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Cancelled! What It Means to be Hated Online

by Priyanka Sarkhel ('20)

In the digital age, mob mentality has evolved to find a new platform for unifying people who hate a common thing or person: social media. The comfort of a masked identity behind the screen makes it easier to hate as explicitly as possible. Due to the acceleration of social issues taking to platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, a new epidemic of mob mentality flourished: cancel culture.

The top definition of the term ‘cancelled’ as it is used in today’s world is, according to Urban Dictionary, “To dismiss something/somebody. To reject an individual or an idea.”

In recent times of social progressiveness and fighting the establishment, communities expect anyone considered a public figure to fight the battle with them, and for the most part, they do. However, when dealing with the nuances of touchy topics regarding LGBTQ+ issues, women’s issues, racial issues, public figures are subject to mass scrutiny. Of course, being someone of influence warrants mass scrutiny whether or not he/she asks for it, but in the age of cancel culture, what a celebrity says or does can potentially ruin their careers for good.

So what happens when someone or something is ‘cancelled?’ In a New York Times article titled 'Everyone is Cancelled' written by Jonah Engel Bromwich, Professor Meredith Clark from the University of Virginia’s media studies department said, “To me, it's ultimately an expression of agency. To a certain extent: I really do think of it like a breakup and a taking back of one’s power.” Bromwich further reiterated, “Cancelling… is an act of withdrawing from someone whose expression --whether political, artistic, or otherwise -- was once welcome or at least tolerated, but no longer is.”

Before beginning to understand the dynamics of cancel culture, it is important to understand the concept of group polarization. Group polarization is a psychology term that explains the dynamics of a mob, cult, or extremist group.

AP Psychology teacher Mrs. Cristina Janis explained group polarization as, “When someone has moderate views about a topic… and he/she gets together with like-minded people and start sharing ideas [about the topic], one who was more moderate, now after that discussion in a group of like-minded people, becomes more extreme in their viewpoints.”

An example of group polarization would be the Charlottesville, Virginia riots that happened in the summer of 2017 which were the results of the group polarization of white supremacists, neo-nazis, and the alt-right.

In terms of cancel culture, group polarization is usually applicable to large groups of people on social media who collectively deem someone’s views, beliefs, and/or actions as socially unacceptable.

The following are some examples where cancel culture was put into effect:

Earlier in the year, comedian Kevin Hart was faced with backlash due to perceived homophobic tweets he wrote a decade ago. As a result, Hart stepped down as the host of the 2019 Oscars.

James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films was also ‘cancelled’ due to tweets from more than a decade ago that joked about pedophilia, rape, and satirical comments on sensitive topics like 9/11 and the Holocaust. He was fired by Disney from his job as director of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3 due to these tweets, but was later reinstated despite the controversy.

Louis C.K., Woody Allen, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, and a number of others were also ‘cancelled’ due to sexual assault and harassment allegations amongst the rise of the #MeToo movement.

For some, cancel culture is an effective way to make people face accountability for their actions and words. Junior Rujuta Sawant said, “It really depends on the situation. Cancel culture is justified, if say, a famous, notoriously rich businessman was found to have committed several human rights violations. He doesn’t deserve another penny, and everyone should know about it.”

An example of when cancel culture held someone accountable and allowed for proper consequences to be dealt was in May 2018 when Roseanne Barr, former star of the popular show ‘Roseanne’ on ABC, went on Twitter and wrote, “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby,” she was met with mass criticism online for racism and the spreading of hate along with a literal cancellation of her show on ABC. Her tweet was a jab at Valerie Jarrett, who was a former advisor to President Barack Obama.

An article from Vice titled ‘In Defense of Cancel Culture’ by Shamira Ibrahim quotes communications strategist Camonghne Felix, who said, “Cancellation isn’t personal but a way for marginalized communities to publicly assert their value systems through pop culture.”

Those that are firm believers of ‘cancelling’ people think cancel culture can be a good thing, and that it can lead to productive discourse about social issues that are not always addressed properly. Here, the rights and wrongs can be properly distinguished, and people with opposing viewpoints can begin to have conversations about the nuances of racial, gender, and LGBTQ+ issues.

Others believe that cancel culture sometimes goes too far, and the possibility of productive discourse turns into vitriol, eventually ending up becoming a very toxic thing.

Senior Samira Mohamed said, “I think cancel culture has been plaguing the youth and propelling hate and violence, and essentially ‘taking action’ without any just reason. With modern technology, it’s so easy to dig up old information from any influencer/celebrity that can ruin their career just when it’s going good for them in an instant. People take too fast to cancelling someone before they even have all the facts and I think it’s partially because it’s one of the only times in modernity that people actually unite together against something, which is actually really sad.”

Those with similar viewpoints also point out that cancel culture can cause people to have tunnel vision and a very black and white understanding of what is right and what it wrong, when in reality, things are not always that easy.

In a Grassroots Economic Organizing article titled 'Cast Down Cancel Culture' , author Malikia Johnson writes, “The #CancelCulture, the trend of calling someone ‘problematic’ or ‘cancelled’ because of disagreement with their worldview, has led to folks being encapsulated within silos of their own thoughts and opinions; therefore causing them to mistakenly think that a larger part of the world agrees with their points of understanding. This trend has been perpetuated in many of the millennial movements we see today and is rotting a foundation for a new reality before it has even been established.”

Johnson also points out the problem of people online searching for ‘buzzwords’ like ‘feminism,’ ‘homophobia,’ and ‘patriarchy’ and then deciding whether or not to agree with a statement that uses or refers to these buzzwords without considering what is actually being said.

There is a way, however, to be better at having discussions on the internet.

Mrs. Janis said, “One thing that is going to be important moving forward is to teach media literacy, to figure out where in our educational system that fits best, because the youth are often ahead of the times compared to adults. But I think adults may need to get on board with that and start teaching media literacy, basically how to spot if a video has been doctored online or how we should handle arguments online. Let’s face it: discrepancies happen. People use the internet to voice their opinions, their political profiles, things like that, and it can be a source that is very advantageous, but we have to learn a responsible discourse online, and that can be taught.”

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