In 1951, students at Swarthmore College were the subject of a curious experiment. Solomon Asch designed the experiment in which a few students would have to complete a seemingly easy task. Students would be shown a card with a line drawn on it. Then, they would be shown another card, this time, with 3 lines, all of different lengths. The task was to simply pick the line that matched the length with the one they were shown earlier. The cards always had lines that were longer or shorter than the correct line, including, of course, the correct line itself, and the instructions on how to respond were clearly laid out. However, the interesting thing was that only one of the 8 or so participants in each trial was the actual subject of the study. Everyone else was in on the study, and was simply an actor meant to sway the participant to choose the wrong line. Even though they knew 100% which was the correct answer, they purposefully chose the wrong answer numerous times to try and get the subject to do the same.
Upon completion of multiple trials with a variety of constraints and a similar setup, it was seen that in the control group, where there was no persuasion towards an incorrect answer, participants chose the wrong lines less than 1 percent of the time, which is what you would expect, it’s a rather simple experiment. When participants were put in a group where their peers chose the wrong answer, despite clear evidence suggesting otherwise, a remarkable 36.8 percent of them conformed and chose the wrong answer as well. These are students of a very well ranked college, mind you, who are certainly cognitively capable enough to distinguish between lines of different lengths. Referring to how clear the differences should have been, Asch himself interpreted the results by saying, “"the fact that intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern." It just goes to show one of the many ways in which our peers can influence the decisions we make. It also puts forward an almost desperate desire in us humans to conform, one, which I am sure, you have felt at one time or another. Why do I bring this up?
Well, I do so to talk about a social issue. An issue that is suffering from a lack of reason, empathy, and measured judgement. I’m talking about cancel culture. It’s essentially getting expelled from society, in which a person deemed to have committed a social crime, past or present, is dealt with punishment in the form of terminated employment, public humiliation, or a complete boycott altogether. There’s a disagreement about when the phenomenon was actually created, with some saying it has been with us in different forms for centuries. But what makes “cancel culture” unique, in a sense, to our time is the fact that its effect is now much larger than a crowd or a locality- it’s the entire social media audience. Any news spreads rather quickly on social media. But bad news spreads really quickly, especially when it's about the career ending tweet of a very famous author, actor, scientist, or what have you.
People from pretty much all fields have been forced to embrace cancel-hood to some extent, and so, it’s fair to say it is no longer a punishment only for the elites. Take Amélie Wen Zhao’s story for example. She’s an young adult fiction author who was about to debut a three book trilogy in 2019. That was until readers of a small private online group “discovered” that the fictional characters in her fiction novel offended their notion of race-relations in the real world. And on came a slew of furious tweets accusing her of being blind to reality, lacking education, as well as many other far worse things. Zhao subsequently posted an apology, as often happens to be the case, and said that she, out of embarrassment, had asked the publisher not to publish her books at the time. What about her initial book was so offensive, you and I will never really know. Why not let the book be released as it was, and let it play out in the wider marketplace of ideas? The book was eventually “corrected,” whatever that means, and then released. No harm done, right? Well, let’s take a step back.
Zhao, who had emigrated to the United States from China, was simply drawing on her perspective on indentured labor and human trafficking, albeit in a fictional setting. Hers certainly had the potential to be a valuable insight into these things, considering they happen in her home country. A Twitter mob had almost rid a female immigrant author of her chance to share her experience; and despite being ultimately able to publish the book, they pretty much did. You see, the second version which she eventually published was not edited from a creative passion, it was done so out of fear - the fear of being doxxed, the fear of being bad-mouthed by people who knew nothing about her, the fear of having her career stifled before it even took off - the fear of being cancelled. While you could argue that Zhao was never truly “cancelled,” her predicament is a prime example of what happens on a daily basis to people who feel pressured to not speak their mind on certain issues.
The creative field is perhaps just as impacted as the political one with TV shows getting cancelled or “amended” on a regular basis these days, books being pulled from shelves, and so much more. Think of the famous TV-shows of our time. Think about your favorite shows. Revisit them, and consider for one moment how many of them could have been made and released in today’s time. Creative decisions are no longer allowed to be as “risky,” which, as you can imagine, doesn’t really help the creative process. The end result is often a product that is dry and one that is compelled to nudge the viewer towards a moral side of its choosing.
Conveniently moral or morally convenient? You tell me.
There are other forms of cancellation too. For example, the ones where the mob dislikes a particular celebrity or show and goes on to reach out to any and all affiliated companies to try and cancel their affiliation, otherwise they risk being cancelled themselves. Studies have shown that these boycotts do have economic significance, with as much as 1 in 4 of them forcing significant changes. And while that may seem like an example of power that customers hold in a free-market setting, which it is, let’s think about it for a second.
If you dislike the CEO of a company for a political position of theirs, despite you liking the quality of the product that the company produces, does a boycott really hit the CEO’s pocket as much as it hits the pocket of the employees who are living paycheck to paycheck below them? Moreso, does it improve the product? Who is the practical target of your outrage?
Cancel culture is often referred to as a guilty-unless-proven-innocent process in which the victim is only let off the hook when there is an overwhelming support of evidence in his or her side. But is that really the case? Forgetting celebrities and big corporations, a much larger victim of this online shaming is the average person. The reason is, these average people have neither the social credit nor the financial capital to come back from a cancellation. These people often find it exceptionally difficult to revive their careers because no employer wants to take on the liability of a cancelled person and face the music of the mob. It’s essentially a justice system where no amount of punishment is enough. There is no scale nor proportion. There is no avenue to mount a defense or one to reintegrate into society; no grace, no mercy. How can we expect reason from such a movement?
Social media certainly worsens the problem. The so-called “interactions” we have online are devoid of any real human qualities - no eye-contact, no facial expression, no tones, no scope for humanizing the person you are talking to or empathizing with their position. Then there’s the aspect of being primed to react a certain way. Think about it. When was the last time when you reacted to a Facebook post yourself first and then saw the list of reactions from others? Most of the time, you are primed to react a certain way; your mind's made up on your behalf before you even think about it. Often times, our outrage is directed not necessarily to what happened in a situation, but rather to someone else's outrage. Outrage at outrage. It’s a domino effect. The cycle continues. It becomes such a universal reaction eventually that not being outraged conveys a sense of social ineptitude. This recreational outrage has led to a toxic environment online that is going to need some fixing.
People on the other side of the debate about cancel culture say that it either doesn’t exist, or that if it does, the consequences of being cancelled are simply not as harsh enough as we say they are. Just look at J.K. Rowling, who happened to be cancelled relatively recently, and also who continues to sell book after book.
Well, let's say both of those things are true. Still, the concept of cancel culture deserves to be explored at a purely conceptual level because of its consequences in society. What does it say about our collective hubris if we’re offended at everything? And that the only way we are able to get our heads around that offense is by preventing the person from speaking altogether, rather than simply choosing to engage with someone else instead? And, well, if the people are not facing serious repercussions, isn't that implying that society actually doesn't really take this recreational outrage seriously?
In their denial of the existence of cancel culture, people are inadvertently acknowledging its childishness. The complete lack of reason really shows itself when you consider the lack of reformative justice in this whole ordeal. Now, I think quite a lot of the things people have been cancelled for are clearly wrong, and in a sense, I can understand. But, how is it so that almost in all of those cases, there is really no path to societal reintegration? And when you’re saying that they still do reintegrate into society, it’s almost never a result of some carefully thought out mechanism of cancel culture; it’s simply just people not caring at all about it, or simply forgetting it happened in the first place.
Perhaps, it’s not the J.K. Rowlings or the Kevin Harts of the world that are the true victims of the cancel culture. Maybe it’s you and me - the as-yet uncancelled folks who refrain from sharing what they truly think about a policy, a politician, a video game, a burger, or restrain themselves from engaging in a debate about something that truly matters to them in fear of being cancelled for it. The unshared idea - that is the true victim of cancel culture.
Of course, there are always many sides to an argument. And one of them is that cancel culture has, at the very least, caused us all to pause and reflect. Reflect on the injustices in our society that have been going on for far too long, and be more mindful of the beliefs of other people.
You know, on a certain level, the debate against cancel culture is about remaining open to the possibility of being wrong. To be able to think that you and I can make some very obvious errors.
Obvious errors like choosing the wrong line even when it is clearly shorter or longer, as in the conformity experiment. If more and more people are able to internalize the idea that they, too, can make a bad joke and be caught off guard, or say something they don’t mean or do something bad and later in life change to become a better person, then I think we have a fighting chance against cancel culture. Because the truth is, cancel culture is not a problem that only affects one part of society. As more and more of our lives happen online, cancel culture can come for you too. It can come for all of us. It just depends on who it’s convenient for at the time.
At the end of the day, you’ll never know when... until it’s too late.