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Opinion: Cancel Culture is Toxic (And Not the Britney Spears Kind)

It’s a tale as old as time. You log into Twitter and swipe over to the Trending tab. At the very top is the name of a celebrity along with a phrase that leaves you stunned. Maybe it’s just a hashtag declaring #thispersonisoverparty (although the use of that particular template has, thankfully, dwindled). Unable to deny the pull towards the promise of drama, you click to see more and discover why this person, who seemed harmless, is now being canceled by people all over the world.

Perhaps you stumble across a tweet titled “Why [blank] is problematic; a thread,” and eagerly gobble up the full story in two hundred eighty character bites. There’s mention of a tasteless joke tweeted in early 2010 and a barbed comment in an interview dated 2013, and the rumors are spreading rapidly. You scroll aimlessly, the information infiltrating your mind. This is nothing new. In fact, it’s just another typical occurrence on the blue bird app.

It’s also a facet of one of the most polarizing customs of the twenty-first century, a phenomenon widely known as ‘cancel culture.’ As defined by Macmillan Dictionary, cancel culture is “the practice of no longer supporting people, especially celebrities, or products that are regarded as unacceptable or problematic.”

This revolutionary concept has overtaken much of the nation, especially on platforms such as Twitter or even TikTok. Calling people out and recognizing problematic pasts, actions, or statements from celebrities—people who have the responsibility to be influencers and role models for the general public—may seem positive. The practice may even be deemed beneficial when it comes to not tolerating bigoted, sexist, homophobic, racist, or other disrespectful comments. However, ‘cancel culture’ has evolved from a seemingly noble effort to a toxic pattern of group shaming and herd mentality. 

What is the aim of ‘cancel culture’ anyway? Usually, when a person of interest’s problematic behaviors have been exposed online, the goal is to encourage people to no longer support the individual. Cancel culture often appeals to the human code of morality—our natural sense of right versus wrong. There have been countless discussions and arguments over the ethics of “canceling” a human being, yet the term has quickly become common language, particularly in our generation. 

However, sometimes a seemingly harmless call for justice can manifest itself in other, more toxic ways. Being ‘canceled’ has led to countless celebrities becoming targets of hate or harassment. Suddenly, past mistakes or worst moments become their entire identity—the concept of growth or learning a lesson is disregarded. Since these instances of cancellation occur predominantly online, it is easy for the consequences of a person’s actions to feel distant or nonexistent. Online, it is far too easy to forget the humanity of the people we see or interact with. Thus, it is far too easy to participate in group shaming without feeling an inkling of remorse. 

“When you say someone is canceled, it’s not a TV show. It’s a human being,” Taylor Swift told Vogue in response to a question about how the infamous scandal involving a phone call between her and Kanye West has impacted her life. “You’re sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or it could also be perceived as, kill yourself.” I mention this scenario in particular because less than a month ago, the full phone call that villainized Taylor Swift was leaked. It was revealed that she was never to blame at all, yet thousands of people were quick to cancel her based on the flawed information provided to them. 

That is one of the inherent flaws of the whole concept—people are canceled without anyone knowing the full story and background of what is happening. People are often canceled for things they have already addressed or apologized for. That is what makes the practice truly toxic. Several celebrities have spoken out about how the hate they have unfairly received has impacted them in horrible ways and it begs the question: even if these people actually said or did something controversial, do they deserve the slander of thousands of people judging them without fully knowing them? Is the hate just something they are meant to accept and tolerate because of their fame? 

And what about the countless people who are not protected behind a glass wall of wealth being targeted online? Someone’s tweet gets taken out of context or they share a controversial opinion about a beloved character in a film, and suddenly they’re being attacked by people they don’t even know. Even with under twenty followers, there is no telling where a tweet you typed out without a second thought will end up or how it’ll be interpreted. 

The concept of herd mentality, or the tendency for people’s behavior or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong, has been a prominent facet of the human experience for centuries—we as a species do not thrive by ourselves. We ache to belong somewhere, to fit in and be part of something. And in the context of cancel culture, that very human urge is welded into a weapon against our peers. 

It is important to note that cancel culture has had its triumphs as well. Part of the reason the custom became so mainstream is due to the #MeToo movement which “swept the nation by storm in 2017, culminating in the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of men throughout Hollywood and the United States.” This is undoubtedly an example of how people banding together and saying, “This is not okay,” has led to real, important change in the world. 

However, there is undoubtedly a massive difference between sexual assault and a distasteful joke made over fifteen years ago. In fact, the magnitude of the two is so different that it seems almost laughable to mark them under the same banner. In my personal opinion, the action of bringing awareness to harmful actions and behavior, perpetrated by individuals, should not be categorized as ‘canceling’ someone, when really the issue is far too serious for that. 

When it comes down to it, these senseless witch hunts into the less-than-polished sides of people’s lives are not just toxic to those people, but toxic to the ones exhibiting that unhealthy obsession towards someone they usually don’t know. This classic parasocial relationship is made even more concerning when considering the entire basis of the connection is rooted in malice and negativity. It’s not healthy: not for the person receiving the hate, for the person sending the hate, or any witnesses caught in the blast. It is toxic to judge someone based on the actions they exhibited over a decade ago when we as human beings change so much.  

No matter what lens I look at it through, cancel culture is a cesspool of toxicity and unnecessary outrage that I hope will fade away like the latest Tik Tok trend. As Twitter would say, it’s time for all of us to go outside and touch some grass. 

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