Making others look foolish is no way to encourage a change in behavior. 5 min read
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A Utah high school student decided in 2018 that she wanted a different kind of dress for her prom, something uniquely beautiful and meaningful. In a vintage clothing store in downtown Salt Lake City, she found it: a Chinese cheongsam, with its high collar and body-hugging fit.
She posted pictures on Twitter of her big night, and unknowingly set off a viral storm of responses. One of the first negatives came from a man who took the teenager to task for what he called “cultural appropriation” by her non-Asian self wearing a traditional Asian garment. He was angry and did not mince words.
This kind of thing isn’t unusual on Twitter. In fact, the platform has become a launchpad for all sorts of personal attacks on people for the most ridiculous reasons. The goal of these attacks is to publicly shame someone for committing — in the eyes of the attackers — some inexcusable transgression of social behavior.
This seek-and-destroy conduct is known as cancel culture.
Also called call-out culture or outrage culture, the attacks typically start with one or two individuals volubly expressing their ire over whatever issue is upsetting them. These responses are then released onto social media (again, frequently Twitter) where they are amplified exponentially by others responding, not to the original issue necessarily, but rather to the outrage of the initial attacker.
*Those who practice it see themselves as “progressive activists” who are taking the fight straight to the people — and cramming it down their throats.*
The “canceling” occurs when the level of outrage against the alleged offender rises to the point where that person’s life and reputation are actually harmed. This is a frequent problem for celebrities, whose mistakes and utterances from decades ago are dredged up and thrown back in their faces, causing fans to stop supporting them and their projects.
Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn faced cancel culture last year when he was fired from the helm of the third installment in the movie series after Tweets he had posted a decade earlier resurfaced in a #MeToo environment. While those posts were clearly in very poor taste, Gunn was fired without being given any chance to address them or apologize for them.
President Barack Obama gave a speech at the Obama Foundation Summit in 2019 where he criticized cancel culture for its focus on perfectionism, noting that we’re all human and are prone to mistakes. He called the conduct “ineffective” and stated that it is “not activism”.
That’s one of the biggest problems with cancel culture: Those who practice it see themselves as “progressive activists” who are taking the fight straight to the people — and cramming it down their throats. They believe that this kind of activity is the only way to enact change right now.
And that’s where the sticking point is. The disenfranchised, tired of being stepped on, want an entire culture to accommodate them immediately. They see social media as a tool to force their point of view on a society that hasn’t come to terms yet with those views.
The concept of cancel culture isn’t really new.
Societies have used humiliation and social exile as a way to enforce moral conformity since the beginning of time. Incest, for example, is morally reprehensible to many, if not most, societies. Whether frowned upon or actually legislated against, suppression of that particular practice is widely accepted. Child pornography, murder, and cannibalism are other examples of widespread societal taboos.
But the reason that call-out culture works in the first place is that the particular beliefs of any given society are, for the most part, universally accepted by its members. Murder is recognized as wrong by pretty much everyone everywhere. There are pockets where murder may be an acceptable means to an end (say, religious wars, for example), but humanity as a whole does not condone murder.
What is acceptable can vary from one society to another; the point is that the majority of members in that particular society agree on those boundaries.
The reason that call-out culture is so controversial now is that the people who are doing the calling out are the marginalized, not the majority. The “activists” believe that their cause (whatever it is) is right and just, and that everyone needs to agree with them. Right now. Today.
Their cause may indeed be right and just; we’re not talking about the issues of outrage in this article. What we are talking about is whether or not calling-out individuals online is really social activism, or whether it’s just cyberbullying.
How is fifty thousand strangers humiliating a teenage girl over her choice of a prom dress supposed to drive social change?
*The reason that call-out culture is so controversial now is that the people who are doing the calling out are the marginalized, not the majority.*
Do the attackers think that everyone reading their angry posts online will be mortified of ever making a mistake like this girl did, and so then everyone will immediately understand and stop cultural appropriation? Is publically denouncing (and make no mistake, the internet is VERY public) people really going to make others sympathetic to your cause?
This is what President Obama meant when he said that call-out culture is not activism.
Calling cancel culture “activism” is to overlook some very salient points. Humiliation is not a driver of social change; it is a method of keeping people in line with society’s values, whatever they may be. In order for it to work, that society has to be in agreement about what is acceptable and what is not. And we’re simply not in agreement yet.
Additionally, there is the issue of agenda, i.e. what is the motivation behind calling-out individuals? It is very easy to hide behind a cloak of “progressive activism” in order to cover up the fact that all you’re really doing is bullying someone whose beliefs differ from yours. If your concern is cultural appropriation, attacking a kid because of a dress is a chicken-shit move.
And then there are the overlooked and underhanded benefits of launching a call-out campaign. The “first responders”, if you will — those who make the first strikes against the target individual — gain tremendous notoriety for their efforts. Their posts are looked at, followed, shared, and commented on; their websites and Twitter handles gain huge followings, which benefit them materially in addition to boosting their influence. Even those who criticize them give them the power and attention they crave. It’s a win-win.
If we really want social change, then we must educate not excoriate. We must unite people, not divide them. If you’re just going to bully people, then at least have the guts to call it what it is.