Not to be confused with "call-out culture", what was/is "cancel culture"?
Over the past five years on Twitter, the increased use of #canceled has been blowing up our phones and causing discussions about unacceptable societal practices. But what exactly does it mean to be canceled? Though we are entrenched in a constant stream of cancelations, it's helpful to know the definition.
Whereas being "called-out" is marked by public humiliation, being "canceled" takes this call-out a step further. The socially-decided wrongdoings of a party, likely an influencer or celebrity, are exposed so as to terminate the party's career or at least knock their cultural standing down a few pegs.
Metaphorically, he/she is excommunicated. This practice of canceling has been around since the Pilgrims discovered the righteous high the hysteria of pointing fingers in Salem. The historical consequences for cancellations were objectively graver than today.
The implementation of the Internet actually diluted the effectiveness of boycotting because common cancelations are dispersed to an unprecedentedly wide audience with a tiny attention span. The discipline it takes to actually "cancel" someone's cultural cachet by boycott is immense and rare in the hustle-bustle of today. Another factor that waters down our woke mentality as the new Puritanism is that, instead of a concrete list of sins and commandments, modern trespasses are ever-evolving.
The idea of canceling has sociological roots from the intolerance of the colonies, but what we have now is that same tone at a lower volume.
Why do we have the instinct to blame others?
Sorry native English, I had to outsource to find the perfect word to help us understand this feeling of pleasure from learning of someone's downfall.
With a bit of research into linguistics, one finds that German psychologists describe the complex self-satisfaction that comes from witnessing the failures or embarrassments of another as "schadenfreude." This emotion occurs because seeing the mistakes of another person makes us feel better about ourselves.
Schadenfreude is the reason America's Funniest Videos, a show devoted to hilarious compilations of folks getting injured, is still airing. Moreover, schadenfreude is the reason we feel a little giddy when our trash ex is going through a bad breakup on a public platform. Finally, schadenfreude is why we love to grab that virtual pitchfork and send a tweet with the angry online mob.
Fascinatingly, the lower someone's self-esteem is and the younger someone is, the more that person is affected by schadenfreude because the sensation gives one a boost of confidence knowing someone's doing worse than him/her. What other qualities encapsulate my competitive generation, the social media natives, better than insecure and youthful?
Does cancel culture even work?
Not like it's designed, in most cases. Very few individuals actually suffer career setbacks. Empirically, we can measure this by looking at the yearly salaries and new projects of supposedly "canceled" celebrities.
For instance, after Louis CK admitted to sex crimes, he was dropped by his agency. However, he recently went on a sold-out live tour of comedy shows, including one-stop where he recorded his new special, "Sincerely." Another comedian who allegedly committed sexual misconduct, Aziz Ansari, released a Netflix special Right Now, that many have described as a "comeback." With his financially-successful Road to Nowhere tour, Ansari had already proven that people would pay to see him perform despite the scandal. Justice Brett Kavanaugh was "canceled" after Christine Blasey Ford testified that he had sexually assaulted her, yet he was immediately confirmed to the Supreme Court after the trial. Americans were appalled and quick to "cancel" Donald Trump after they heard him on tape boasting about his sex crimes, yet he acts as the Commander-in-Chief today. So, yes - while some powerful men may not have the same sacrosanct statuses, they have hardly been "canceled."
It should be noted that cancelations are not limited to the bounds of the #MeToo Movement, for instance, Kathy Griffin was bashed for her infamous 2017 photograph in which she held up a Donald Trump mask covered with fake blood. It shocked everyone from Sean Hannity to Anderson Cooper, and some critics compared Griffin to a terrorist. However, Griffin is hardly suffering monetarily as she just bought a $10.5 million dollar home in cash and has a new documentary, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story. Don't even get me started on the Internet community, whose celebrities like Shane Dawson and James Charles, have been "canceled" and reinstated so many times that no one can keep track of our own fickle feelings. All of these examples prove the rule that modern canceling is not as chaotically harsh as the word connotes.
What's my point?
To clarify, the thesis of this article is not an indignant advocation that cancelations must be more severe, so as to match our colonial ancestors. After all, even Barack Obama held that dogmatically refusing to cut our fellow humans slack is harmful. However, the point of this article is to express the place that canceling has in our society and to reveal from where the dark impulse to hurt others comes.
Today, the term has been used in a multitude of manifestations to the point in which 'canceled' has been rendered meaningless. In all, the distracted and watered-down version of canceling that we have today precludes a nuanced dialogue of the specific harm done to real victims and how those with privilege who made the mistake ought to be held accountable.