Writer: Ashley Yeung
With the rise of social media, people are now able to express themselves more fully and create platforms to spread their messages, much like Millennial Brown is doing! However, there is a downside to the ubiquity of social media nowadays. Cancel culture, also known as online shaming, has overtaken the Internet in the Digital Age (Urban Dictionary).
Partaking in this trend and ‘canceling’ someone for doing something deemed disagreeable or dishonorable only perpetuates this toxicity. Even though the need to cancel someone may seem just or necessary, it can produce negative consequences rather than productive change; one example being the Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star drama. There are many ways to view cancel culture, and the lens that one views it through can be categorized into two groups: consequentialists vs classical libertarians. Before these two perspectives are discussed, it is important to recognize that cancel culture is transforming society for the worse. Individuals are becoming intolerant and reluctant to hear opposing views before lashing out to defend their own. The marketplace of ideas is a magnificent pool of resources that everyone can draw from. It is essential that it be protected in order for the free flow of ideas to uplift our democracy.
To better understand the two common stances on free speech, Black Mirror’s season one finale, “Hated in the Nation,” is an enticing artistic representation of the two ideas clashing. The episode starts off with controversial columnist, Jo Powers, writing an article that discredited a disabled woman, considered as a martyr by her community. Later that day, the trend #DeathTo with her name and picture began to trend on Twitter. Hours later, she was mysteriously murdered. Detectives finally figured out that drone bees, originally meant for pollination purposes, had been hacked by a self-righteous, consequentialist named Garrett Scholes. He was upset that his flatmate, and crush, had been shamed online and later attempted suicide. Seeing the detrimental effects that strangers’ comments had on her, he wanted to teach his society a lesson: words hurt, especially when in masse.
The consequentialist perspective states that speech should be abridged or censored when it results in negative outcomes. Given that the United States underscores libertarian values, speech cannot be infringed upon unless it incites imminent lawless action. So, hate speech is legal under U.S. law. This makes cancel culture so easy to propagate since no consequences or reprimanding exist to prevent it.
The Internet also helps facilitate this culture, as being behind a screen allows for anonymity and distance from one’s target. This gives people the notion that canceling someone online will not have any consequences, at least not for the trolls doing the canceling. However, it directly impacts the person being ‘canceled’.
Consequentialists will argue that hate speech harms the dignity of a person, causing them to question their place in society. This has truth to it, although libertarians will argue that everyone should have the right to speak their thoughts as long as it does not pose an immediate threat or will not likely manifest itself as an action. Another important point to make is that hate speech cannot be defined. Yes, you can look it up and there will be a [subjective] definition but think about it: everyone is entitled to their own opinions because they believe them to be reflective of the truth. This may boggle your mind but some people really do believe that the world is flat!
In Stanley Fish’s book, The First, he has a whole chapter explaining why hate speech cannot be defined. And it’s because “hate speech can be defined only as speech produced by persons whose ideas and viewpoints you despise and fear. Hate speech is what your enemy says loudly” (Fish). I encourage everyone to get a copy of this book and read it as it is especially relevant to today’s social climate.
Each individual is more vulnerable than ever in the Digital Age. Being a public figure has its perks of fame and sometimes fortune, but also has cons of decreased privacy -- with people analyzing your every move. To add onto that, social media has only made it easier for people to be ‘exposed,’ especially about actions from the past. Take the Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson drama for example. It is obvious that these two have done some questionable things. And you may disagree with them based on your morals, however, that is not enough to justify shaming someone else online. Unfortunately, sometimes, the public will never know the full truth.
Instead of attacking someone’s character and falling into ad hominem attacks, focus on the issue at hand. Everyone has to recognize that our country is highly polarized which is strongly reinforced by the media. In order to stay more objective, be aware of this fact in order to avoid mob rule, James Madison’s worst fear, and motivated reasoning. This means that we should all actively seek out evidence and articles that dispute our original beliefs. By doing so, we can strengthen our views and/or question our views to improve them. If you disagree with someone and don’t want to see them on your feed anymore, unfollow them!! It is unnecessary to leave negative, hurtful comments that attack a person rather than their controversial actions. You do not have to announce that you are unfollowing this person! If you truly feel like you want to share a message using their actions as an example of what not to do, then talk about their actions instead of calling them a bad person.
Attacking one’s character for spouting views that you disagree with is not beneficial in any way. Not only does it demonize that person, but it also prevents them from hearing your views. They will quickly go into a defensive mode and try to protect themselves rather than listening to some logical points you may have. So, it is important to focus on the topic at hand rather than the person spreading these views. Taking an opportunity to disagree and have a civil discussion about controversial topics is how individuals will begin to understand and/or empathize with opposing views. It can be a learning opportunity for both parties involved if both are open minded and avoid shaming others for their views. Of course some topics will be tough to discuss, especially without letting emotions overpower rationale, but it is important to be cognisant of the times when you are not listening to others so that you can improve for future encounters.
Also, this brings up an interesting moral dilemma when it comes to celebrities and manufacturers. If an artist has done something I disagree with, should I disregard all of his or her music? If a clothing brand does not align with my views, should I stop buying from them? While no one can set a perfect standard for others to follow, it is a question that you must ask and answer for yourself. You may come to the conclusion that you will not buy from Brandy Melville anymore because of their non-inclusive practices. Or that you will still watch David Dobrik’s vlogs even though some old videos contained some racist and homophobic comments. Everyone will come to their own decisions of what they will tolerate and what they will not stand for. It is not anyone else’s place to judge others for this standard people set for themselves. No one is entirely right in their opinions because they are subjective. Remember that.
Moreover, if words were not enough to convince you that cancel culture is detrimental, take a look at some statistics pulled from the Megan Meier Foundation website.
Over 60% of students who experience cyberbullying reported that it immensely impacted their ability to learn and feel safe while at school (Hinduja, 2018)
59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online, and over 90% believe it's a major problem for people their age (Pew Research Center, 2018)
Targets of cyberbullying are at a greater risk than others of both self-harm and suicidal behaviors (John et al., 2018)
Students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2018)
Current research suggests that suicide ideation and attempts among adolescents have nearly doubled since 2008 (Plemmons et al., 2018), making suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals 10-34 years of age (CDC, 2017)
Experience of bullying and cyberbullying are also associated with the development of low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, family problems, academic difficulties, delinquency, school violence, and suicidal thoughts/attempts (Hinduja, 2018)
Taking these statistics into consideration, I urge everyone to realize that your words can make an impact, whether it's negative or positive is up to you to decide. Before posting something that could potentially be hurtful, think about whether your words will matter to you in the next 24 hours. Will you feel ashamed of them after the heat of the moment has passed? Is there any good that will come out of it? Or how can you use this as an opportunity to educate those around you, even the person you may disagree with? Rather than falling prey to the pernicious culture we live in today, use your words to provide a counter-argument rather than taking an ad hominem stance. And remember,
“The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” - SCOTUS Justice Holmes 1919