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Please Stop Trying to Cancel Call-Out Culture.

T urge to explore the social media-specific phenomena called cancel (or call-out) culture first gripped me in 2016 circa the Penny Sparrow scandal. I watched in glee as Penny – a Karen before ‘Karen’ was coined- was sentenced to social shame by Twitter and Facebook mobs after calling black beachgoers ‘monkeys’. What Penny did was problematic, we could all agree. And we could all agree that we were sick of this. We wanted Penny to feel the full wrath of the public court. We were comforted in our shared anger that justice wasn’t going to be overlooked this time. I’ll say it, it was a satisfying feeling to watch her fall.

The Evolution of Wokeness

We weren’t aware that what we were witnessing was the beginning of cancel culture, in the South African context. Since then, this intellectual microcosm of evolved wokeness has, well, evolved. Our social obsession with PC policing has given rise to accounts such as Estée Laundry and Diet Prada who are devoted to holding fashion and beauty labels accountable for offensive adverts, problematic and copycat designs.

“The message is clear: If Queen B isn’t safe, no one is safe from being called out

Worldwide the call-out court counts victims such as global brands like Dolce & Gabbana and H&M, as well as household names like Taylor Swift (more on that to follow) and even incredibly briefly- due to plagiarizing a South African artist, Petit Noir’s, music video- Beyoncé. The message is clear: If Queen B isn’t safe, no one is safe from being called out and cancelled. Unless that is, you are the one doing the calling out. And even then, that’s only at least for the time that you are doing it. 

A Touchy Topic

In 2016 #TaylorSwiftIsCancelled began trending on timelines. This was arguably the event that launched cancel culture into global consciousness, with Swift being accused of lying and victimizing herself at the expense of demonizing a black man. That man being Kanye West. When Kim Kardashian West then revealed to the public receipts (aka screenshotted evidence) that Swift had received notice of, and approved, her name being featured in West’s song- after denying knowing about and approving it- Swift was bombarded with the snake emojis and hateful comments. Speaking to Vogue, Swift said of her brief downfall: “You’re sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or it could also be perceived as, kill yourself.” I only mention this because: This was when I became aware of the ugly side of cancel culture. 

“Call-out culture has birthed problematic spin-offs such as performative activism”

Since then I’ve realized that the scope of which you can cause a social media scandal ranges out of the area of righteous causes and can even include being a shitty friend (like beauty blogger James Charles) or simply being a b*tch (like Lea Michele of Glee fame). Things that have nothing to do, really, with the greater good. In these instances, the aim moves from constructive social movements and amplification of marginalized voices to online trolling masked as activism. Even in the latter where do we cross the line between trolling and teaching? While what Swift did is genuinely f*cked up, and her career quickly recovered, people have fallen into deep depression and committed suicide at the result of online bullying from less followers than the millions Swift counts as friends and foes. Bullying someone isn’t incredibly woke or constructive, and that’s what call-out culture is all about, right? Igniting necessary conversation and changing the narrative. I mean… Right?

Do it for the Cause

So when do we turn the mirror onto ourselves as the jurors of the internet, and who is holding us accountable to do just that? Call-out culture has birthed problematic spin-offs such as performative activism which is basically another form of clout-chasing that involves pushing the latest trending cause online. In this extension of irony and hypocrisy we have men who abuse women calling out other men, keyboard warriors who share anti-racism posts without even researching or reading what they are repeating (let alone believing them) and people posting petitions who don’t even sign them. 🤨

“Their proverbial beheading serves as a catalyst of conversation and changes things”

The problem with cancel culture is that it can be twisted to serve an ulterior motive: the ego. Perhaps the most powerful drive behind social media and our capitalist society. In the form of one-upperance, calling out someone is the perfect quick fix to shifting guilt or feeling shitty. After all, shaming someone else simply involves searching for the lastest takedown on Twitter. Why improve on yourself, when you can just take down somebody else a few notches? Why spend the time researching your opinion when you can just post something smart-sounding in 210 characters (or less) ? Or better, re-share someone else’s smartly-worded Tweet? Why continue the conversation when you can just cancel them and log off?

“One could also say that calling it ‘cancel culture’ at all is trivializing in itself”

And yet on the other hand, in it’s original (and well-meaning) form, cancel culture gives power to the consumer, it gives sway to the people and a say on what they are willing to put up and live with. It unites us in outrage, and the kinship of disliking something together cannot be compared to any other kind of connection besides maybe, well, loving something together.

“With a little direction we might just get to a place online where equality isn’t just about what you say but an actual reality.”

One could say certain people certainly do deserve to be silenced when they are inciting violence, spewing hateful ideas and spreading hurtful sentiments. Their proverbial beheading serves as a catalyst of conversation and changes things- faster than a slap on the wrist would have done. One could also say that calling it ‘cancel culture’ at all is trivializing in itself because it demeans the powerfulness of it, and the important ways it has contributed positively to our society morally and ethically on the larger scale. Looking at the bigger picture, on the other side of a screen, one could easily further say otherwise problematic things like, “Guilty until proven innocent”, “they should’ve known better” and “you can’t take back what you said”.

But I know the world (and the human condition) not to be so black and white or set in stone. With a little direction we might just get to a place online where equality isn’t just about what you say but an actual reality. So, the question isn’t: Should cancel culture stay or go? Really it’s: Where to from here?


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