Cancel Culture: The New Justice System
Issue 11, Volume 111
By Erica Li
Every couple of weeks, strangers around the world band together on social media to lower an individual’s reputation and social status. Cancel culture holds people accountable when the justice system refuses to.
While cancel culture existed in various forms in the past, social media has expanded and democratized the process. The marginalized are finally able to seek retribution against their wrongdoers. Many victims, specifically women and minorities, were unable to receive closure due to the failures of the justice system but have now found a community where they are supported and can take power into their own hands. For example, at LaGuardia High School in 2019, a teacher harassed a Muslim student, Duha Elkhouli, by calling her a terrorist. Elkhouli was not the first to face the racist remarks of that particular teacher, yet when she filed a complaint to the Department of Education, she received little to no response. She kept quiet until recently, when she posted a viral video with over 200 thousand views on Instagram that detailed the incident, her feelings, and the actions of the people around her.
Her story is not unique; many people have gone through similar encounters, myself included. The judicial and school systems do not have a protocol in place to deal with cases of microaggressions. Journalism rarely broadcasts about them either, aside from a few stories that are out of the norm. This lack of coverage is where cancel culture steps in. Once Elkhouli shared her story, others started to share their own experiences in the comments section and even started a student-led movement to fight racism in schools.
Many argue that cancel culture is simply a form of bullying and that it rarely brings about real consequences. However, cancel culture merely strives to bring attention to and hold the canceled person accountable for offensive actions. It reflects our society’s refusal to just accept things the way they are. Cancel culture is a form of boycott, a long-standing tactic in the civil rights movement, and a push for social change. It is used mostly by people who do not have the social, professional, or political status to combat their tormentors. When people band together, their words and actions mean something, which is especially influential when the oppressors are celebrities who have power and pay “hush money” to media outlets or witnesses, saving their career and avoiding the consequences of their actions.
A well-known example of this celebrity status is Bill Cosby. Though sexual assault allegations
surrounding Cosby popped up around the 2000s, he always denied them, and cases were settled outside of court. While the witnesses told their stories to the media in subsequent years, the accusations were not mainstreamed until Andrea Constand reopened her civil case in 2015 and again in 2018 for the retrial. In response, the public ostracized Cosby, causing him to lose most of his television deals. Even among the ones he managed to keep, the audience heckled him when he went on stage. Cosby, the face of American pop culture for almost half a century, fell a far way from the height of his career.
This type of ostracization leaves no room for meaningless apologies. Public figures, such as YouTubers, can no longer brush past their scandals with hollow apology videos or statements. YouTubers are forced to confront the repercussions of posting something illegal, inappropriate, or outright disrespectful. For example, Sam Pepper’s questionable videos, such as “Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank” and the “Killing Best Friend Prank,” drew an overwhelming amount of protest, demanding YouTube to ban him. By that point, the public was sick of his apology videos and had given up on seeing an active change in his character.
Anyone and anything can be canceled, leading to a widespread cultural shift. The power of social movements, such as the #MeToo, the LGBTQ+, or the Black Lives Matter movements, increased through the cancelation of problematic individuals on social media. Cancel culture may sound like a type of “mob justice,” but because people are fearful of getting canceled, they are finally starting to educate themselves on equality. For example, Brandy Melville’s “One Size Fits All” clothing only fits people who wear sizes zero to two and have a 24-25 inch waist, communicating that non “skinny” girls are out of the norm. This sizing, coupled with viral TikToks and YouTube videos posted by former employees detailing the terrible working environment, caused many customers to boycott the brand. People are now starting to shop at Black/People of Color-owned small businesses that have better ethics than Brandy Melville. Additionally, Brandy Melville’s cancelation began an honest conversation of body positivity among young women and opened people’s eyes to the extensive history of Eurocentric beauty standards.
On the other hand, any form of social system is never completely accurate, and cancel culture is not so different from our own justice system on this front. Being canceled under false pretenses can ruin an individual’s life, especially individuals who do not have money and power protecting them. Cancel culture certainly did do so for Natasha Tynes, who was canceled after tweeting about an MTA employee eating on the train. She was then accused of being “anti-black,” “elitist,” and “narcissistic” and even got her book that she had been working on for four years canceled.
While cancel culture has its downsides, it is a required force for social change. Though it has its faults, it gives the marginalized a voice—a necessity in our society. Victims are gaining the courage to open up about their experiences, and their oppressors, no matter their social statuses, are finally facing the consequences. Cancel culture is a needed movement on the journey to reform the justice system.