On even the most average of days, a quick scroll through Twitter’s trending tab would more than likely lead you to a #[Insert Celebrity]IsOverParty hashtag. The app has become synonymous with the “cancel culture” phenomenon, defined by Merriam-Webster as the formal and public withdrawal of support for a certain person. The list of publicly canceled celebrities and influencers is extensive, and includes the likes of Kevin Spacey, J.K. Rowling, and Ellen Degeneres for devastatingly harmful behavior involving sexual assault, transphobia, and abuse. It’s even possible to cancel and eject a friend from your own social circle for hateful speech or other destructive and harmful behavior.
Canceling someone seems to make sense at face value. Harmful behavior of any type never should—and never will—be tolerated in any capacity, and a person must face the consequences of their actions. By publicly “canceling” someone, they are placed under immense social pressure that should force them to recognize their wrongs and face the repercussions. However, a huge debate has risen over the principle of cancel culture, and its effectiveness at really holding people accountable for their wrongdoing.
Canceling someone is essentially a snap judgment. On Twitter, it takes just a single tweet—limited to 280 characters—to plant the seeds that lead to someone being canceled. What typically follows is a massive snowball effect of information-sharing, facilitated by how easy it is to like and retweet someone’s tweet. Other users often add their own commentary on the issue, causing it to gain further traction and disseminate beyond the app into media outlets, daily conversations and more. Social pressure for the person to publicly recognize and atone for their wrongs increases, and is often supplemented by real-life implications like losing a job or relationships.
But there’s a catch.
If accountability is the ultimate goal of canceling someone, then cancel culture works really well at raising awareness of a person’s wrongs. But what happens after someone is socially erased, both online and in-person? How do they amend the harm that they’ve caused to individuals and entire communities?
It’s here that cancel culture fails to achieve its intended purpose.
Once someone is canceled, they have free reign to do whatever they want, simply because no one is paying attention to them. Sometimes they can just wait out the thick of the storm, resurfacing a couple of months down the line when people have forgotten about the harm they’ve caused and moved on.
Other times, they simply ignore being canceled, doubling-down on the harmful behavior and rhetoric that they’re being publicly accosted for. This is especially true with powerful, influential people (such as J.K. Rowling), who don’t face any kind of meaningful repercussions in real life because they have the resources to get over it. These people are also often able to cause more damage due to their resources and influence.
Essentially, cancel culture does nothing to make sure that a person is fixing the damage that they’ve done to a community, whether it’s taboo to talk about them or because they simply don’t care. It gives zero room for any kind of discussion on how the wrongs happened in the first place and how to make amends, because the conversation is only focused on the person’s wrong-doing. While the victims of the person’s actions might get a little relief at the person being publicly shamed for the harm they’ve caused, at the end of the day, the damage is still done. Cancel culture operates like a tornado that has completely destroyed a house, but once the news has covered the destruction, nobody helps to rebuild it.
So, with cancel culture being an ineffective solution for accountability, how do we deal with harmful behavior and speech?
The answer might lie in a practice known as transformative justice.
Transformative justice, or TJ, focuses on what factors allowed the harm to happen in the first place in order to ensure that we actively work to fix the identified problems. While cancel culture assumes that everyone is perfect and harmful behavior is an exception, TJ recognizes that people have the potential to hurt others and make mistakes, and actively works to make sure they recognize that potential.
If we hold accountability as a two-step process (identification and reparation), then TJ makes sure that both steps are emphasized the same amount. It makes sure that people understand not only why something is damaging, but how to fix that damage. It gives power to those who have been hurt, and helps them hold that person accountable long after their harmful behavior has been identified.
While I’m sure that cancel culture won’t end anytime soon, it’s important that we understand why it’s not fulfilling its purpose, and work to find a solution that does. Large-scale change starts with small-scale choices made by people like you and I.
I hope that the next time you see another hashtag on Twitter canceling someone, that you pay attention to not just what the person did, but how they plan on fixing their wrongs.