Put down your pitchforks, folks, the angry mob gathers in Twitter mentions now. This week, we cancel a serial predator, next week, an athlete who called someone gay when they were twelve.
Chrissy Teigen is the most recent recipient of the ‘cancelled’ label, due to resurfaced highly offensive tweets and alleged bullying, most notably against then teenager Courtney Stodden. The tweets are fairly heinous; Teigen repeatedly taunted the teen and told them to kill themselves. Teigen released a public apology, which received its own backlash. That backlash received more backlash. The wheel continues to turn.
For those of us who grew up on social media, representing ourselves online is paramount. We had our first breakup publicly, our 8th-grade graduation, our parents’ divorce, our grappling with centuries-long social issues, our family vacation, our first frat party, our mental breakdown, and our favorite meal.
We experienced puberty with an audience, we played audience to our peers. Our bullying of each other was saved to public record, as was our every passing thought. Our entire lives were curated to fit on the screen of a phone, and when it didn’t fit, we got bigger phones.
So, when our lives were meant to be performed, our every experience meant to be a representation of ourselves, our political opinions meant to be public declarations of the self, of course, they became self-grounding. Being a public personality stopped being a career path and started being a requirement.
It became algorithmically simple to align ourselves with social and political ideologies that could be boiled down to a single infographic, we watched democracy crumble under the weight of a 4chan conspiracy. The stakes have always been high, and yet sharing our thoughts has gotten easier and easier.
An entire ecosystem exists online, and now some of us will be successful because of it. Wealth inequality will be broadcast in the form of ‘flexing,’ and the humble beginnings of teenagers thrust into the public eye and given millions of dollars and fans to do with what they please will be a matter of public record.
It is human nature to revel in the schadenfreude of bringing someone more wealthy than ourselves down. We did it to the French aristocracy in 1789, to the House of Romanov in 1917. It isn’t necessarily bad. A ruling class exists because of those they rule, it seems only fit that the masses should choose who gets to do it.
Enter cancel culture. Now, there exists a ruling class online whose wealth is measured in followers and likes. It’s a meritocracy of sorts; anyone can be the next Czar of Twitter. In turn, anyone can bring them down. All it takes is a keen eye and some sleuthing to uncover the ugly bits of someone’s entire existence, given that it is all out there to be consumed.
Sometimes those bits are truly ugly. Kevin Spacey gets outed as a child predator, and the social media backlash crumbles his career. It feels like a win for our social ecosystem. Other times, the bits are less black and white. YouTube personality Jenna Marbles had her own cancellation in 2020 when people began to look back on some of her old content with new eyes. A 2011 video of hers in which she imitates Nicki Minaj in a pink wig was uncovered. She was accused of using blackface, and though she maintains that her tan was no darker than in other videos and she had no intention of using blackface, she still decided to leave the platform amid the backlash.
This created its own backlash, as social media users debated whether or not it’s fair to retroactively hold people accountable for content created 10 years ago that is clearly no longer representative of the views they hold today. ‘Cancel culture’ remains prevalent, and the act of holding people accountable has become its own industry.
The fundamental problem with cancel culture is that it doesn’t really hold people accountable in any meaningful way. Jenna Marbles receiving the same treatment as Kevin Spacey makes their crimes equal in the eyes of the public. They aren’t equal.
Calling for someone to be canceled for offensive tweets made upwards of tens years ago is problematic in its own right, it begs the question of who among us would stand up to the scrutiny of the 2021 social lens. But, the bigger problem is that we also ‘cancel’ people who have committed actual veritable crimes.
The idea that we should ‘cancel’ a celebrity when it comes out that they have committed sexual abuse against minors feels entirely out of place when there is no solid metric for what merits cancellation. We feel like we’ve done a good thing by denouncing the child predator, but all we have done is say what should be obvious: serious criminals don’t deserve to be our role models. It means that the label of ‘canceled’ holds a weight we don’t really understand.
Kevin Spacey never faced criminal charges for his actions. He never went to jail, but he did experience the public exile that a cancellation seeks to achieve. Jenna Marbles experienced the same phenomenon for what could be described as an ill-informed mistake made years ago by a fundamentally good person. This inequality in consequences isn’t going away, not while we treat our online lives the way we do.
Cancel culture is necessary to the representation of self- if we must at all times align ourselves with a social ideology, and if those alignments are representations of who we are, we must continue to align and dis-align ourselves with opinions and actions we find to be wrong. Essentially, in a landscape where you are every single thing that you think, forgiveness reads as tacit approval.
So, the next teenage Tik-Tok star that has something offensive lurking in their pre-pubescent past needs to be canceled in order to maintain the ecosystem that we’ve built, in order for us to represent ourselves. We just need to sit and hope we never find ourselves staring down the barrel of the self.