It is a product of an unequal society. It is an expression of angst and exhaustion at society's injustices. This is why we must ask ourselves: How must a flawed, imperfect society respond, and not react, to oppression and inequality?
When Joaquin Phoenix walked on to the stage at the 92nd Academy Awards, fans expected an eccentric speech. Phoenix received Best Actor for his performance in Joker. In an all-encompassing speech, he talked about the urgency of fixing the world, for peaceful coexistence of all living beings, and concluded with the importance of giving second chances.
He said, "I've been a scoundrel in my life. I've been selfish... and ungrateful, but so many of you in this room have given me a second chance. And I think that's when we're at our best — when we support each other. Not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow... when we guide each other toward redemption: That is the best of humanity."
His words resonated with people across the world. He didn't call out a trend that has caught on; he wasn't concerned about a new controversy; he was referring to the well-intentioned, albeit misguided, social media culture of shutting people out — the Cancel Culture.
The Information Age has helped make our conversations swift, easy and effortless. But as we learn more about each other (everyone and everything is online), we are even quicker to dismiss each other. We must know, in no uncertain terms, the kind of people we wish to stand behind and the ideologies that they support, but where must we draw the line for certain behaviour?
There are various degrees of this culture. For instance, in the collective condemnation of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and other perpetrators of violence (which wouldn't have been possible without social media as a tool to amplify voices), it critiqued the system which has allowed this behaviour with impunity for too long. This was long overdue. However, it is with smaller and less consequential actions that we see the toxicity in cancelling a person or thing.
A host-less Oscars is an example in itself. Last year, when comedian Kevin Hart was to host it, people took to social media to "cancel" him for anti-Semitic jokes he posted years ago. This forced him to step away from the event. When actor Emma Watson made problematic statements on her understanding of feminism, seen as non-inclusive, she was "cancelled" too. In a deeply divided society, does "cancelling" Hart and Watson solve the centuries-old problems around race and gender? Not quite. It is the equivalent of putting a band-aid (impropriety) on a bullet wound (gender and racial violence).
When Tarana Burke founded the MeToo movement in 2007, and then later saw it being reduced to a social media hunt to "cancel men", she expressed her disappointment. And her reason was clear. Justice is better served when it is restorative, not retributive. The movement must help fight ill practices that plague society. This requires a deeper look into what perpetuates injustice. "Cancelling men" on social media doesn't solve the problem of sexual violence in our patriarchal societies. It doesn't help victims. It puts names on a toxic culture that we cannot (and must not) forget. But for actual change, it must move beyond the online world into our homes, workplaces and communities.
This is a harder boat to steer, because cancel culture is a product of an unequal society. It is an expression of angst and exhaustion at society's injustices. This is why we must ask ourselves: How must a flawed, imperfect society respond, and not react, to oppression and inequality? In our quest for freedom, are we building more fences to keep people out?
In its present form, cancel culture has no place for reform. It is exclusionary, often disproportionate, and divisive — and in effect, defeats its own purpose. If we allow it to continue, we – as imperfect human beings navigating through rapidly changing social norms and conventions — will only find ourselves more separated and alone. As Barack Obama said about the cancel culture, "If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far."