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A New Way to Look at Cancel Culture

“Cancel culture,” or call-out culture, is a term that has gained a lot of traction these past few years. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat refers to “being canceled” as an “attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful or disqualifying.” While cancel culture can help educate others for their misdeeds, its hostile nature often does more harm than good. It’s part of human nature to make mistakes, but people can learn from these mistakes and move forward as well. By accepting that people can change and welcoming growth and discourse, we can begin to look at cancel culture in a new way. 

The cause for cancellation can vary from person to person — old tweets from years ago, recent racist remarks, resurfaced videos and more. YouTuber James Charles lost over 3 million subscribers in 2019 after fellow beauty guru Tati Westbrook posted a video “exposing” him. The TikTok famous D’Amelio sisters, Charli and Dixie, received death threats and lost hundreds of thousands of followers after behaving in what many considered an “immature” and “disrespectful” manner. Twenty One Pilots singer Tyler Joseph faced backlash for not using his platform to support Black Lives Matter and responding with an insensitive tweet. 

The topic has been widely debated, with former President Barack Obama even sharing his own controversial opinion on the subject. Individuals appear on all ends of the spectrum — some arguing it doesn’t exist, others saying it’s always been around, some saying it’s gone too far and much more. 

The #isoverparty tag first began circulating around 2016, after Kim Kardashian shared a video which seemingly showed Kanye West informing singer Taylor Swift of the lyrics to his song “Famous.” Since then, the hashtag has been associated with cancel culture, with various forms of it calling out other stars for countless reasons. Nowadays, it seems as if there’s a “#[name]IsOverParty” trending on Twitter every other month or so. 

However, cancel culture is not something that affects public figures alone. A professor at USC was placed on leave and stepped away from his role in their MBA program after using a Chinese word that sounded like a racial slur during a Zoom lecture. An executive at Boeing Communications resigned over a sexist article he wrote in 1987, opposing women “as fighter pilots.” He has apologized for the article and has called it “embarrassingly wrong and offensive.” Drag queen Vanity von Glow was canceled after performing at a far-right protest; while she didn’t agree with the organizers and was there to promote free speech, her association with the event and the people caused strong backlash and cancellations of appearances at a club she regularly performed at. 

Fan account @selenarules6, which is dedicated to actress and singer Selena Gomez, describes cancel culture as “pretty biased.” She explains that individuals will sometimes “cancel” someone simply because they do not like them, while turning the other cheek if someone they “stan” were to do the same thing. However, she also acknowledges that cancelling other people can also be effective in enacting change, and that typically when a #isoverparty trends, it’s because that person has said or done something that has upset a number of people. 

@selenarules6 herself has participated in a #isoverparty, specifically one targeted at actress and singer Demi Lovato, who was recently accused of running a “finsta” account, used to bash her former friend Gomez. It is worth noting that the claims were unfounded; a source close to Lovato told Insider that the claims were false, insisting that there are “several fake and doctored photos.” 

However, @selenarules6 believes Lovato’s cancellation was justified due to her problematic history and the alleged accusations. When asked what her goal was, she said that she was simply “expressing displeasure [with Lovato].” Despite being critical of the singer, @selenarules6 also believes that she and other celebrities deserve second chances. “They’re still people at the end of the day and everyone makes mistakes.”

When people on social media hurl death threats and insults at someone in order to cancel them, it’s natural for the receiver to grow defensive. They may not want to accept their wrongdoings, or even listen to what others have to say. It is because of this that current cancel culture generates fear of seeming bigoted or insensitive by saying the wrong thing rather than an environment that encourages growth and accountability. Because of the hostility many face in the midst of being canceled, people think twice about what they say, fearful of someone misunderstanding them — as @selenarules6 says she sometimes is — or of making a mistake and saying the wrong thing. 

While interviewing a separate individual on the topic of cancel culture, they eventually withdrew themselves as a subject in fear of being attacked if others did not agree with their opinions. Their reluctance to be interviewed shows how unproductive cancel culture can be — it makes people uncomfortable with sharing their opinions in fear of getting canceled. Instead, we should be fostering an environment where people are willing to openly discuss issues, listen to others and be educated. 

But in some cases, cancel culture is at times warranted and even productive. It gives people who may not have a big platform or voice a chance to speak up. Cancel culture calls out sexism, racism and other harmful abuses. The #MeToo movement effectively exposed multiple cases of sexual assault in Hollywood and aided in the conviction of Harvey Weinstein — a man who managed to escape accountability for his actions for several decades. Recently, cancel culture also helped lead to an investigation of the “toxic workplace environment” on “The Ellen Show.” And just two years ago, after an internal investigation and multiple sexual harassment allegations, UCI had its own faculty member Francisco J. Ayala not only fired from his position and banned from campus, but also his name removed from the School of Biological Sciences’ Science Library, which he was a signature donor for.

In an interview with the New York Times, Professor Loretta J. Ross from Smith College introduced an alternative to cancel culture, “calling in” instead of “calling out.” She describes this as a “call out done with love;” it promotes calling others out privately and with respect, to bring in “conversation, compassion and context.” 

New York Times Editor-at-Large Jessica Bennett, who interviewed Ross on the topic of cancel culture, said that “in some cases, public calling out of powerful people has allowed those who typically do not have a voice to have one.” 

However, she also stated that “there is a lot of doubt also cast on the lasting efficacy of these actions, which can sometimes backfire, and are often disproportionate to the perceived initial slight.” Because of the nature of cancel culture and its prevalence on Twitter, Bennett shares that misinformation is often spread or exaggerated, while many on Twitter likely won’t look further to learn more about the context or complexity of such situations.

“It’s easy to pile on,” Bennett said. 

When asked if she had done research on the accusations against Lovato and her “finsta,” @selenarules6 responded that yes she had, though her research had taken place on Twitter and consisted mostly of other people’s tweets. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more celebrities and companies are being “canceled” day in and day out. Bennett attributes this to what some experts she has interviewed have said about callout culture; it “can be a way for people to feel agency, or control, against a world that is out of control.” Nevertheless, she encourages the concept of “calling in.” In an interview with the New University, Bennett said that she loves how it “brings kindness, and empathy, back into the conversation.”

Cancellations can come from misunderstandings, things taken out of context, truly harmful statements or actions and more. Oftentimes, people — especially those on social media —  are quick to act in calling individuals out but not as quick to forgive. We have to remember that people make mistakes, and they can learn and grow from them as well. Not everyone deserves to be ostracized for a remark they made years ago and now regret. Accepting that people can change is a good way to look at cancel culture in a new light. Promoting accountability and growth allows people to call out individuals for their wrongdoings and accept that there’s room for improvement. 

Jacqueline Nguyen is an Opinion Apprentice for the 2020 winter quarter. She can be reached at jacqunn4@uci.edu.