We’re so busy debating whether cancel culture exists or not that we’ve lost sight of a deeper issue: why do offended audiences feel the need to “cancel” the career of someone simply because they were offensive?
When it comes to the topic of cancel culture, we need to focus less on the result (i.e. the damage done to a celebrity’s career) and more on what causes audiences to want to “cancel” them in the first place. It’s a dangerous symptom that’s taken root in the very bone marrow of 21st century life, and so far nobody of importance is talking about the cure.
I try not to criticize those who are offended by something that doesn’t bother me, as it’s not my place to lecture others on their reflexive emotional responses. Everyone has their internal sore spots; we all have idiosyncratic sensitivities to certain ideas or images that make us personally uncomfortable, and have the right to ignore or condemn that which disturbs us.
But that’s not what worries me.
What worries me is what some people choose to do with that offense, namely their decision to turn their offense into a weapon that they brandish with the care of an angry teenager who found his dad’s gun.
Instead of merely refusing to support someone they don’t like, Emotional Victims have to get them fired and their work removed from the public eye.
Even when the offender has offered a public apology and their employer has put out an open condemnation of the offending statement or actions, that’s not enough to satisfy the animosity of the Twitterati.
There’s a strident vindictiveness that’s pervasive in our culture — it’s a strange kind of vengeance that must be exacted against someone for the heinous crime of Hurting Feelings.
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As I’ve previously implied, social media is where most of this spite resides. Before Twitter, audiences had to really go out of their way to make their opinions heard, like sending angry letters and emails to the employer of a Thought Criminal or starting petitions that rarely got much traction. Or if you were a journalist or contributor to a publication, you could write a scathing column that calls for the removal of a major figure from the spotlight.
But those actions required effort.
Now that we have social media, anyone can rouse a digital mob into spontaneous fury simply by sending out a vicious tweet and a catchy hashtag. That’s all it takes to put a prominent person’s career in danger.
Twitter in particular has greased the wheels of mob justice and righteous indignation. It’s made it so that people don’t have to think or reflect before unleashing a contagious, sadistic thought onto the world. An animalistic thought that’s straight from the gut, quickly bypassing the part of the brain that induces contemplation and heads straight to the “send” button.
Introspection, nuance, and grace are the first victims to fall when offense takes hold of the ego.
Introspection, because those who call for cancellation ignore the fact that they’ve said or done dumb things in their pasts they wish will never become the cause of their reputational downfall.
Nuance, because those who call for cancellation disregard the possibility that an objectionable comment was taken out of context or that its speaker meant more than was seemingly implied.
Grace, because those who call for cancellation have no interest in offering a path to redemption, a path that they’d surely appreciate if an angry horde were to come after them for a minor public mistake.
Everyone who denies that cancel culture exists is eager to point out that celebrities should be held accountable for being “problematic” and that they’re not free from criticism.
Of course criticism is something that luminaries should have to endure. But there was a time when criticism was punishment enough for foolish remarks or behaviors. Somehow, we’ve let our definition of justice warp to the whims of knee-jerk radicals.
If justice is the end goal of cancel culture, then perhaps we should scrutinize the words and actions of the judges with the same intensity they display towards Thought Criminals.