Cancel Culture & Accountability
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
Right off the bat, I should be honest about something. I've been avoiding a blog post about this for a long time.
Which is incredibly privileged to say, that I am in a position where I can even avoid talking about this in the first place. Also, because who am I, a white cisgender woman sitting behind my laptop, to talk to people about accountability and cancel culture? It is something that I am still learning about, and working through myself.
Cancel culture. I’d insert a ghost emoji if I could. It’s a phenomenon that some people are incredibly scared of. But, most of the time, I've found that when people are talking about cancel culture, they are aiming for two things.
1) Rarely, an opportunity to bully or doxx for no other reason but their own ego.
2) Sometimes, people are actually aiming for something better - intending to do something far more powerful, something far more essential and beneficial: accountability.
I can't really remember the first time I thought about cancel culture. I feel like it was in my undergrad, and my friends and I were talking about some white guy who did some problematic thing. (In other words, another Tuesday basically at Queen's University). I’m our conversation over a pitcher of beers, I remember thinking — “boy, this guy is cancelled” without even asking myself what that meant. And for a while, I didn’t question it again.
This past week, cancel culture appeared on my radar again, like a , blinking, red light. I was scrolling through TikTok and I was watching a video about the Amber Heard & Johnny Depp defamation trial. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a lot of the dialogue surrounding the trial focused on going after Amber Heard with pitchforks, and "destroying" her career for "lying" about abuse. First off, who are we to say what actually happened between Heard and Depp? For sure, there was some level of abuse going on between them. It was charged, visceral, and toxic. People were hurt. Rather than centre the dialogue around holding individuals responsible for the abuse, people turned the narrative. They wanted Amber Heard to suffer. They wanted her cancelled. Similarly, perhaps, to the cancellation that transpired around Johnny Depp as well.
But what is cancel culture?
Well, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines cancel culture as: "the practice or tendency of engaging in mass cancelling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure."
In recent years, the idea that a person can be cancelled, or basically shunned from society either via social media or in person, has put a lot of fear into people—people who believe that they have to be hyper-vigilant of what they do, what they say, how they say it, etc.
"The rise of “cancel culture” and the idea of cancelling someone coincides with a familiar pattern: A celebrity or other public figure does or says something offensive. A public backlash, often fueled by politically progressive social media, ensues." - Vox, What is cancel culture
In most examples of cancel culture, the aim or end goal is to effectively end someone's career, or revoke their status of power or authority. Sometimes, (using the Amber heard situation as a recent example) cancel culture can be toxic. Boycotting, doxxing and otherwise, harassment-leaning jargon can do more harm than actual good. Most people don't learn anything from it, instead, I find it just adds fuel to the fire and causes people who are already steeped in privilege to cling onto their power more desperately.
Maybe, when talking about cancel culture, what people are actually aiming for, and speaking about is accountability.
If someone has caused harm or has done something wrong, that doesn't necessarily mean they are exorcised from society. Instead, responsibility must be included, holding someone accountable for the harm that they have caused. In many ways, accountability is deeply connected to restorative justice.
Restorative justice and accountability involves not only reacting publicly to harm, and speaking out against harm, but it also involves responsibility and education. Specifically, the person who has caused harm having open, respectful communication with the group or individual they have harmed and taking genuine steps to move forward, not causing that same harm in the future. Within this, in no way is it expected for those who are harmed to 1) accept an apology from their aggressor, or 2) move forward in general as if nothing harmful has happened.
It's important to ask.
Who is harming who?
Who is being called into accountability?
Who are the ones doing the calling?
More often than not the labour of calling someone into accountability falls on the shoulders of the same people who are directly harmed or oppressed, such as communities of colour, queer individuals, the transgender community and disabled community. And, the people who are doing the harm (and running scared of being "cancelled" like kids scared of getting their toys taken away by a parent) are white people. Ooh, and I want to add, most of the people ironically trying to cancel other people, are also white people.
This has the same cyclical feeling of a dog chasing its tail.
"Maybe the difference isn’t the prevalence of the cancellations as much as it is who is getting cancelled? Perhaps the truth is that Black and Brown people have historically been granted very little (if any) margin of error much less second, third and fourth chances, and in the midst of the country’s racial reckoning, high-profile, mostly White celebrities, executives and other leaders are now being treated more like everyone else? Maybe it’s yet another example of the saying, 'When those with privilege are faced with equality, to them it often feels like oppression.'" Dana Bronlee, Is Cancel Culture Really Just Long Overdue Accountability for The Privileged?
Let's not forget, cancel culture itself stemmed from Black Twitter and has essentially been turned inside out into a something that is becoming separate from its original intentions as related to accountability and restorative justice.
Cancel culture, today is now in the hands of the people who need to be held accountable most.
I don't want to make this whole conversation about Depp and Heard, but it's the clearest example that I can think of at this moment. If Amber Heard (and I'm saying if because we - us - people on the internet, really don't know what happened) abused Johnny Depp or vice versa, should the dialogue not be about holding the abuser accountable for the trauma and harm they have inflicted?
Instead, a lot of the dialogue now is centred on ruining Amber Heard, ensuring she never works again, and ensuring that no other woman "like her" (whatever that means) gets their opportunity to (allegedly) "lie" in court.
Fundamentally, cancel culture achieves nothing - at least, the cancel culture that exists today. The original intention of cancel culture as something formative, something to hold abusive figures accountable, and something restorative, has eroded into something that abusive white figures use to justify harm and even weaponize a state of victimhood.
If you want to learn more about restorative justice and accountability, check out these links: