Cancel Culture: Moral Panic or Reality?

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As we head into the 2020s it’s becoming clearer by the day that a shift has occurred in the way we deal with celebrity and scandal. No longer is it only movie stars who must face the music of their previous indiscretions but online figures and even non-famous people at times. Within the past 5 years, we have been seeing more and more people ‘cancelled’. A phrase that was born out of the phenomenon known as ‘cancel culture’, where someone is ‘cancelled’ because of a problematic action.

In layman’s terms cancel culture involves 4 things:

  1. A well-known figure (or viral action)
  2. A problematic action
  3. Outrage for said action
  4. An apology for said outrage

And so the cycle continues, but does this have any real impact on the way people behave or are we simply shouting at one another within a social media bubble?

You may be wondering where this all started from offline and to be frank I can’t find the exact root. I could speculate this has existed within pop culture ever since pop culture has been around or even point to the growing tabloids of the 90s that attempted to hold celebrities and their scandals up to a light for a quick buck but if I were to point to the online realm I’d say Tumblr.

For many people my age (Gen Z), Tumblr was one of the first real community social media platforms that we used. Tumblr gave birth to hilarious content, fascinating topics, taught many of us about things such as Feminism and Politics but it also birthed call-out culture, specifically due to a blog known as Your Fav Is Problematic (YFIP).

YFIP was a blog dedicated to keeping a directory of ‘problematic’ celebrities. I’m not using quotations because I believe them to all be innocent of what they’re accused of but the range of what was deemed problematic stemmed from Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism to Zayn Malik’s Ying Yang Tattoo. While I believe that the blog had pure intentions in holding people accountable for actions that nobody wanted to acknowledge, I feel that it spiralled into something we cannot contain anymore; instant-gratification for calling out those we do not like.

On their FAQ the blog states across various questions why the site exists:

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YFIP proved that if enough people cared that you could ruin the reputation of a celebrity online whether that was justifiable or not. I believe that the blog has had no lasting impacts on the outside world as many of the celebrities on their lists continue to have careers and those who do not simply faded out due to shifts in pop culture. It does, however, explain the growing trends on Twitter of a ‘cancel culture’, which I believe stems from the ‘call out culture’ of Tumblr.

Twitter in 2019 is in a different place to Twitter of 2009, more users, different social attitudes and the influence of the Tumblr era of the 2010s. Calling out celebrities in order to knock them off their pedestals has become more impactful with the emergence of the app as it gives access to celebrities in ways that Tumblr did not. On Twitter, you do not have to dig through old tabloids or interviews to find a slip-up but instead a simple search into a users history. This happens so often that there has even been an app created to search through your old tweets to make sure you haven’t said anything deemed problematic.

And yet, even with this culture of cancellation Twitter just like Tumblr is yet to claim its first victim.

  • James Gunn, arguably one of the most famous examples of cancellation has just been rehired by Disney for Guardians of the Galaxy after being fired for jokes regarding paedophilia.
  • Rapper Doja Cat has come off of her tour and is still releasing music to critical acclaim months after her scandal where she had been called out for using homophobic slurs both in tweets years prior and in her apology.
  • Brother Nature, old tweets of his from 2013 came back up online but within weeks many forgot and he continues to do his work with animals globally.

It seems that many are called out, shamed and then come back to their livelihoods with no dent whatsoever, which begs the question, is cancel culture real and if not why does this keep happening?

In 1972, sociologist Stan Cohen published Folk Devils and Moral Panics where he examined the media reaction to the growing fights between mods and the rockers, two subcultures that existed within between the 1960s to 1970s.

According to Cohen, a moral panic is as the following:

“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough but suddenly appears in the limelight (Cohen 1972:9).”

I believe that cancel culture is a form of moral panic and while it’s not quite Mods v Rockers we can see that it has no lasting impact but people are painting it out to be the end of second chances as we know it. There’s a lack of realization that social media at its current point can only do so much. Values and beliefs are at the epicentre of the decision to cancel someone or not. It’s not dependant on outrage or your peers pressuring you but your own point of view. I could be angry all day at racist celebrity but if their own fans don’t hold the values I do and care less than I do, they won’t be ‘cancelled’ and this goes for most people who end up being called out.

What we do have, however, is a culture of instant gratification and self-preservation. This is best exemplified in the recent actions of Twitter user Jovan Hill. Hill, has made it a mission to call out racist Youtubers and while I admire that notion I have to question the motives. Jovan, himself has said many ignorant comments dating as early as a couple of weeks ago and yet holds himself to a lower standard than those he’s calling out. And it makes sense, calling out other people is very easy, it’s easy to screenshot a tweet, @ people and pressure those who like them into unfollowing them. This alone isn’t a bad thing but the intentions matter and if we’re in a place where we can only call out those we dislike then how do we fare when those we do like mess up? Jovan’s friend Enya aka Enjajaja has said racist things in the past and yet he’s able to forgive her and not call her out. I’m not saying that I believe Enya deserves to go through it again but it’s very easy to throw rocks in glass houses.

There are people who need to be called out and bigotry cannot be excused but when will we admit that it comes down to our personal biases and beliefs? I can forgive someone based on my experiences and my apology language but others may not. It’s not as cut and dry as we have made it out to be and so we’re stuck in this grey area of the I Forgive You Awards and it’s time we get past it.

Thank you to my patrons: Amy Fuchs, Vakas Hussain, Ardo Ali, BlackHeart279 and Britney Jade.

If you want to support me and enjoy my long-form essays I will be posting them earlier on my Patreon, the tiers are $1–5.

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