Humans have been reduced to nothing more than a magazine subscription these days; the only difference is that the more issues the individual accumulates, the more likely they are to end up being cancelled. 

There is no denying a certain rush from seeing a once beloved famous figure being pushed off their throne by the same community that gave them their crown in the first place. With trending hashtags popping up and hate speech spewing out, it’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon and contribute to stomping on the fallen victim.

Sometimes this culture is justified, sometimes it is not. In this article, we’ll explore cancel culture from its roots and whether or not the ‘cancelled’ individual has a chance of redemption.

Origins of The Concept

In the Book of Leviticus, one fundamental hierarchical method emphasising isolation was sa’ir la’aza’zel meaning “Goat for Azazel” , better known as the scapegoat. The scapegoat was an actual goat that would be ritually and ceremonially bequeathed with all the sins and crimes committed by the community then exiled into the wilderness. Similarly, a kindred rite applying human sacrifice was practised by the Greeks. The Pharmakos (human sacrifice) was battered and sauntered in public before being ostracised, which at the time was considered equivalent to death. This was considered as atonement and expiation at the time; an escape route for the majority to mark one of their own as corrupted and tainted, proceeded by the banishment of this so called ‘darkness’, as if that would truly cleanse the community of it. However the main purpose was actually so that the majority could feel reassured that they would be pure once again and free of any sins and blame that came with it.

The scapegoat concept isn’t entirely lost on us as we have our own version of it. As a majority, we condemn those who perpetrated trivial offences decades in their past, disregarding the possible growth and personal development of the scapegoat, despite having committed comparable if not identical misconducts ourselves. It is only then that we feel relieved from the burden of wrestling with our conscience as we view ourselves higher on the morality scale because we helped hold someone accountable for their actions. But how does that work when we have not taken accountability for ours?

The term ‘Pharmakos’ originates from ‘pharmakon’ meaning itself and its polar opposite, as cure and illness; a healer and executioner simultaneously. Whether the scapegoat is truly sinful or not, they’re conclusively a representation and substitute for the genuine culprits: us and the policies we are complicit in that have skewed society for the worst. Regrettably, the scapegoat is demonised, compelled to shoulder and endure their community’s dishonour in addition to their own. The question is: why the need to not just address the crime and educate the offender especially if they’re remorseful, but also to condemn and punish them?

Some even see resemblances between cancel culture and the Salem witch trials during the late 17th century which occurred as a result of the collective effort between the church and state, which at the time had little to no differentiation. References are also made to those who served as informants for the East German secret police, also known as Stasi, during the mid to late 1900s. These precedents are pertinent in attesting to how violence is employed to assert virtue and innocence. As archaic as it may be, it has developed to aid modern-day beliefs and philosophies. Research has ascertained that most of those who reported the Stasi informants to the authorities were their own family and friends who would do so to preserve the state’s virtue and integrity, and indirectly their own.

What is Cancel Culture?

Ren rou sou suo or 人肉搜索 is a Chinese expression that surfaced among the Chinese online community around the early 2000s. Its literal interpretation is “human flesh search” and it involved online investigation through blogs and forums. Web citizens or netizens who shared similar interests and hobbies would unite to conduct research on their shared passions, be it objects or people, as an instrument to satisfy a fandom’s urge to know as much as possible about their stans. Before they knew it, this enthusiasm was diverted to detecting clandestine criminal activity, particularly perpetrated by renowned public figures. Exposed felons had their personal information leaked and the public was quick to badger and outcast them.

To the rest of the world during that period, this was a foreign event as it was only being practised in China despite the fact that a phrase of comparable definition existed in the English Language; doxing, which can be rooted back to the online hacking forums in the early 90s. A Law Review editor, Weiwei Shen clarified that ren rou sou suo is apt to arouse in collectivist countries like China rather than individualist countries in the west like America. Nevertheless, it seems as today, America is leading the ren rou sou suo approach mightier than any other nation, only by another name: cancel culture.

“To justify vindictiveness, you can’t recognize yourself in those you denounce; you have to believe that they really deserve it” – Canadian Philosopher Charles Taylor

If we do not trust or believe that our community is just or even strives to be, there are no alternatives than to threaten and chastise, like 21st-century ascetics. Guilt stems from societal standards and models. They’re manifested in beliefs which no community can survive without: faiths, philosophy, judicial systems and fundamental values. The ‘shaming’ bit of the culture clearly separates the innocent and corrupt; us vs them. No wonder the word “cancel” is derived from the Latin “cancelli” which descended from “cancri” (cancer),  a grill or grid of intersected bars, forming a kind of barrier, which dissimilates to “carcer”, or better known as prison.

The term has been thrown around so much lately that almost everyone is sick of hearing it. I say almost everyone because there are still some people who are consistently fueling the conversation with the latest celebrity blunders. Some even prefer the term ‘accountability culture’ as to disassociate themselves from the blood-thirsty followers of ‘cancel culture’, as if that actually works. The term encompasses the entire spectrum; from online to offline, justice-seeking to inimical dispute, to bullying and harassment. However, nowadays the witch hunt goes further than just familiar household names. Regular people are not excluded anymore; in fact, it’s growing more prevalent to steer the attention to commoners instead, possibly because the consequences are more significant. An example of this is a Caucasian professor who was suspended due to a misunderstanding that involved him using a Chinese term during a teaching session which echoed comparable to a racial slur. This incident is comparable to that of James Gunn, a filmmaker who had his past offensive tweets resurfaced, only to be fired and rehired by Disney within 8 months. 

“Abolish cancel culture and let’s go back to how things were”. But cancel culture was around before as well but only in embodiments of gossip, speculations, and baseless accusations. It was severest when it was bolstered and endorsed by the despotic government as it was customarily followed with incarceration and discriminatory sentences. This was the crisis throughout the 1940s and 1950s for those presumed to be involved with communist parties as it was a united venture between corporate organisations with leading self-interests. The only contrast nowadays is that social media brings about a clumsier and prompter as well as more anonymous addition to the practice. Not formulating a unique method of bludgeoning, but solely exacerbating and expediting an old one. Some would debate that it’s not bludgeoning at all but merely a manner to obstruct contumelious actions and misuse of authority; necessary measures of the community to protect themselves in a disappointing establishment.

Cancel Culture: The Good

Although cancel culture isn’t exactly a movement considering it does not have recognised leaders and active constituents, and those who engage do so capriciously, it’s still unquestionably associated with the radical extremes and the Black colloquial term “woke“. This term was originally introduced as a mainstream adjective in 1962 by William Melvin Kelley, who was an experimental novelist intending to summon a collective awareness to view the world as it is, without the filter of privilege and ignorance.

This culture is knitted with threads of noble intentions, whereby people on the internet get to play the role of social justice warriors. According to the Insider,  it stems from the idea of publicly shaming celebrities for problematic actions or statements. These actions are justified and important to ensure that even the most infamous figures face consequences for their wrongdoings. 

It is a form of disciplinary action, one which demands greater accountability from public figures that have been placed on a pedestal so high that their morals begin to grey.

A recent example of cancel culture that was justified is the once adored talk show host – Ellen DeGeneres. The reason for her “cancellation” was due to the claims that The Ellen DeGeneres Show was a toxic environment and further investigations revealed alleged cases of sexual misconduct by executive producers from the show.

Thanks to cancel culture, more and more employees were able to voice out the racism and intimidation they felt when working on the show. These allegations made its way to the public where it snowballed into a controversy big enough to trample a household name like Ellen. In the end, she was forced to take accountability, apologize to her staff, and commit to ensuring that this does not happen again. The disciplinary action that cancel culture enforces is proven in this context when executive producer Ed Glavin and Kevin Leman, and co-executive producer Jonathan Norman were fired from the show.

This demonstrates that cancel culture can be an empowering move to ensure that these notorious figures do not abuse their fame and are punished for their misconduct. It gives authority back to the fans who have certain expectations towards the people they idolize. 

Cancel Culture: The Bad

Despite its noble nature, the primary intention of educating and improving the general public’s behaviour and habits through ‘calling out’ and ‘cancelling’ people are ancient and have been concealed amongst other purposes. Cancel culture is merely hate armoured with justice. Those who espouse the culture crave more than repentance, apologies, and reflections from the convicted to amend wrongdoings and set an appropriate scale of authority. 

We often see the system used to effectuate retribution beneath the pretence of administering justice, to assert against and denounce the broken order we live with and appeal for a more competent one or just the thrilling pleasure of disgracing a stranger among a mob of pretentious netizens. It contributes to the endless pool of negativity circling the internet, looking for the next victim to drown. When done wrongly, this culture is just a means of tarnishing reputations out of spite. 

This occurs when people purposefully dig up dirt from a celebrity which could have been committed 5, 10, 20 years ago. Such an attempt at ‘cancelling’ may prove to be futile as the celebrity may have already grown up and understood the severity of their actions. 

For example, Jimmy Fallon was cancelled last year due to a skit of wearing blackface back in the year 2000. The public’s anger towards his actions are entirely justified but it should also be noted that this happened two decades ago and a public apology followed with accountability has been made. Although we should hold celebrities accountable for their actions, we should keep in mind that no one has a squeaky clean past and the mistakes they made before should not ultimately define who they are. 

However, there are times when cancel culture is not conjured through malicious intent but rather through misunderstandings. A notable example is when the whole internet raised their pitchforks against James Charles for his controversy with Tati. This led to him losing 3 million subscribers in a weekend.

An explanation regarding the drama would require its own entire article. So to summarize on what is now coined as 2019’s drammagedon (ah back when our biggest global worries were petty influencer feuds) – it started when Tati released a “Bye Sister” video which painted James Charles as an arrogant backstabber because he promoted SugarBearHair (Tati’s hair product nemesis). James Charles was also shunned for his “disgusting” behaviour of making eyes with a waiter – Sam. This set the entire internet against him, with famous peers outcasting him and brand deals pulling out from sponsorships. However, Nikita Dragun then defended him by posting screenshots which suggested that he wasn’t a backstabber. Not long after, Sam, the waiter, also came up with his own video explaining what really happened and apologized to James Charles. In the end, after a whole year, Tati apologized about the whole ordeal, blaming Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson for poisoning her opinions with false information. 

If you skipped the whole paragraph above, I get it, ain’t nobody got time for that. But it basically proves a point of how situations can be taken out of context and morphed into something horrendous for the sole purpose of ‘cancelling’ someone. Therefore, before thinking of burning a person’s reputation to the ground, we should be wary enough to seek the full picture before making a judgement.

Redemption

When reporting about cultural contrasts between the East and West, Ruth Benedict, a 20th-century anthropologist claimed that Judaism and Christianity left a legacy of guilt following the acknowledgement of one’s incompetence to live up to one’s own standard, which contrasts the concept of shame that carries anxiety and the dread of public judgement and scorn. Guilt pilots reformations even without external penalties and punishments (when nobody is aware of your wrongdoings). Shame however, necessitates spectators. When you have eyes on you pressuring you to do something, it propels you to do something about it.

“Perhaps every modern king is just a scapegoat who has managed to delay his own execution” – Peter Thiel (Entrepreneur and Venture capitalist)

Oedipus, Thebes’s tyrannos-pharmakos who was sacrificed despite being unaware of his crimes, caused his people to suffer vastly through plagues and shrivelled crops. However, modern rulers reign unbothered by past restrictions imposed by ‘Gods or prophecies’. So what is the purpose of shaming and guilt if the systems and policies that concede and enable these behavioural patterns continue to expand as usual?  At the moment, this is the cycle we surrender to as it keeps us from grasping the reality of our lives and feeling helplessly cornered behind our ‘grid of intersected bars’. We crucify our idols whilst disregarding the fact that they’re mere mortals like ourselves. Yet it would be useful for current ‘kings of the world’ to remember that Oedipus, in Sophocles’ anecdote, does not flee from his fate. Instead, he pleads for banishment in exchange for the recovery of his people, cancelling himself. 

So perhaps admitting to your blunders publicly and dedicating the time, energy and maybe even money into rectifying and amending the damage caused before even being exposed and denounced is the best route to redemption as sincerity and integrity within oneself clings onto your conscience for the long term and it’s certainly mightier than hatred and bitterness issued by strangers on the internet.

Conclusion

At some point, we lived in a decent economy that recognised and noticed ethical issues. British historian E.P Thompson interprets this through his understanding of the 18th-century food protests in England when people used to hoot and groan outside of stores and shops to showcase their sorrows. We perform similar acts in today’s day and age, but we seem to do too much of it and towards everything at that, which results in the most significant and noteworthy cause or complaint getting buried in the noise. It is because we’re concentrating on too many issues at once, upset about everything and at everyone simultaneously, that we aren’t able to solve anything in an orderly fashion. Instead, we’re just standing in our own way, distracting ourselves from the bigger picture. 

This distraction might just be intentional, not by us, but by corporations that profit off of our contribution and participation in cancel culture. Searches on Google for evidence of convictions and angry posts on Twitter and Facebook which publicly shames strangers keeps #cancelled trending. This translates into a huge profit for these large tech corporations that charm advertisers with the unbelievable magnitude of user engagement. Despite social media being claimed as egalitarian, it is not the case behind the scenes. We view Twitter, cancel culture’s stage, as an open space to participate in a virtual uproar because there isn’t an admission fee or formal process of association. We forget that at the end of the day we’re not only customers but also agents of these platforms labouring for free, while the platform gains in value and riches.

So are we doing God’s work or just Capitalism’s work? 

By: Shay Azman and Natasha Maya

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