Black and white illustration of four faces with colourful crosses on them

Anthropology: An Overview on Cancel Culture and Online Shaming

Cancel culture has recently become a popular term used in debates regarding free speech and censorship. There has been a growing tendency, especially online, to silence or boycott people with problematic behaviors, controversial opinions, or morals. This silencing and ceasing support for certain individuals or groups are referred to as “canceling”.

Content creators, influencers, and celebrities, or even brands and movies that share their political opinions, or behaviors that deviate from the norm are being socially sanctioned, or culturally blocked from having a career. For some people, such silencing and shaming have become a tool of social justice and social control. To others, the trend is worrying as they see it as merciless mob intimidation, that bans any further communication instead of encouraging dialogue. This article is an attempt to unpack “cancel culture” by exploring its functions in society, its connection to online shaming, and its cultural significance in anthropology.

Origins of the term “cancel culture”

The term “cancel culture” is relatively new. The origin of the term is often associated with “Your Love Is Canceled” – a song by Chic, from 1981 that compares a breakup to the cancellation of TV shows. In 1991, the song inspired screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper to use the term in the film “New Jack City”. And in 2014, “call-out culture” started to trend along with the #MeToo movement.

Since an increasing number of cases of online shaming gradually started to gain attention, the term ‘cancellation’ has also grown in popularity when describing outraged reactions to a provocative statement online. In recent years, “cancel culture” has been the subject of political and media debate on politically incorrect speech and freedom of speech in general. However, the term is complex and one of its problems is that there has been no clear definition of what it means to be canceled.

Album cover illustration for Chic's "Take It Off" album
Chic, “Take It Off”, 1981 album cover (wikipedia.org)

Is “Cancel culture” a form of social control?

“Cancel culture, is a phenomenon where individuals transgressing norms are called out and ostracized on social media and other venues by members of the public” (Saint-Louis, 2021). It is perceived by many as a new mode of public humiliation that can take many forms, from call-outs, through doxing to revenge porn. The already existing academic literature tackling cancel culture is still sparse, as of this writing. Yet, cancellation culture has been gradually gaining more popularity over the last couple of years and is very much linked to online shaming – a social control practice that has been studied by sociologists for years.

From a sociological point of view, in order for people to know how to behave in society, and be able to make predictions about how other people will behave, thus, to live together in some orderly way, it is necessary to have shared norms and values. Such norms and values are learned through the process of socialization. It is, therefore, necessary, that there are various measures in place to ensure that society does not fall into disorder.

However, knowing the rules, norms, and values, does not necessarily mean that people will follow them. For this reason, there are social control methods used to ensure that people obey the norms and values. This helps us maintain social conformity and prevent deviance (behavior that is in some way socially unacceptable non-conformist).

There are various agencies of social control in every society, and they can be categorized into formal (the police, courts, prisons) and informal social control (the family, school, peer group, workplace, mass media, religion, etc.) (Browne, 192). Cancel culture and online shaming are both rooted in informal social control.

Online shaming and public humiliation

Online shaming is a form of public shaming that occurs – as the name suggests – online, typically on social media platforms, such as Twitter.  An Internet user who becomes harassed, bullied, or mocked online may be shamed in various ways. The aim is to publicly expose the offender, and essentially cause them to feel ashamed, which harms their reputation and often denies their right to privacy.

Types of online shaming

  • Cancel culture – calling out and boycotting to deny support.
  • Doxing – researching and publicly exposing personal information about an individual to harm the person.
  • Negative reviews – boycotting and shaming businesses through negative reviews to punish them.
  • Revenge porn – sharing sexually explicit material without consent to humiliate an individual (often combined with doxing).

Notable cases of “cancellation” and online shaming

It seems that every year, someone new is supposedly being “canceled”, especially in the world of celebrities. However, only some of those celebrities face actual consequences for their behavior or actions.

R. Kelly and the #MuteRKelly campaign

One of the most famous cases of cancellation is the case of Robert Sylvester Kelly (known as R. Kelly) who has been facing allegations of sexual abuse for over 20 years. Kelly has been facing multiple lawsuits by different women who claimed that they were sexually abused by the star while they were underage. In 2002, Kelly was charged with 21 counts of making child pornography, but it took six years for the case to come to trial. During the six years, Kelly released a very successful “Trapped In The Closet” album and was nominated for awards.  The jury concluded that they could not prove that the person on the tape was a minor, and so Kelly was not found guilty (Walsh, 2021).

In 2017, after being accused of trapping six women in a sex “cult”, the #MuteRKelly campaign was created. The aim of the movement was to end Kelly’s career and tackle the issue of sexual abuse. In 2019, the writer and filmmaker Dream Hampton released “Surviving R. Kelly”, giving some victims of Kelly an opportunity to tell their stories. And in 2021, after weeks of testimony and nine hours of deliberation, R. Kelly was found guilty of nine counts including racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, kidnappings, bribery, sex trafficking, and a violation of the Mann Act (an Act that criminalizes the transportation of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”) (Cornell Law School). Some reports have indicated that he may be facing 10 years to life in prison.

#MuteRKelly campaign picture design
(elle.com)

Piers Morgan quits “Good Morning Britain”

The British journalist-turned-television presenter Piers Morgan has been “canceled” numerous times. Morgan hosted “Good Morning Britain”, a breakfast-time show during which he was accused of making sexist remarks. Morgan mocked the BBC’s aim to teach children gender diversity by saying that he identified as a “penguin”, and when his co-host Susanna Reid attempted to diffuse the situation, he added, “you women moan as well. Women have it so hard, don’t they? They have it so hard. But you and your massive salary, working four days a week. Come on”. Piers Morgan is famous for his gender rants on “Good Morning Britain” that many viewers found controversial and called for ITV to sack the host.

Morgan eventually decided to quit “Good Morning Britain” during the live broadcast of his clash with a colleague over comments he made about Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah. Morgan said that he did not believe that Markle had experienced suicidal thoughts (Walsh, 2021). This was perceived by many viewers and mental health campaigners as insensitive and he was accused of being disrespectful and lacking empathy.

As a result of this, Ofcom launched an investigation into the comments made by Morgan about the Duchess of Sussex and confirmed that Markle complained as well. In September 2021, Ofcom cleared ITV of any wrongdoing and added that restricting Morgan’s views would restrict freedom of speech. However, they criticized Morgan’s “apparent disregard” for the subject of suicide. According to the BBC News website, Morgan described the ruling as “a resounding victory for free speech and a resounding defeat for Princess Pinocchios”.

L’Oréal Paris

In 2020, the famous makeup/skincare/ hair products brand, L’Oréal Paris made a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd. However, the brand faced a backlash as its past came back to haunt it. L’Oréal has been called-out for firing their first Black transgendered ambassador, Munroe Bergdorf, over a Facebook post in which she spoke out about the issue of racism and white supremacy surrounding Charlottesville’s 2017 Unite the Right rally. L’Oréal tweeted that Bergdorf’s views were “at odds” with its values, promoting the brand to end its partnership with the model. Bergdorf was outraged that she was fired by the company after speaking out about racism, yet 3 years later, L’Oreal used the tragic death of George Floyd as a “PR opportunity” (Wilkes, 2020).

As a result, Bergdorf called for support by saying “If you care about me or #blacklivesmatter, don’t let @lorealparis get away with this”. Later in 2020, Munroe Bergdorf posted on social media that she had spoken with L’Oréal Paris president Delphine Viguier about the situation and thanked her supporters.

Canceled People Database

According to the website Canceled People, part of the problem when discussing cancel culture’s prevalence is that there is no clear definition of what it means to be canceled. The website is building a database of people who have been “canceled” to better understand the phenomenon and how it is evolving. There are now 217, less famous cases of cancellation, from university professors who posted their views on social issues and were sacked in consequence,  to the preacher who preached against same-sex marriages and, as a result, was arrested, questioned, and held overnight (Canceled People Database).

image from the Canceled People Database
(canceledpeople.com)

Does “cancel culture” make the world a better place?

Saint-Louis (2021) points out, that one of the challenges to understanding cancel culture as a phenomenon is the confluence of social norms against moral norm enforcement. It may be that cancel culture is based on a noble intention to reject bad behavior and reinforce common norms and values. However, in cancel culture, moral norms seem to override the social norms when the cancelation is at play on social media. Therefore, it seems that anyone can be canceled and sometimes only because they hold an unpopular opinion that is not in line with the general public. This is problematic in itself.

Naturally, anger arises when we witness social injustice. And it seems that canceling allows people to release negative emotions and seek justice. Hence, it motivates us to correct those life’s injustices (Yu Jie, 2021). However, just like anything else, the norms and values of each society change over time. Therefore, something that was easily dismissed in the past, can be unacceptable and anger-inducing in the present. As a consequence, there are groups in society that might have been offended by certain opinions or behaviors but have only recently gained the collective voice that has led society to start paying attention.

Nevertheless, many people continue to perceive cancel culture as a form of bullying, allowing for power play, where the individual who is being “canceled” is not allowed to share their point of view, defend themselves, or even apologize or make amends (Cambell, 2020). Thus, what is so unusual and interesting about the cancel culture is the fact that, in some cases, cancel culture has a significant destructive power that can be viewed as simply too much and going too far. This is because individuals and groups that are relatively powerless can, all of a sudden, exercise power that can cause destruction to an establishment figure.

“Cancel culture” and the importance of freedom of speech

To many people, cancel culture is nothing but a form of free speech, holding others accountable for their actions and behaviors. It is not a threat to free speech but rather a manifestation of it. According to the article by Jared Schroeder and Jessica Maddox (2021), “Cancel culture is an evolving form of democratic discourse where individuals use their free speech rights to form masses. These masses exert pressure on people and institutions. A better term for it would be ‘accountability culture'”. Schroeder and Maddox highlight that social media have made cancel culture possible because it has diminished some of the traditional barriers that kept people from democratic participation. Therefore, cancel culture, or “accountability culture” is a new tool for accomplishing traditional American ideals, such as free speech and public participation.

Canceling crosses over with bullying because it touches on the feelings of shame, which does not always help or drive an individual to learn and make positive changes. Therefore, some see cancel culture as ineffective when it comes to social justice (which is its goal), as shame is rarely productive. Journalist Matt Haig says that “obviously, if someone has been convicted of, say, violence or sexual assault, then they need to be punished, but, cancel culture isn’t that. Cancel culture involves the shutting down of different perspectives and treating people like mere disposable artefacts in the cultural economy” (Alexander, 2020). Therefore, it can be perceived as a threat to freedom of speech.

Coghlan (2020), from the European University Institute, argues that cancel culture is both a form of and a threat to free speech. However, the risks it poses should be addressed by culture, and not by law. Nevertheless, the law has an important role in culture, and so a soft law on toleration and pluralism should be carefully restricted to disperse power.

Black and white image of a free speech protest
Marchers carrying a Free Speech sign at UC Berkeley in 1964, to protest the Vietnam War (medium.com)

Cultural significance of cancel culture in anthropology

Culture in itself is difficult to define. We are born into a society with its own set of norms, values, appropriate behaviors, traditions, and beliefs. However, Cancel culture appears to be especially prevalent in Western democratic societies, such as the United States. Nonetheless, the trend is slowly spreading around the globe, causing discussion about certain statements or behaviors that are perceived as “inappropriate” or “disagreeable” in different cultures.

For anthropologists and social scientists, the discussion about cancel culture provides an insight into its complex function in different societies and sheds light on social issues that should perhaps be tackled or at least given more attention to. Nevertheless, cancel culture is ultimately misleading,  and notoriously difficult to define, and even perceived by many people as a myth. For this reason, it is not exactly known whether it fulfills its function.

In conclusion, in a society where we repost moral outrage without necessary due diligence, it is worthwhile to research the situation before we engage in cancel culture. We should evaluate whether cancel culture really works and address how toxic it is for our mental health. And if we decide to engage, we should educate instead of cancel (Meesala, 2020).

References:

Alexander, E. (2020) Cancel culture: a force for good or a threat to free speech? Available: harpersbazaar.com

Browne, K. (2005) An Introduction to Sociology. 3rd Ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cambell, C. (2020) We Need to Talk About Cancel Culture. Available: YMI

Canceled People Database. Available: Canceled People

Coghlan, N. (2020) Are our laws on freedom of speech fit for purpose in the age of “cancel culture”?. Jonathan Brock QC Memorial Prize Essay 2020. Available: SSRN

Meesala, A. (2020) Cancel Culture: A Societal Obligation or Infringement on Free Speech? Available: UAB Institute for Human Rights Blog

Saint-Louis, H. (2021) Understanding cancel culture: Normative and unequal sanctioning. Vol. 26. No. 7. First Monday.

Schroeder, J., Maddox, J. (2021) ‘Cancel Culture’ is just free speech holding others accountable. Available: TheHill

Walsh, G. (2021) What is cancel culture – and who has been canceled in 2021?. Available: goodto.com

Wilkes, M. (2020) Model slams L’Oreal for Black Lives Matter hypocrisy. Available: Stuff.co.nz

Yu, Jie, O. (2021) On Cancel Culture. Available: nussocisoc.org

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