approach, that’s cancel culture in action.

Politically, this also holds true when we’re collectively opposing government action. The Adani List is a comprehensive directory of “Companies that could make or break the Carmichael Coal Project”. This public document has been made to raise awareness of where to channel our anger versus where to show our support. The list carries the implication that as long as a name is blacklisted, then it will lose public support and consequently be ‘cancelled’ by certain sections of the Australian population. 

Being more compassionate isn’t a universal solution

Recently, when asked about cancel-culture in his personal blog The Red Hand Files, celebrated Australian musician and artist Nick Cave proposed that “Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society. Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe – to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility.”  

If it was in another context, I would agree with this sentiment, but I think that mercy shouldn’t be at the centre of a conversation around cancel culture. By building his response around affording mercy to those at risk of cancellation, it completely neglects to prioritise addressing the allegation first. Instances of cancel culture should be assessed on a case-by-case basis and not classified as regressive solely because of the en masse response to the problematic behaviour.

And yes, obviously Nick isn’t explicitly saying that everyone deserves unconditional compassion, but to approach cancel culture from the position of “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society” is too self-involved an interpretation for such a sensitive issue. To speak about cancel culture with an absolutist philosophy is toxic at both ends of the spectrum. 

At its most impactful, cancel culture serves to address the groups of people that require more than encouragement and an opportunity to change their behaviour. Sometimes, a sizable blow to their reputation is what’s needed to see lasting change in people, or within the culture of entire industries and businesses.

Cancel culture within our social circles

This is especially applicable in another kind of cancel culture I’ve become more closely acquainted with. In the past two years, the calling out of alleged predators on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook has become more frequent. Through people sharing personal anecdotes along with the alleged perpetrators’ names and social media accounts, it’s become a closer-to-home example of cancel culture that raises questions around whether or not this approach is fair or effective. 

But even in this version of events, why are we so quick to prioritise the alleged perpetrator’s reform rather than the alleged victim’s recovery? Why are we not creating better systems and instigating conversations that prevent this kind of behaviour from happening in the first place? If your friend is being accused of sexual assault, why should ensuring their personal growth and making sure that their reputation is protected be your primary response? 

I can appreciate that there is a time and a place for patience and forgiveness. And particularly in our own social circles and communities, these situations need to be dealt with through direct communication and perpetrators do need to be educated. I believe that restorative justice should always be prioritised over punitive justice, so long as there is the opportunity for it.

But whether due to wilful ignorance or a continual, ongoing disregard for the people or communities they are hurting, there are circumstances where, keeping in mind the gravity of the transgression, cancel-culture has its place. 

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