The Toxicity Behind Cancel Culture

Cancel culture on the Internet is too toxic to bring any substantial change to society; it is simply ostracism and censorship in the name of liberation.

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By Eleanor Chin

Ostracization has always been an uncomfortable part of human nature. We set up social norms and taboos and punish those who break them. In “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne and her daughter are publicly shunned for committing adultery. Prynne’s breast is marked with the letter A by a court of law, and she is ostracized by the community. While we as readers understand that Prynne is innocent, the society that punishes her does so in the name of righteousness, believing that their beliefs outweigh due process and Prynne’s future. In the modern day, ostracization has reached a new level on the Internet called cancel culture.

Cancel culture is the public's deliberate effort to destroy one’s career and livelihood. While many justify cancelation as it holds people accountable and magnifies marginalized voices, cancel culture is too toxic to bring positive change. Its methods, such as resurfacing old statements and private matters, lead to online bullying. Furthermore, cancel culture breeds intolerance for non-mainstream ideas, which can backfire in the form of resistance or fear.

Efforts to cancel someone are online bullying. Many arguments for canceling someone are purely personal but are used wrongfully to bully innocent people. For example, in the James Charles and Tati Westbrook scandal, Charles was accused of deliberately sabotaging Westbrook’s products and forcing men into sexual acts. As a result, Charles lost a large portion of his followers and was harassed by multiple fanbases, pushing him to release a video addressing Westbrook’s accusations. This series of events prompted Charles and Westbrook’s fans to cancel each other over a petty fight on a personal level. During the scandal, hundreds of people were hurt, confused, and ashamed by the situation. I know teenagers who were bullied for owning James Charles’s merchandise or shamed for attempting to support any makeup artist involved in the scandal. Charles and many of his fans were wrongly abused on the Internet, proving that cancel culture should not always be trusted with the final say as it creates an environment fraught with fear.

Cancel culture also breeds political intolerance for opposing opinions. For example, actress Gina Carano was recently canceled over multiple conservative posts on Twitter. She was swiftly fired from the television series “The Mandalorian” and received widespread harassment from mostly liberal Twitter users. As Democratic views slowly gain more popularity, conservative opinions are becoming less accepted online. Those who fear cancelation become angry at society, finding solace in anyone vaguely supporting their ideas, like former President Donald Trump and Senator Josh Hawley. This transition is a problem for all Americans as we may live in a bleak, mundane world in the future where freedom of speech is constantly hampered.

Many believe that cancel culture holds criminals, such as sexual offenders, accountable. However, legal cases should instead be taken to court with proper authorities to better examine evidence. In the times when the judicial system fails, people still manage to find restorative justice through conversation, rather than retributive justice through cancelation. For example, Bayan Zehlif, a high school student, spoke out in 2016 after her school yearbook printed her name as “Isis Phillips.” Instead of attacking the school and authors of the yearbook, she went straight to the Council on American-Islamic Relations to share her story. In this case, there was no one to cancel; if she canceled a student, she could have effectively ended that student’s school prospects and potential professional careers. Because of her actions, the school made a full recall of all distributed yearbooks, rewrote, and reprinted. If we speak out the way Zehlif did rather than cancel, then we will find more honest and mature ways to combat problematic actions.

As a society, we have to punish those who commit awful acts, but we must not go too far. Cancel culture is far more extreme than simply calling out a person’s behavior. If someone is a victim of a crime, there are many ways to handle the situation. One can quietly extend their support to the victim, present potential evidence to the authorities, or personally avoid problematic products without harassing others. If someone is behaving problematically on a personal level, people should engage in conventional conflict resolution techniques. We can advance social change and personal accountability without engaging in the messy and harmful methods of cancel culture.