"Don’t in a trivial thing just press a button, and vote yeah, no, you’re gone"
Cancel culture, call-out culture, outrage culture, and ally theatre. Whatever you refer to the phenomenon as, it is and has been one of the hottest and most controversial topics of the last decade or so. Though there are some differences between the above four concepts, for the purpose of this blog post I’ll be treating cancel culture as an almost encapsulation of all of them. It has been some time since Clive Tyldesley’s TEDxFromHome episode, but I still felt the need to pause and rewind to this topic he spoke about in plenty of detail, cancel culture. Clive’s staggering CV as a broadcaster, journalist, commentator, Kick It Out mentor, and soon to be teacher at The Clive Tyldesley Commentary Academy certainly makes his view and opinions on cancel culture bear some weight. However, let’s remember, this is not an objective topic. It is difficult to set out for a correct answer or a correct solution. That said, there are dangers. There are explanations. And, most importantly, there are ways in which we can change our online behaviour for the better. Social media, used in an effective and meaningful manner, can lead to positive change, but cancel culture can be arbitrary, scary and difficult to navigate.
So, while campaigns originating on social media that fall under the category of cancel culture have given the less powerful a real chance to create positive change, there are moments which have seen cancel culture be ineffective and even unfair, and therefore it’s important to evaluate its dangers.
One of the main reasons why people participate in cancel culture, or even talk about it, is that everyone has a different view of what cancel culture actually is. Let’s keep it simple and easy, and say cancel culture is generally understood as the culmination of the act(s) of calling someone or a group out for doing or saying something that’s perceived as ‘wrong’, with the goal being to get an apology or heavily damage their platform. This understanding is very open and therefore quite dangerous, and that's the problem. Why? Well, looking for an apology from someone is different from damaging their platform, and calling someone or a group out doesn’t have to lead to permanent cancellation; it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon in the name of social solidarity, especially when you might not be sure of your own desired goal. Surely more thought-through behaviour is necessary for meaningful outcomes?
So, confusion about the purpose of a cancelling campaign may certainly contribute to potentially thoughtless and ineffective participation. What about the science behind cancel culture activity? While we might find cancel culture meaningful for a number of reasons, it is likely that one of the reasons why individuals join in on cancel culture is that we feel a heightened sense of social status (be it subconsciously or consciously). Research in the Journal of Psychological Science has shown that our sociometric status (respect from our friends) is more important to increasing our overall well being than our socioeconomic status, while a study in the Public Library of Science demonstrated that we strive for moral grandstanding to better our social rank. Therefore, joining a cancelling trend may be tempting because we could achieve moral grandstanding or garner respect from our friends.
There is yet another concern regarding the purposefulness of cancel culture, let's call it the attention paradox. Though cancel culture can be used effectively to, primarily at least, raise awareness and ‘call out’ injustices, it can create heated atmospheres online. Well, that’s obvious, right? Sharing any opinion online does carry consequences, we’ve all known this for years. So why is calling someone out and ultimately ‘cancelling’ them seen as any different to sharing an opinion? If anything, it’s just more effective, since you form allies online and stand against something which, usually, is simply wrong.
That’s the thing. At first glance, it is seen as more effective. You’re helping others through pressing a button or sharing a story that does, as previously said, strive to make something right. However, this is where the paradox comes in, a paradox which I personally don’t think we’re always aware of: the increased attention a person or group receives when being targeted. Now, this does seem pretty impossible to avoid. Surely to cancel someone or a group, you need to garner attention to what they’ve done or said?
The answer is yes, you do. But say if it doesn’t work? We achieve exactly what cancelling is trying to avoid: the group or figure getting more followers or attention than before. This is the paradox. Groups or individuals can get higher profiles, or even get a drastic surge of money rolling into their account. There are examples, and with a quick search through the web you’ll find countless ones of them.
So, we’ve looked at some of the dangers of cancel culture, including the confused motives for participating in it and the potential reverse effects. Let’s move on to the hows of cancel culture. This is the tricky part, since the how covers more than one party in my opinion. There’s how society currently carries out cancelling, there’s how the target responds, and there’s how society could cancel differently in the future.
Starting with the current how, I’d like to look at Twitter. All you have to do on Twitter is retweet someone’s opinion, and, boom, you’re on the wagon. The danger here is that it’s so easy to cancel, you can simply ‘click a button’ in a trivial manner. This isn’t right. It defeats the purpose. The purpose is to spot the wrongdoing, call attention to the problem rather than the individual or group, and educate those around you as to why it is wrong. Simply hitting a retweet button creates both thoughtless and low commitment campaigns and that same paradox I mentioned. Instead, Clive points out how we can improve our activity on Twitter:
"Its value is there if it’s checked, and by checking I don’t necessarily mean being a journalist, I mean just giving some thought to what you’re reading, before you respond to it, or react to it, or cancel"
There is value in calling out, and as Clive said this doesn’t necessitate getting out a pen and paper and reading all sorts of research. It just means putting extra thought and consideration into the context before we act and click retweet.
The other how is the response of the target. Is an apology enough? I’d like to think so, but this is unfortunately rarely the case, since in Clive’s words:
"We all say, oh, you’ll learn from your mistakes, and most people don’t, they just make them again the next day"
I’m sure we can all admit that we’ve made the same mistake twice, no matter how little or large a mistake. It’s also hard to know whether an apology is genuine or through an agent and somewhat contrived. Clive quite rightly says that this “is not an apology”. I now find myself at a crossroads, since the only solution here is being able to tell whether an apology is genuine. There’s no formula for this, no matter how good a performative interpreter you are.
What if we treat an apology as the first step? And then from there, regardless of its perceived sincerity, the individual or group is given the chance to make amends and be educated. Now, of course every incident shouldn’t be given a second chance, but perhaps we may find more nuanced conversations helpful, as stated by Clive:
"If it’s an offence it’s an offence, and it needs punishment, and I understand the sanctions and the need for sanctions, but there’s a greater need for debate and for conversation, and for understanding, and actually trying to convince people and taking them with you"
It’s hard to find a solution, and it’s hard to definitively say that cancel culture should be cancelled. There is obviously a need to educate, but it’s hard to make the judgement as to when education is needed over punishment, and that certainly doesn’t fall into my hands. We are arguably better at judging the severity of actions offline compared with online. Again, it’s so easy to retweet, and it’s therefore so easy to forget about what your intentions actually are. There needs to be more consideration online as well, especially in our ability to distinguish ignorance from ill will. However, if the action or words get called out instead of getting instantly cancelled, we may avoid the attention paradox of cancel culture. As previously said, cancel culture can do good, since when we use social media effectively we can raise awareness of any wrongdoings by individuals or groups. Therefore, when wrongdoings do, in fact, stem from ignorance rather than bad intention, we can create that said window for an apology, followed by action and education.
Written by Robert Fletcher. Edited by Aada Orava and Atharv Joshi.
You can view the full interview with Clive Tyldesley by clicking here.
If you have any questions concerning the article, its research, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.