Why Cancel Culture is unethical and ineffective

Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture is similar to the idea of canceling a subscription, meaning it can be started and stopped at the whim of the audience. Cancel culture is a “form of boycott that usually focuses on a celebrity, politician, or public figure and takes place through social media, most prominently on Twitter.”(Campbell) The act of canceling is usually in the response to an action or statement that the individual’s followers fundamentally object to. There are many reasons as to why cancel culture rose to prominence, but one reason could be to give the audience a sense of control since there is very limited control over social media. In order for canceling to be effective, users must magnify the individual’s actions or words. This leads to the individual receiving more attention to their page. This is the opposite response that is originally intended by the audience. Many celebrities and public figures who have faced cancel culture have been able to continue their careers because users were too quick to cancel them or their reputation may suffer a set-back, but financially the cancel culture helped them in the long run. This begs the ethical question; if cancel culture doesn’t achieve the greater good should it continue to be practiced?

Many celebrities have been canceled after doing something their audience did not approve of but were able to financially benefit from being canceled. Both performers R.Kelly and Kanye West were canceled for their actions and beliefs. In 2018 West gave an interview with entertainment site TMZ, where he stated his belief that slavery was a choice. “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Many users went to the social media platform Twitter to voice their discontent for Kanye’s message and a call to cancel him. The reason behind canceling him was to stop him from spreading uneducated statements and spreading controversial misinformation. However, “His next album, released in June 2018, debuted at number 1 on the Billboard top 200 charts and remained on the chart for twenty-three weeks.” (Campbell) Kanye West later admitted in an interview that many of the people listening to his album likely called for his cancelation. The act of trying to cancel Kanye West had the exact opposite reaction that Cancel Culture was calling for. Because his name had recently been in so many headlines and people were talking about how controversial he was, it allowed him to gain new followers and gain more attention. When he released his music people were interested in hearing what he had to say, especially due to his name being so popular in the media due to the call to cancel him. This not only led to him remaining on the chart for twenty-three weeks but also the financial revenue earned because of it. R.Kelly felt the same effect of cancel culture. R. Kelly was not only being called for cancellation on Twitter, but there was an entire Lifetime documentary leading to the cancellation of the artist. The documentary focused on Kelly’s abuse and emotional brainwashing of women and of minors. Two days after the premiere of the release of “Surviving R. Kelly” the artists’ music streams saw an enormous increase. “On-demand audio streams for the same period showed a 76 percent increase and video streams increased by 85 percent.” the spike in sales was so substantial that celebrity Jada Pinket Smith went on Instagram to voice her concern over the opposite reaction the world was having to Kelly’s cancellation. Not only did neither artist face financial repercussions for their actions, but both artist’s album sales and video streamings also rose due to the attention that cancel culture brought to them.

The issue with the effectiveness of cancel culture can also be traced back to users being too quick to rush to cancel public figures. The best example of people canceling celebrities too quickly is James Charles. James Charles went from the first male face of CoverGirl to canceled in a few hours. Fellow makeup YouTuber Tati Westbrook posted a 43-minute video to Youtube label “BYE SISTER”, which is a reference to Charles’s iconic introduction “Hi Sisters”. In the video, Westbrook alleged that Charles used his fame to intimidate straight men, unusual behavior towards straight men, and marketing competitor’s brand. Twenty-four hours after the video was published, Charles lost one million followers. In just a few days that number rose to three million followers, making it one of YouTubes biggest losses of subscribes. When Charles uploaded an apology video, it was met with 2.8 million thumbs down and joined YouTubes most unliked videos in history. However, the video amassed 47 million views. The purpose of cancel culture is to boycott the individual, in this case, Charles, you can see it had the opposite effect. Those who don’t watch the make-up community side of youtube were exposed to this drama and drew the curiosity of many. Despite the video being one of the most unliked, Charles gets paid per view of his videos, and his first video after being canceled brought in 47 million views worth of revenue. “Former President Obama also called out the cancel culture when he challenged young activists about being too judgmental. He pointed out that tweeting about how someone didn’t do something right or used the wrong word verb and feeling good about oneself for doing so is not activism nor productive to bring about change.” (Campbell) While the former president views cancel culture as acting too quickly to judge people, he also calls into question the effectiveness of this rushed action. His beliefs are back to the fact that Charles was able to come back after the backlash and it was not effective in bringing change or “canceling” him. After Charles published another video, No More Lies, describing his version of events, paired with receipts (proof of what he is saying via old emails, texts, etc.) After this video was published, Charles gained millions of followers back and people understood that they were too quick to judge the situation.

Cancel culture seeks to boycott certain individuals with a large platform as a way of holding them accountable for the messages they spread. It also serves as a punishment for those being canceled. Overall, cancel culture seeks to promote messages for the greater good. For instance, by creating a movement to cancel R.Kelly, it is sending the message that people don’t support predators or predatory behavior and that actions have consequences. Those who support cancel culture value the First Amendment and the right to express yourself and the ability to hold others accountable for their actions. They value the right to speak up against injustices or messages they don't believe in. They also value holding people accountable for their actions. In the case of R.Kelly, the police had not held him accountable despite ample testimony and evidence. Since the justice system wouldn't hold him accountable, the responsibility fell on the people. Those who oppose cancel culture also value the First Amendment. However, they believe that cancel culture tries to stifle their right to free speech. They also value the right to voice your opinions without fear of being bullied. When users begin to fight online, it becomes a breeding ground for anger. They also view cancel culture as a slippery slope. What or who gets to determine when someone had crossed a line? Is it possible to draw a line as to what is acceptable, especially if society is always changing its expectations?

Cancel culture should seek to promote the greater good. The greater good could be described as what is non-offensive and what is best for society. It seeks to boycott the public figures in power that are believed to not be using their platform in the best way. It follows the ethical principle of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. This seeks the greatest good for everyone involved, settling for the middle of two extremes. One extreme would be to allow problematic behavior to be continually released to social media. This is problematic because it can breed hate and also offend and hurt many people at the same time. The other extreme would be to take away the users' platform and not give them room for growth. The middle would be to unsubscribe to the individual, comment on the post you find to be problematic to educate the individual, and allow for an apology, and human growth.

I do not find cancel culture to be ethical. If cancel culture does not satisfy the greater good, then I do not believe it should be practiced. Often times, people on the internet rush to “cancel” a celebrity or public figure without the proper knowledge or context to the situation. This can be damaging to the individual they are attacking, as they are receiving hateful comments, death threats, and a loss of revenue. This is extremely problematic considering cancel culture’s history of premature canceling. It also does not allow for human growth. To cancel a human being because they have an opinion that is different from yours is an abuse of power and does not accomplish any good.


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Public Relations student at Xavier University.