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RIZVI: Cancel culture is nuanced in its impacts

The merits of cancel culture come into question when looking at how the social media phenomenon has evolved throughout the years. 
Photo by PexelsThe merits of cancel culture come into question when looking at how the social media phenomenon has evolved throughout the years. 

In the age of social media stardom and an obsession with becoming “viral,” seemingly everyone is trying their luck at their own 15 minutes of fame. But is it all it is cracked up to be? 

With the rise of social media applications and more users than ever becoming “influencers,” creators are faced with an unprecedented form of social scrutiny and potential career annihilation that might be more horrifying than the age-old internet trolls: cancel culture. 

Cancel culture can be loosely defined as a movement to hold those with public platforms, either on social media or in real life, accountable for problematic or offensive behavior. This usually entails large groups of users coming together to call out and question the problematic subject, aka “canceling” them, and essentially force the person to accept the consequences of their actions. 

In theory, this is a good thing. 

Asking someone, especially people who are regarded as role models within a community, to take accountability is justified if he or she is overtly in the wrong. And there have been times where we have seen cancel culture serve as a force of justice that has done great good: The first real wave of “canceling” someone began with #MeToo, a powerful sexual assault awareness movement that exposed Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey for harassing co-workers.

Evidently, cancel culture is so powerful that it is not only blacklisting problematic Hollywood starlets, but also more importantly, shrinking the gap between the elites and the internet users. No longer do the elites get a free pass for being rich, famous and beloved — they must stand in the (more terrifying) court of stan Twitter with the public as their judge.

But what about the less serious situations like YouTuber scandals or social media icons dropping racist remarks back in 2010? To what degree do we “cancel” them and at what point do we draw the line between teaching someone a lesson to being downright ruthless?

Some argue that creators “sign themselves up” for public scrutiny, and in a way, that is true — being in the public eye will inevitably attract people who will criticize you. Creators should be held accountable for their wrongdoings, as it can teach them valuable lessons.

But what many people fail to realize is that each issue has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. No two wounds cut just as deep as the other, and in a perfect world, the public would be a judge presented with a neat case file containing the facts of the issue. 

But due to the virality of social media, this preemptive consideration is lost. With enough digging into someone’s past, anyone has the potential to be canceled, and all it takes is one tweet, post or thread to start a wildfire that will continue to burn indefinitely.

At that point, it is no longer about critiquing behavior or asking for an apology, but feeding into hype and hate in the name of “canceling” someone. 

The evolution of cancel culture from being a force of justice that puts the elites in their place into a debilitating beast that destroys careers, reputations and people who may not have even deserved in the first place is truly a sad one. And the irony of it all is that the problem with cancel culture is that it was never meant to “cancel” people in the first place. The #MeToo movement was to bring awareness, not murderous vengeance. 

We may not be able to “cancel” cancel culture, and for the good it has done it would be wrong to say that cancel culture is totally toxic. But we can control how we interact with it, and hopefully, become better judges. 

When we use language like, “They are canceled,” we imply a permanence to the end of a person and all they have done, the good included. This is what causes the negative sensationalism and drama that cancel culture spearheads. 

But if we can reframe our mindset to “he needs to be held accountable,” we can do a lot more productive justice. We can search for what they have done wrong and make a cohesive case for why he or she should apologize and change for the better.

There is no guarantee that people will change, but that does not mean they cannot, and just because someone should know better because they have a following, does not mean they do. After all, regardless of their follower count or the money they have in the bank, they are human too.

Rania Rizvi is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in supply chain management and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Reali-Tea with Rania," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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