In William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” Marc Anthony uttered this famous line at Caesar’s funeral, standing by his friend’s body as the crowd cheered on his assassins: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.” Cancel culture was around even in Shakespeare’s time. These days, it’s more like the evil that people do is the only thing that people remember; the good that they do is buried beneath their flaws.
The main problem with cancel culture is that it tends to involve making judgments about decades of a person’s life based on one tweet or a 10-second video. People are complex. Most people are a mix of good and bad. They may write problematic tweets but also volunteer at soup kitchens. They may have made a few offensive remarks but have also helped strangers change their tires. Bottom line: We don’t know.
Make no mistake, I agree that people need to be held accountable for their actions and language, but it should not be done so severely with no room for redemption and not by a swarm of people on social media. When people with large platforms say or do something that is offensive and harmful, they should definitely be met with dissenting voices that call for them to change their behavior and apologize. But there’s a difference between calling someone out and demonizing them to the point where they lose their livelihoods. They need to be called out in a way that leaves room for genuine improvement. Oftentimes, when people are canceled, they aren’t getting canceled for a series of mistakes, but instead for one offense, one mistake — and that’s when it becomes excessive.
I also understand that some may argue that cancel culture is good because it holds the powerful and the privileged accountable. Yes, there are cases when the privileged can subvert the justice system, and online cancellation is the only option to bring them to justice. But the problem is that many regular people, including low to middle-income individuals without privilege, are being canceled in the process. When regular people get canceled, they don’t have a stash of wealth to fall back on when they lose their job.
Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Think about the worst thing that you have ever done, the most regrettable thing you have ever said, something you wish would never come to light. Now imagine someone had taken a video of you doing it and posted it on social media. News of your mistake spreads like wildfire. Millions of people see you at your worst, and then the vicious comments start pouring in. People who have only seen a 10-second video of your mistake demonize you. Your reputation is torn apart. Your identity is stripped of any dignity. You lose your job.
Your life is in shambles because millions of people on social media decided that they had the authority to be your judge, jury and executioner. It could happen to anyone — even you.
Even if you’re truly sorry and make a public apology, no one will forgive you. They’ll just dismiss your apology saying, “She’s only sorry because she got caught.” If you cry during your apology video, they’ll say you’re just faking it to garner sympathy. If you don’t cry, they’ll say you have no remorse.
It doesn’t have to be a video. Any dumb tweet, any stupid text, any faux pas from your past can get you canceled. This could happen to anyone: you, your family or your friends. Unless you’re a hermit living on some remote island, you could be canceled.
Our society’s appetite for canceling is fed by our need to feel superior. Picking apart someone else’s character makes us feel virtuous. Condemning someone as “toxic” makes us feel less “toxic.” Condemning someone as “a liar” makes us feel honest. We relish the chance to have a holier-than-thou attitude.
The internet makes it easy to forget that when you cancel someone, you’re canceling a real person. The internet makes reality more abstract. Cancelers don’t see the utter desperation and pain in the eyes of the canceled when they lose their job. They don’t see them being afraid and hopeless when they turn on the news and see the world has turned against them.
Canceling someone else absolves us of personal responsibility. “I’m not sexist, you are.”
After about a week of eviscerating someone online, getting them fired from their job and socially isolating them, the mob, having had its fun, moves on to its next target. But the victim can’t simply repent and move on. They don’t just magically get their job back when the cancel mob forgets they exist. The internet has a short attention span, but it’s got plenty of memory. If they apply for another job, a quick internet search will reveal to their potential employer that they got canceled. We’re all Hester Prynne, and we’ve got red tweets sewn to our dresses.
I question the true end goals of cancel culture. It doesn’t seem like the goal is for those who are canceled to learn from their mistakes. The public shaming and punishment are so overwhelming that a person doesn’t have the breathing space to examine their actions and improve. And nobody would believe them if they did.
Cancel culture pretends to care about enforcing good and getting rid of evil. But it stokes fear rather than reform, suppression rather than dialogue.
If we want things to get better, people need to be allowed to make mistakes. We need to be allowed to disagree with each other and give each other a chance at redemption — if not for the sake of morality, then for the sake of pragmatism and getting the results we want.
I may even be canceled for writing this article by people who disagree with me, but people have to speak out so that this ends.
Over the course of our lives, we are all going to make plenty of regrettable decisions, but we can learn from them and move on. At the end of the day, we’re all human. People who are quick to jump on the cancel train need to honestly acknowledge that they’re not perfect people. The very fact that they’re trying to wreck someone’s livelihood for one insensitive remark confirms that.
Let us work to build a society that unites justice and compassion, that gives people second chances and acknowledges that no one’s perfect. Let us respect each other as real individuals who have flaws. Let us hold people accountable but not reduce them to their one mistake. Don’t underestimate your ability to make a lasting change in someone’s life. A little thing, such as refusing to board the cancel train, is a small act of compassion that will go a long way.
Contact Maria at [email protected].