What started as a movement to stop supporting problematic creators by calling them out for bad behavior quickly garnered a negative connotation in recent years with the spread of the term “cancel culture.”
According to Merriam-Webster, cancel culture is defined as the practice of “canceling” or withdrawing support for public figures after they have done or said something objectionable or offensive.
It’s a way to boycott certain people, usually a celebrity or influencer, by not watching, supporting or sharing their content online in the hopes of receiving an apology or change for the community the creator wronged.
“Canceling happens online, but the consequences affect one’s life outside the internet,” music education sophomore Cereza Juniper Tovar said.
Some examples of celebrities who were “canceled” in 2020 include author J.K. Rowling for posts that critics considered transphobic and comedian Ellen DeGeneres for allegedly being rude to guests and crew behind the scenes of her show. One of the biggest influencers to be canceled was Shane Dawson, a YouTuber who had multiple old videos surface revealing racist and pedophilic “jokes.”
Journalism junior Alexis Williams said despite its current reputation, the act of canceling began as a way for people to hold celebrities accountable for hurting others.
Over the years, cancel culture lost credibility because many famous people who engaged in harmful, violent or discriminatory behavior were not held accountable post-cancellation, and their conduct was easily swept under the rug and forgotten, Williams said.
Society hasn’t mastered the distinction between holding someone accountable and punishing them too much, Williams said.
Refusing to stream or buy a musician’s music is one way to cancel someone, she said. Limiting someone’s revenue can be an individual or collective way to not support that person.
Williams doesn’t believe canceling truly changes anyone’s behavior. It doesn’t make them feel bad for what they did, it makes them regret losing money, she said.
“People don’t necessarily change. I think they just hide the things they are chastised for,” Williams said.
In contrast, Tovar said that cancel culture could work, but its reputation downplays its effects.
The difference between cancel culture and true cancellation comes down to the severity of the mistake, Tovar said. If a celebrity does something small and proves they have changed afterward, continuing to cancel them as part of a bandwagon trend is cancel culture.
However, in the case of social media influencers like Dawson and James Charles who both currently face allegations of pedophilia, the situation is beyond cancel culture because the allegations constitute crimes, not mistakes, she said.
One reason canceling has such a bad reputation is because some people do it for fun or to bring down influencers they don’t like, Tovar said. As a result, it can be difficult to determine which cancellations are valid.
Using the bandwagon style of bullying to try and shame someone for their mistake isn’t an effective way to permanently change someone’s behavior, she said.
Today, cancel culture is primarily about shaming people, said Jasmine Langley, journalism and advertising senior. Sometimes it’s warranted, but in most cases cancel culture looks like people on the internet bullying celebrities, she said.
Giving offenders the opportunity to reflect on past mistakes and learn to correct them is one way people can choose to combat cancel culture because over-punishing doesn’t allow room for character growth, Langley said.
Her recommendations for determining if an action warrants cancellation are similar to Tovar’s. Racist behaviors and allegations of rape or pedophilia are reasons someone should be called out for their behavior or “canceled,” both online and in real life, she said.
Deciding whether cancellations are more about shaming people or holding them accountable might be a matter of personal opinion, but its impact on internet culture is undeniable.