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FIRST-PERSON: Why cancel culture cannot deliver on its promises

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Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media,” releasing Feb. 1 from B&H books.

Cancel culture bears the fruit of vengeance more than it bears the fruit of justice. Why? Because in order for justice to be achieved by rallying a mob of angry onlookers on the internet, the “cancelee,” if you will, has to have actually committed an act of injustice that needs to be reconciled.

Sometimes this is the case, as we saw with the #MeToo movement, and the cancelees are brought to justice either in the public eye or in the criminal courts. But most of the time, canceling people doesn’t result in justice at all; it just results in a modern, real-life rendition of the two minutes hate George Orwell wrote of in 1984, in which people watch a video of a political foe and express their collective hatred for him. The two minutes hate is described in 1984: “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.” This sounds eerily like the atmosphere of cancel culture, including the threats of death for the recipient of the collective hate.

What makes cancel culture lead to more negative consequences than positive results of justice and redemption? Why does it feel like cancel culture creates a lot of noise on social media but rarely results in any demonstrable, constructive change offline? Let’s look at four primary factors: (1) subjective morality, (2) no incentive for reconciliation, (3) unclear objectives/demands, and (4) no realistic means of follow-up.

Subjective morality

A major reason cancel culture often has a difficult time exacting lasting, effective change in the real world is because there isn’t a shared morality on which a case for canceling someone may be built. It’s easy to cancel people for actions they have taken that compromise basic human decency – relatively few people came to the defense of Harvey Weinstein or others accused of sexual misconduct. This is because most people consider the crimes Weinstein and others committed as clearly worthy of career cancellation, criminal justice and cultural ostracism.

The stickiness comes with all of the other reasons people are canceled on the internet that aren’t so cut-and-dried. Some adults are canceled for tweets they sent when they were in their teens. Others are being canceled for holding a biblical, or “traditional,” sexual ethic. Others are canceled for things that may have been unintentional or ambiguous. When people are canceled for reasons less than criminal, the cancellation struggles to gain momentum and stick because not everyone agrees someone’s life should be dismantled for views or actions that fall within the realm of “decent,” even if they are unkind or otherwise objectionable.

No incentive for reconciliation

This is a big reason cancel culture results in a lot of noise but not a lot of change. In many corners of the social internet, conflict is incentivized. Why? Because, as we’ve seen, conflict often yields the most attention. Attempting to cancel someone is, without a doubt, a “conflict,” and it draws a lot of attention. The fight is where the value lies. Those who attempt to cancel someone have no incentive in accepting an apology or reconciling the situation. Why? Because when the conflict is resolved, attention evaporates. Most times the only acceptable result is the dismantling of the cancelee’s life. No forgiveness is possible. No reconciliation accepted. To forgive or attempt to reconcile would undermine the true goal of cancellation: vengeance.

Unclear objectives/demands

One of the saddest parts of someone getting canceled is watching them attempt to appease the crowd of people armed with virtual torches and pitchforks. Kevin Hart told Stephen Colbert in an interview after he had been canceled by people on social media and opted out of hosting the Oscars, “No matter how many times you keep peeling it back, it’s just endless. I apologized, ‘Apologize again!’ I said I apologized before, ‘Apologize after that apology!’ It just keeps going.” Hart is lamenting the fact that every time he felt like he met the demands of the mob, they kept moving the goalposts.

This is a common function of a cancel culture mob. The mob creates a list of demands, often an apology and some act demonstrating a change of heart. Then, once the cancelee meets the list of demands, the mob is not satisfied and creates another list of demands that are more difficult, if not impossible, to meet. Why would they do this? Refer to point two – they have no incentive for reconciliation.

No realistic means of follow-up

The last major factor in why cancel culture creates more noise than change is a pretty simple one: an online mob who calls for change in the life of someone they do not know has no realistic means of following up with the person to determine if real change has occurred. If a mob of angry people online cancels a celebrity for an offensive tweet from a decade prior, and the celebrity apologizes and promises not to make similar offensive remarks again, how can the mob hold the person accountable? Sure, they can keep an eye on the celebrity’s tweets, but the celebrity could just make the same offensive comments off-line, right?

How would the mob know?

This is why, in my view, cancel culture mobs rarely stop short of dismantling the lives of the people they attempt to cancel. Because the mob has no reliable means of holding the people they cancel accountable for change, they assume change will not come, so they try to ruin the canceled as much as possible, just to be sure they have paid for what they have done.


Special thanks to Chris Martin and B&H Books for the usage of this portion of “Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media”.


    About the Author

  • Chris Martin
    Chris Martin is a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers and a social media, marketing and communications consultant. He writes regularly in his newsletter, Terms of Service. Chris lives outside Nashville with his wife, Susie, their daughter, Magnolia, and their dog, Rizzo.Read All by Chris Martin ›